International Journal of Historical Archaeology

, 15:409

Children’s Burial Grounds in Ireland (Cilliní) and Parental Emotions Toward Infant Death


    • School of Geography, Archaeology and PalaeoecologyQueen’s University Belfast

DOI: 10.1007/s10761-011-0148-8

Cite this article as:
Murphy, E.M. Int J Histor Archaeol (2011) 15: 409. doi:10.1007/s10761-011-0148-8


Cilliní—or children’s burial grounds—were the designated resting places for unbaptized infants and other members of Irish society who were considered unsuitable by the Roman Catholic Church for burial in consecrated ground. The sites appear to have proliferated from the seventeenth century onwards in the wake of the Counter-Reformation. While a number of previous studies have attempted to relate their apparently marginal characteristics to the liminality of Limbo, evidence drawn from the archaeological record and oral history accounts suggests that it was only the Roman Catholic Church that considered cilliní, and those interred within, to be marginal. In contrast, the evidence suggests that the families of the dead regarded the cemeteries as important places of burial and treated them in a similar manner to consecrated burial grounds.


BurialsUnbaptized infantsArchaeology of emotionIreland


Cilliní, or children’s burial grounds, were the designated resting places for stillborn and unbaptized children who were considered unsuitable for burial in consecrated ground by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. Although traditionally associated with the burial of unbaptized infants, oral history has also identified the mentally disabled, strangers, the shipwrecked, criminals, famine victims, and people who had committed suicide as individuals who would also be buried within these sites (Hamlin and Foley 1983, p. 43). Locations for this class of burial ground were diverse and included deserted churches and graveyards; archaeological sites including megalithic tombs, secular earthworks and castles; natural landmarks and boundary ditches; sea or lake shores and cross-roads (Ó Súilleabháin 1939). They are not only referred to as cilliní and they have a variety of different names in the Irish language including caldragh, calluragh, cealltrach, ceallúnach, ceallúrach, and lisín. They are also known by a range of English language and anglicised versions of their name, including cill burial grounds, killeens, kyle burial grounds, and childrens’ burial grounds. There are known to be significant numbers of cilliní throughout Ireland, with concentrations having been identified in counties such as Galway, where there are almost 500 examples (Crombie 1990), and Kerry, with around 250 examples (Dennehy 1997).

Within the early Christian church baptism was considered essential to cleanse a person of Original Sin, the sin committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and subsequently inherited by humankind ever since—baptism was required to cleanse the soul of the stain of that sin (Walsh 2005, p. 108). Writing in the fourth century, St. Augustine of Hippo had stated that the souls of unbaptized children were condemned to hell because of their Original Sin. To avoid eternal damnation he recommended that all infants were baptized as soon as possible after birth. This harsh doctrine was later modified by the medieval church which introduced the concept of Limbo, and most theologians followed the beliefs of St. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century theologian, who taught that unbaptized infants would definitely not have any personal suffering after death. Limbo did not appear within the official catechism of the church, but it provided a means to reconcile the problem of what happened to the souls of those who—though no fault of their own—were barred from heaven; “for this reason, the idea of ‘limbo’ was invented, a kind of in-between state, neither the happiness of heaven nor the torments of hell” (Walsh 2005, p. 109).

Until recently the dating of cilliní was poorly understood. The historical evidence from medieval England certainly indicates that the church there forbade the burial of stillborn and unbaptized infants within consecrated ground since they were not considered to be Christians (Orme 2001, p. 124), and we might expect a similar practice to have occurred in Ireland at this time. There is no historical evidence, however, for the use of separate burial grounds in either country during the medieval period, and the first definitive historical reference for the use of cilliní in Ireland comes from the north of the island in the decade following the introduction of the Ulster Plantation. This event had seen newcomers from England and Scotland settled on lands that had been confiscated from the region’s Gaelic lords in the aftermath of the Nine Years’ War (1594–1603) (Donnelly and Murphy 2008, p. 214). In a letter written on July 23, 1619 by Mr. Goodwyn to the Grocers’ Company in London it is stated that the company’s representatives in Ulster had decided not to reuse an old church site about half a mile from Muff (later renamed Eglinton) as the location for a new church. The old church was deemed to be too small; in addition, however, it had been used as a burial place for unbaptized children and suicides—presumably by the local Gaelic Catholic population—and the general opinion was that Muff would be a better site for the new parish church of Faughanvale (Curl 1986, p. 155).

Some sixteen cilliní were excavated in Ireland during the period from 1966 to 2004 and a review of the dating evidence associated with these sites has demonstrated that they overwhelmingly date to the post-medieval period (Donnelly and Murphy 2008, pp. 198–212). It has been proposed that cilliní as a monument class originated and proliferated during this time as a result of the stringent reforms spearheaded by the Franciscans and enacted by the Roman Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation (Donnelly and Murphy 2008). These reforms saw the enforcement of Canon Law, in particular Canon 1239 which stated that infants of Catholic parents who died without baptism were not to be buried in a blessed cemetery (Woywod 1957, II, p. 51). These laws remained in place until the Second Vatican Council (also known as Vatican II), a council of the Catholic Church held during the years from 1962 to 1965 that led to a major reformulation of the church. The Protestant Church of Ireland, however, seems to have held a more ambivalent attitude towards the burial of unbaptized children. While it placed great importance on baptism (Church of Ireland 1960, p. 340), it also allowed for a modified form of burial service for unbaptized “infants of tender age, the offspring of Christian parents” (Church of Ireland 1960, p. 280) and it appears to have been the case that there was no physical differentiation in death, since Limbo was never recognized as a religious concept by the Protestant Church (McKerr et al. 2009, p. 127).

Much of the previous research on cilliní has tended to explore regional distributions (e.g., Crombie 1990; Dennehy 1997; Donnelly et al. 1999), associated folklore (e.g. Ó Súilleabháin 1939; O’Connor 1991), and the osteology of the individuals buried within them (e.g., Murphy and McNeill 1993; Hurl and Murphy 1996; Lynch 1998). Research has also attempted to relate the topographical locations of cilliní to van Gennep’s (1909, p. 10) rites of passage and his Rite of Transition or the liminal phase have been considered to be of relevance (Dennehy 1997, p. 54). The exclusionary nature of the sites has been interpreted as a reflection of the “ambiguous category of the dead infant” with the “liminal state of the infant soul” spending all eternity in Limbo being reflected in the “spiritually marginal location of their burial” (Finlay 2000, p. 408). This conclusion, however, is too simplistic—the exclusionary nature of the burial grounds may indeed be an accurate reflection of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church but when the evidence derived from the sites is scrutinized in greater detail it is clear that other forces are also at play and it is possible to identify physical expressions of parental grief within these sites.

Traditional archaeological discourse has largely failed to engage with the trauma of infant and child-loss within discussions of the burial practices and rites relating to children. In the words of Johnson (2010, p. 130), the “phallocentric nature of knowledge” has largely discouraged academic research from a female perspective. The development of gender archaeology since the 1980s has gradually seen a move away from this perspective, however, and it is becoming increasingly recognized that studies which include emotions, feelings and personal experience are legitimate areas of research (Johnson 2010, p. 131). The archaeology of emotion has been largely ignored, with a notable exception being Sarah Tarlow’s landmark paper on the topic which urges archaeologists to “incorporate a consideration of emotional values and understandings into our archaeologies” while also ensuring that they are not “separated from other aspects of social and cultural meaning and experience” (Tarlow 2000, p. 713). This approach has also been advocated within history, through the work of Daniel Gross (2006), for example, who has emphasized the importance of creating a socio-historical-cultural construction in studies of the past. This approach recognizes that emotions are constructed in different ways through the various periods, between different individuals or groups, and within disparate social and cultural contexts. In the current study care has been taken to ensure that the different strands of evidence have been derived from the socio-cultural context in which cilliní would have operated.

This paper reviews the biological, psychological, and social factors involved in infant-parent interactions, and the emotions that modern Western parents experience when a pre-term or full-term baby dies. A brief review of archaeological attitudes towards European infant death in the past is undertaken before turning to the subject of cilliní. Oral and written historical accounts of infant death in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland are examined and this is then followed by a review of the physical evidence derived from the burial grounds. These data are scrutinized to see if it is possible to find evidence for parental grief in the nature of the burial environment of the dead babies or, rather, if it does indeed indicate that the infants were truly regarded as liminal and marginal individuals.

Miscarriage and Infant Death in Modern Western Society

Christine Moulder (1998, p. 3) has stated that “over the past 25 years the silence around stillbirth has been slowly broken, largely by women speaking out about their experiences.” Much of the recent work on miscarriage and stillbirth has attempted to describe the experience from the perspective of both the short and the long term and to confirm it as a bereavement process (Moulder 1998, p. 4). Many parents who have lost a child report that the feeling of loss never entirely disappears—although the feeling of hurt may recede over time it often reappears at different points throughout the duration of a parent’s lifetime (Archer 1999, p. 179; Tedeschi and Calhoun 2004, p. 9). Peppers and Knapp (1980, p. 47) observe that in the aftermath of the death of a perinatal infant “the grief that some mothers experience may never be completely resolved. Portions of it will always remain tucked away, appearing from time to time when they least expect it.” This is referred to as “shadow grief,” and it is partly attributed to the lack of opportunity to express perinatal grief to sympathetic listeners (Peppers and Knapp 1980, p. 49). Moulder (1998, p. 4) has summarized the range of mourning symptoms and behaviors that have been identified by researchers in women following a stillbirth—being woken in the middle of the night by the sound of a baby crying; still feeling the baby kicking even after it has been born and worrying if the baby is warm and comfortable in its grave.

Many women note that there is often a distinct contrast between the views of the women who have experienced this loss when compared to the perceptions of others. In the majority of instances, the women who have contributed to the literature consider their miscarriage to have been a significant event, while others, including partners, family, friends, or health professionals, may not have the same attitude. As such, many of the women reported that it could be difficult to share their experience in a constructive manner and to receive the support they wanted (Archer 1999, p. 191; Moulder 1998, p. 7; Talbot 2002, pp. 97–100); they feel that their grief is not regarded by society as legitimate. Another major concern of parents who have experienced miscarriage or other early infant deaths is that their children will not be forgotten (Talbot 2002, p. 100; Tedeschi and Calhoun 2004, p. 123).

It is clear that the overriding emotions experienced by the majority of modern Western parents who have suffered a miscarriage are those of intense grief and loss (e.g., Jones 1990; Peppers and Knapp 1980). It should be noted, however, that some women have not regarded a miscarriage as a loss and a minority of women have reported feeling ambivalent or even happy. In one study, however, all of the women for whom pregnancies had ended in the second or third trimesters defined their experience in terms of loss and it is thought that labor and delivery are the main factors that differentiate between early and late pregnancy loss (Moulder 1998, pp. 7–8, 218). So, while appreciating that there are a minority of women who do not show signs of grief in the aftermath of infant death, it would seem to be the case that there is a fairly uniform psychological response to infant death in modern day Western society. Humans are biological creatures and modern scientific research has revealed how hormone levels change in females during pregnancy and after birth to encourage maternal behavior. Indeed, research has now also shown that males are not immune to this type of physiological response, and many expectant fathers have been found to undergo similar hormonal changes which appear to encourage paternal behavior (Berg and Wynne-Edwards 2001; Storey et al. 2000). Most of these aspects of humanness are instinctive and beyond the individual’s control, as post-natal depression attests. It would appear to be the case, however, that archaeologists and historians have often ignored, or been ignorant of, the powerful physiological responses that are associated with pregnancy, birth and motherhood. In the next section of the paper attention will be turned to the views that have been shown by archaeologists towards infant death in medieval Europe.

Archaeological Attitudes to Infant Death in Medieval Europe

In the early 1960s Philippe Ariès was one of the first historians to write about childhood in medieval Europe and his work has been extremely influential on archaeological and historical studies of children ever since. Of a dead child, he stated “it was thought that the little thing which had disappeared so soon in life was not worthy of remembrance: there were far too many children whose survival was problematical. The general feeling was, and for a long time remained that one had several children in order to keep just a few.” He was of the opinion that: “People could not allow themselves to become too attached to something that was regarded as a probable loss” (Ariès 1973, p. 37; also Stone 1977).

Lloyd deMause’s (1974) edited volume contained some interesting papers which provided a chronological overview of the history of childhood. deMause’s (1974, p. 1) paper itself displayed a similar perspective to Ariès and described the history of childhood “as a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken,” in which children were likely to be “killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized and sexually abused.” Although undoubtedly many children did suffer in the past, deMause had portrayed this situation as a normal everyday part of life. Indeed, in our modern twenty-first century world battered babies, infant murder and child neglect all happen—but they do not happen in all families and are viewed by broader society as abnormal or as a consequence of an abnormal situation such as extreme deprivation or war (see e.g., Montgomery 2008; Scheper-Hughes 1985). deMause’s impression of past childhood may be seen as rather extreme but other contemporary researchers of past childhood also suggested that, at best, parents were indifferent to their children in the medieval period (see Pollock 1983, p. 23, for discussion).

More recent research, however, has highlighted problems with the work of these early historians (e.g., Jalland 1996; Woods 2006). In her study of parent–child relations from 1500 to 1900 CE Linda Pollock (1983, pp. 22–28) criticizes the work of such individuals for using unreliable sources and being selective in the use of their sources, ignoring those which did not fit their theses. She provides a catalogue of contemporary accounts which clearly illustrate that most parents were highly anxious and upset by the ill-health of a child—the high rate of infant mortality would appear to have only intensified this anxiety. Parents seem to have been equally affected by the death of an infant or the death of an older child throughout the period under her study (Pollock 1983, pp. 124–140). Other historical studies provide further evidence which suggests that most parents did invest emotionally in their children and were devastated by their loss (e.g., Fletcher 2008; Jalland 1996; Woods 2006). Writing in 1893, upon hearing of the death of her friend’s baby from scarlet fever, Lady Desborough stated “I think there must be no heartache like that of losing a child—for lover’s love, children’s love, husband’s love, are none of them so deep and high as mother’s love” (Jalland 1996, p. 119), while after the death of her 11-day-old daughter in 1840 Sara Coleridge commented that “strange as it may seem, these little speechless creatures, with their wandering, unspeaking eyes, do twine themselves around a parent’s heart from the hour of their birth” (Fletcher 2008, p. 82).

The historical accounts suggest that miscarried children were also mourned—for example, Mary Lyttelton was able to empathize with her sister’s loss after a miscarriage in 1851 and stated that “even I with so many should feel it very much” (Jalland 1996, p. 121). Gélis (1991, pp. 252–253) recounts a case from late sixteenth-century France which indicates that late medieval mothers were susceptible to overwhelming grief and depression in the wake of a stillbirth:

This woman’s first child was born dead, and worse still, she was ill-attended during her lying in, so that, ‘about 5 or 6 days after the birth, her mind gave way and she was so crazy for 4 years that nothing like it was ever seen, for in spite of her husband and guardians she went about stark naked, in the streets, without her shift, and got into houses, where she frightened all who saw her.’… A few years later, she gave birth to two children, one dead, and the sight of that child was once again unbearable to her. She took advantage of a moment when she was left alone to throw herself into a cesspit.

Researchers of emotion from a wide range of fields have indicated that emotions have both biological and cultural elements (Tarlow 2000, p. 717). As discussed earlier, it would seem to be the case that the vast majority of modern Western women who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth or the death of a young infant have reacted with grief. Although there can be problems with using autobiographical writing as a source of evidence (see e.g., Woods 2006, pp. 104–105) it would appear to be the case that this reaction also occurred in Western Europe during the past 500 years, despite the high rates of infant mortality during this time. In the following section attention will be turned to oral history accounts to ascertain the maternal attitudes that were shown towards unbaptized babies who had died in early twentieth-century Ireland.

Oral History and the Death of Unbaptized Infants in Ireland

In early twentieth-century Ireland, the birth of a child would have been the cause of great celebration; in north Antrim, for example, a custom known as “blessed fasting” was observed when a child was born. It was necessary to entertain and provide food and drink to anyone who called to visit after the birth. Although this would have often entailed real hardship amongst the poor, such provision was a tradition and a matter of pride (Cooper Foster 1951, p. 9). In an anthropological study of pregnancy loss in mid twentieth-century Ireland, Roseanne Cecil (1996a, p. 179) noted that there was a dearth of ethnographic writing on pregnancy loss. This situation was considered to partly reflect the interests of ethnographers in the past, in addition to their more restricted access to female informants. She was also of the opinion, however, that women’s attitudes to their pregnancy losses and their willingness and ability to talk about them were the main contributing factor to this lack of information. If a woman’s primary role in society was regarded as the production of children, then the loss of a pregnancy or the birth of a stillborn baby would be regarded as a failure. Furthermore the association of pregnancy loss with a considerable amount of physical pain and blood loss may have made it a difficult subject to discuss. Indeed, Cecil (1996b, p. 2) has poignantly stated that: “The feelings concerning simultaneous birth and death, the death of one who never was, may be virtually impossible to convey.”

Cecil’s subjects were twelve elderly women from the north of Ireland whose babies would have died in the period between the 1940s and 1960s. The women ranged in age from 65 to 89 years, and the sample included both Catholics and Protestants (Cecil 1996a, p. 183). She observed that many of the women undervalued their own worth and the value of their personal experiences (Cecil 1996a, pp. 179–180), presumably because of the nature of the society in which they had lived most of their lives. At the time of their loss, some of the women were given support from their husbands and were able to talk a little about their feelings, but in most cases the husbands had not offered any support. Although some of the women displayed a matter of fact approach towards their miscarriage, others were considerably distressed (Cecil 1996a, p. 189). One woman, for example, stated: “It was just we tried to forget about it, but you don’t forget … I cried to myself but nobody knew I did it” (Cecil 1996a, p. 185). Discussion within the family about the loss of the baby was limited, but outside the family it was even rarer. One woman is reported to have said that “definitely nobody ever said ‘we are sorry you lost the baby.’ No, it just wasn’t mentioned” (Cecil 1996a, p. 185). Despite the fact that a wake might be held for a dead child (Cecil 1996a, pp. 187–188) Cecil (1996a, p. 186) commented that the loss of a stillborn or newborn baby at that time did not form part of a shared social memory or event. The emotional turmoil and feelings of guilt would presumably have been even greater for parents whose children had died prior to baptism—not only would they have lost their newborn baby, but they could not even have the comfort of knowing that it had gone to heaven.

Anne O’Connor (1991) has provided an overview of the folklore pertaining to unbaptized children in Ireland. In general, the children are considered to reside in a separate place or otherworld where they live as small children as opposed to newly born infants (O’Connor 1991, p. 66). She also recounted a number of specific folk stories which would appear to confer negative qualities upon the unbaptized children. These include the tradition that a person who walks on the grave of an unbaptized child will be overcome with starvation and die unless they eat something immediately, or that the person who walks on such a burial will get lost (O’Connor 1991, pp. 70–71). In contrast, however, in her anthropological study of the female life cycle in early modern Ireland, Fionnuala Nic Suibhne (1992, p. 69) has stated that: “even though there seems to have been an acceptance of the Church’s teaching … insofar as people believed the souls of unbaptised children went to Limbo, and insofar as they buried such children in unconsecrated ground, there often appears to have been a strongly felt respect and affection for unbaptised children in the accounts of many women.” She recounted how it was traditional for people in the Rosses area of County Donegal to bury people on an island, Oileán na Marbh, the island of the dead. An 80-year-old woman from the area stated that: “It’s likely that the old people thought a lot of this island, and certainly it’s lovely … The old people made out that it would be a lovely place for a young child who’d die unbaptised, because the priest’s weren’t happy to bury them along with the other people … May God preserve every poor small creature that is buried there tonight” (Nic Suibhne 1992, p. 71).

A more recent example clearly illustrates the sorrow of a mother at the death of her unbaptized babies. In 1994, Mary Salmon from Letterfrack, County Galway, had her lifetime’s wish come true on her 80th birthday when the Catholic Church finally blessed two of her dead children who had been refused a Christian burial 60 years previously. The local priest officially blessed a plot of land by the sea which had seen the burial of over 100 stillborn and unbaptized infants (Gannon 1999a, p. 147). It is important to remember that, in at least some cases, fathers may often have grieved just as much as the dead baby’s mother (see e.g., Duggan 2004, pp. 143–144) and also that the death of an unbaptized infant would have impacted on the child’s siblings. In his biography, Irish sports commentator Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, who grew up in County Kerry, remembered his brother who died at birth. He recalled the body having been placed in a cradle or cot before it was buried in an unconsecrated graveyard at the site of a number of ogham stones. Although his father and neighbor were the only ones to attend the burial, the rest of the family witnessed it from a neighboring hill. The graveyard has since been consecrated and the Ó Muircheartaigh family chose the cillín as the spot to welcome in the new millennium on the morning of January 1, 2000 (Ó Muircheartaigh, 2004, p. 2). This story indicates that the cillín itself is still evidently a place of active remembrance. Furthermore, this unbaptized baby boy had not been forgotten and he is still very much in the hearts and minds of his siblings.

It is clear that those who had lost unbaptized babies would have been required to put on a “brave face” because that is what the Church and broader society dictated. It is highly unlikely that the women living in post-medieval and early modern Ireland were that socially, biologically and psychologically different to the island’s current population and in many cases, underneath a brave exterior, they would probably have been grieving. Prior to Vatican II in 1962–65, which changed church regulations concerning the unbaptized and Limbo, the sorrow of losing a child was probably exacerbated by the parents’ fears about what would happen to their child in the afterlife. In the most up-to-date version of the Catholic Catechism, Limbo is not even mentioned and it is stated: “With respect to children who have died without Baptism, the liturgy of the Church invites us to trust in God’s mercy and to pray for their salvation” (Catholic Church 1995, p. 289). In the following section of the paper the archaeological evidence associated with cilliní will be examined to see if it really is entirely appropriate to view cilliní as liminal sites. The evidence will be scrutinized to see if it is possible to ascertain if the bereaved families who used cilliní strictly followed Church teaching by rigorously treating the babies as marginal individuals, outside the Christian community. Alternatively, in light of the oral history evidence, can we identify evidence of parental grief and affection in the funerary record associated with these sites?

Geographical Location of Cilliní

The concept that the interred individuals within a cillín were excluded and marginalized from society is a central theme of a number of recent discussions of the monuments, based on the fact that these individuals were buried in unconsecrated burial grounds. It is considered that the marginal nature of the geographical location of such burial grounds is a reflection of the liminal qualities of Limbo (Crombie 1990, pp. 57–62; Dennehy 1997, pp. 59–64; Dennehy and Lynch 2001, p. 22; Finlay 2000). Garattini (2007, p. 194) has stated that cilliní “are characterized by marginality and peripherality, by absence of recognition within the general landscape and by lack of individualization of the graves.” Each one of these statements can be challenged. While these individuals were treated in an exclusionary manner by the Roman Catholic Church it could be argued that the bereaved families would have had natural emotional ties to their dead relatives, particularly their dead children. As such, they may have selected prominent places in the landscape for the burial of these individuals—places that would not be forgotten or disturbed—and, rather than regarding them as marginal and liminal places, they would have been very much in the thoughts and minds of these women and men.

The documentary and archaeological evidence has indicated that specific locations were deliberately selected as suitable sites for use as cilliní. Emer Dennehy’s thorough study of cilliní in County Kerry has indicated that almost half of the sites were associated with pre-existing monuments, and that almost one quarter of the cilliní were associated with abandoned ecclesiastical sites (Dennehy 1997, pp. 37–39). It has been proposed that people had deliberately selected sites with an earlier religious function because of their former sanctity (O’Sullivan and Sheehan 1996, p. 323). Although it can be proposed within a theoretical context that the sites of cilliní were deliberately selected because of their liminal qualities, their sitting can also be explained in more practical terms. It is known that within eighteenth-century Ireland typical sites of deposition for victims of infanticide included dung heaps, privies, public places and waste ground. Indeed, most of the infants were reported to have remained unburied (Kelly 1992, p. 14). The use of an ecclesiastical enclosure, a ring fort or any archaeological monument on the landscape would have afforded the cillín with physical protection since it would be clearly marked and known on the landscape (Fig. 1). This is in clear contrast to the unprotected burials of victims of infanticide. Unless a monument is physically destroyed it is practically impossible to eradicate it from human experience (Bradley 1993, p. 5). If the unbaptized children found buried within cilliní had been predominantly buried in random locations throughout the landscape then it would be valid to believe that their parents and families were intent on forgetting about them, as would appear to have been the case for victims of infanticide.
Fig. 1

General view of Castle Carra, County Antrim, which was used as a cillín after it had been abandoned (Crown Copyright)

Finlay (2000, p. 412) has stated that “the host sites were selected because of their marginal location in the contemporary landscape.” It has been proposed that the creation of a cillín within “marginal bog land or woodland,” for example, is consistent with liminality since it is often shunned by humans and animals because of its barren quality (Dennehy 1997, p. 61). The use of poor land for the location of a cillín, however, would be a sure way to ensure that the remains were not disturbed by later agricultural activities, and it may have represented a deliberate choice by the families who, rather than wanting to forget about their dead relatives, wanted to ensure that their bodies were able to rest in peace without danger of disturbance. Furthermore, the use of marginal land and disused monuments and buildings may have been due to the fact that the majority of Irish people were Roman Catholics and, following the wars of British conquest waged in the seventeenth century, would not have owned the land on which they lived—by 1703 only 15% of Irish land was owned by Roman Catholics (Donnelly 2004, p. 121; Gillespie 1993, p. 47). As such, it is highly improbable that the Protestant landowning ascendancy would have permitted them to use good quality agricultural land for the creation of cilliní.

Mortuary Ritual at Cilliní

Grave Markers

Finlay (2000, p. 413) has stated that “the character of these sites and the type of burial deposits does not encourage visitation as an active act of remembrance.” Anthropological studies of modern graveyards have shown that one of the best ways for people to grieve about the loss of their loved ones is to frequently visit their grave (Francis et al. 2005). When we look at the topographical features present in cilliní and the excavated evidence we find numerous cases where real effort has been made to demarcate the graves. Cilliní in Counties Galway, Kerry and Mayo are frequently found to contain small stone grave markers (Aldridge 1969; Crombie 1990, p. 25; Dennehy 1997, pp. 31–32). In 2003, Joanna Nolan excavated the cillín at Tonybaun, County Mayo, where she identified that 25 burials were associated with very distinct grave markers, which took the form of rectangular stone settings; a further 75 of these settings could not be associated with specific skeletons largely as a result of disturbance (Fig. 2). The settings were associated with the burials of young infants and adults alike (Nolan 2006, p. 93).
Fig. 2

An example of an infant’s grave marker at the Tonybaun cillín, County Mayo (C103) (drawn by Paddy Ryder; Copyright: Mayo County Council)

Deirdre Crombie (1990, pp. 28–29) has reported the presence of stones bearing crosses or iron crosses in many cilliní in County Galway. Most of these appear to date to the late nineteenth century and they commemorate adults and young children alike. It has been stated that “the simplicity and frequent absence of grave-markers serves to emphasise the anonymity of the infants and individuals interred within, turning the sites into passive memorials rather than places of active remembrance” (Finlay 2000, p. 419). The presence of even the most rudimentary grave markers, however, would tend to suggest that the location of the dead individuals within a cillín was being marked.

It also needs to be born in mind that the majority of post-medieval individuals in Ireland buried within consecrated ground would not have been able to afford an elaborate and inscribed headstone (see e.g., McKerr et al. 2009). One of the predominant funerary markers of this time for the poorer members of society was a simple metal or wooden cross (Mytum 2004, p. 67), which would have afforded the individuals interred beneath with a similar degree of anonymity to those people buried within a cillín (Fig. 3). A photograph taken by the renowned antiquarian
Fig. 3

Nineteenth-century grave markers in the Roman Catholic cemetery associated with St. Patrick’s Church, Derrygonnelly, Co. Fermanagh. a General view of the grave markers in the landscape, b close up of painted and unpainted iron crosses (Copyright: Patrick Murphy)

Françoise Henry, in either the summer of 1938 or 1945, of St. Columcille’s Graveyard on the island of Inishkea North, County Mayo, clearly shows that simple wooden stakes were being used to mark graves at this site (Fig. 4). While there is no evidence to suggest that St Columcille’s had been used as a cillín the use of wooden stakes as grave markers serves to remind us that not all grave memorials will survive up until the present day. As such, the only real difference between the grave memorials found within a cillín, compared to those of individuals of the same class but which lie within a graveyard of the period, is the consecrated nature of the latter.
Fig. 4

Photograph taken by the renowned antiquarian Françoise Henry, in either the summer of 1938 or 1945, of St. Columcille’s Graveyard on the island of Inishkea North, County Mayo, which clearly shows that wooden stakes were being used to mark graves at this site (Copyright: Department of Archaeology, University College Dublin)

White Quartz

A further characteristic of cilliní is the presence of white quartz on the graves (e.g., Crombie 1990, p. 27; Dennehy 1997, p. 36). Excavations at cilliní have also indicated that white quartz was deliberately associated with these burials. Liam de Paor (1974, p. 5) recorded that each of the infant burials in the cillín at St. Michael’s monastic enclosure, Inishcaltra, County Clare, contained a “handful” of quartz pebbles in addition to a long stone pebble, while Tom Fanning (1981, p. 74) reported that concentrations of quartz and sea pebbles were recovered from the interior of the cist-like structures which formed the graves of the cillín at Reask, County Kerry. A number of explanations have been suggested to account for the association of white quartz with cilliní. Crombie (1990, p. 27) noted that quartz and sea shells have been used for decorative purposes in a variety of cultures since prehistoric times. Gilchrist and Sloane (2005, p. 145) provided examples where white quartz has been recovered from medieval monastic burials in Britain. They suggested that the quartz may have had healing or protective properties, but in this context it was clearly a Christian practice. Gannon (1999b, p. 136) suggests that the quartz was symbolic of the innocence of the children or hope that “these children who had nothing in life might have something in the afterlife.” The tradition of using white quartz stones on modern graves in Irish graveyards has developed both because of the attractive appearance of the stones and their symbolism of purity. Indeed, it is interesting to speculate that the tradition of using white quartz in modern graveyards parallels its use in cilliní. If this is the case then it is also probable that the Catholics who were burying their dead within cilliní were using quartz as a further way of conferring a religious dimension to these burials.

Grave Furnishings

One of the clearest examples of infanticide within the archaeological record has involved the discovery of the commingled remains of almost 100 neonatal infants in a sewer dating to the late Roman and early Byzantine periods at the site of Ashkelon in Israel. The casual nature of the burial has been interpreted as an indication that a lack of regard was shown towards the dead infants (Smith and Kahila 1992, p. 669). In contrast, burials within cilliní generally tend to respect each other and there is evidence that an amount of care was shown during the burial process. Excavations at the cillín at Castle Carra, County Antrim, revealed that the young children interred in the building’s interior were buried in shallow scoops in the sand. A number of the babies appear to have been deliberately surrounded by stones which demarcated the margins of their graves. The orientation of the burials varied, but the children appeared to have been carefully laid out, either lying on their backs or on their sides. An older child of 1.5–2.5 years was buried in an extended supine position with its head to the west, as would be expected of a Christian burial (Hurl and Murphy 1996, p. 21).

John Sheehan (1994, p. 41; 1995, p. 43; 1996, p. 41) reported the presence of both stone-lined and coffin burials at the cillín at Caherlehillan, while at Reask, also in County Kerry, the individuals buried within the cillín were interred in cist-like structures (Fanning 1981, p. 74). Excavations at Tonybaun, County Mayo, revealed that a number of infants in the cillín were buried in wooden coffins (Nolan 2006, p. 95), and the remains of wooden coffins have also been identified during excavations at the cillín at Illaunlaughan, County Kerry (White Marshall and Walsh 1998, p. 106), and Johnstown, County Meath (Clarke 2002, p. 15). The use of coffins and stone-lined graves would tend to suggest that an effort was being made to respect the individuality of the infants and others buried within a cillín. Again, this mortuary process can be interpreted as an indication that the burials within cilliní were treated in a similar manner to those within contemporary consecrated burial grounds.

Grave Goods

It is generally uncommon for Christians to be buried with grave goods, although individuals have been excavated who have been found to have been accompanied by a variety of objects (see e.g., Gilchrist and Sloane 2005, pp. 88–105, 160–179; Reeve and Adams 1993, p. 89). During the excavations at Reask, County Kerry, one infant grave was discovered which contained a small stone figurine, which the excavator considered to resemble an infant in swaddling clothes (Fig. 5). This burial was also found to contain four púirthíní or jackstones (Fanning 1981, pp. 127–128). A further two sets of púirthíní were found at the site, at least one of which was considered to have been associated with a cillín burial (Fanning 1981, p. 138). The recovery of the figurine and game stones at Reask could quite feasibly be interpreted as a sign that affection had been shown towards the dead children by whoever had buried them. Perhaps the toys were provided to help alleviate the perceived boredom of an eternity in Limbo?
Fig. 5

Stone figurine recovered from an infant grave during excavations at the cillín of Reask, County Kerry (after Fanning 1981, p. 124; re-drawn by Libby Mulqueeny)

Funerary Rituals Associated with the Burial of Unbaptised Infants

As discussed above it can be argued that the geographical and archaeological information derived from cilliní is not necessarily compatible with van Gennep’s (1909) theory of liminality. In addition, many of the aspects of funerary ritual drawn upon to support this theory can be interpreted in contrasting ways. We are fortunate that, in addition to the oral history accounts discussed earlier, a detailed description of the funeral of an unbaptized baby on Great Blasket Island in County Kerry has been provided by Robin Flower (1978, pp. 84–85) in his memoirs of life on the island during the early twentieth century:

A little procession was coming from the top of the village, and from every house, as it passed, the men, women and children came out to join it … A few words told me all. A new-born baby had died, and the father had come to us the night before for wood to make the coffin. He walked now at the head of the procession through the rain, with the little box that he had knocked together from that raw, unhallowed wood under his arm. We too went out and joined the company. It wound through the scattered houses of the village, always increasing; the men wearing their hats of felt, the women with their shawls drawn close about their heads, and all in a speechless trance of sorrow or respect.

We turned into a little promontory of the cliff beyond the houses, and stopped in an unkempt space of dank, clinging grass, with stones scattered over it here and there. A man with a spade had dug a shallow grave, and there, amid the sobs of the women and the muttered prayers of the whole assembly, the father with a weary gesture laid away his child. The earth was shovelled back, closing with hardly a sound about the little box, a few prayers were said, and then we all turned listlessly away, leaving the lonely, unfledged soul to its eternity.

It is often stated that burials within cilliní generally took place at night (e.g., Finlay 2000, p. 413; O’Sullivan and Sheehan 1996, p. 323), however, this practice may have frequently been reserved for the burial of an illegitimate child or an early miscarriage (Cecil 1996a, p. 181). Robin Flower’s (1978) account is a clear indication that at least some babies were buried in the cillín during the day—in a similar manner to those who would have been interred within the consecrated ground of the graveyard.

Another factor that is considered significant in the mortuary ritual associated with the burial of infants within cilliní is the fact that the father or a male relative undertook the burial (e.g., Sugrue 1993, as quoted in O’Sullivan and Sheehan 1996, p. 323). The account of Robin Flower (1978), however, would tend to suggest that, in at least some instances, men, women and children all attended the burial of an unbaptised baby at a cillín.

It is also possible that the absence of women from the burial of dead infants is simply related to other rituals and practices associated with childbirth at this time. Irish women would have “lay in” and been confined after a birth. The length of time a woman spent in confinement appears to have ranged from a set number of days, up until a number of weeks, depending on the state of the mother’s health. In Donegal, for example, women reported that confinement generally occurred for approximately 9 days but that it could last as a long as 2 weeks (Nic Suibhne 1992, p. 21). As such, even with the birth of a living child, the mother would not have attended baptism and the child would generally have been brought to the church by its godparents (Ballard 1985, p. 68). During the period of confinement and prior to undergoing “churching”—a purification ritual which was undertaken in a church by a priest—the woman would have been prevented from carrying out her normal activities—even washing and brushing her hair (Ballard 1985, p. 69). It should also be born in mind that after a difficult and emotional birth, the mother of a dead baby may have been neither mentally nor physically fit enough to walk to a local cillín to bury her dead baby.


In our modern world miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death are experiences that are charged with emotion and can arouse powerful feelings. Pregnancy loss arouses fears about the fragility and unpredictability of life which, in our normal day-to-day existence, we naturally try to avoid. Many studies of miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death in modern Western society highlight the social isolation experienced by the parents under all these circumstances. This is caused by a lack of recognition of their grief by others, especially if the loss occurred early in the pregnancy since, to an outsider, the fetus is not seen as a person. These studies have indicated that for the mother, and to a lesser extent the father, the experience may have involved a person to whom an attachment begins to be felt right from the beginning of pregnancy and had involved plans and hopes for the future. This situation would appear to find direct parallels with what was happening in early twentieth century Ireland—Cecil’s (1996a, p. 184) study indicates that miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death were generally not viewed as significant events by anyone apart from the mother. She observed that for each woman she had interviewed “her memories were, on the whole, a very personal and private account of a personal and private event.”

As archaeologists we need to be cautious not to assume that the obvious religious or collective societal response is the only one worthy of study or apparent in the archaeological record. In the case of cilliní the archaeological evidence, oral lore, and contemporary accounts would tend to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church, and to some extent, broader society was responding in a different way to the death of young infants when compared to their close relatives. Although the former response, which physically marginalized these individuals, may appear to be more dominant it is also possible to extract evidence from the archaeological record that reflects a more private and personal insight into parental attitudes towards the dead infants buried within a cillín. It is clear that, while the Church may have held certain views about the status of unbaptized infants, their parents would have mourned for them as dead children and made a genuine effort to replicate the funerary practices afforded to individuals interred within the consecrated burial grounds of the period.


I would like to thank Dr. Colm Donnelly, Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork, Queen’s University Belfast, for his support and encouragement during the preparation of this article and for his comments on earlier drafts of the text. I am also very grateful to Joanna Nolan, Mayo County Council, for many stimulating discussions about the cillín at Tonybaun, County Mayo and for her permission to use the illustration displayed in Fig. 2, which was drawn by Paddy Ryder. I would also like to thank Michael Gibbons, Walking Ireland, for providing me with valuable information concerning cilliní in Connemara. I am also very grateful to Sharon Greene Douglas, School of Archaeology, University College Dublin, for bringing the photograph of the graveyard at Inishkea North to my attention and to the School of Archaeology, University College Dublin, for permitting me to use this image. Thanks are also due to Patrick Murphy, Derrygonnelly, for providing me with Fig. 4; to Tony Corey, NIEA, for providing me with access and permitting me to use Fig. 1 and to Libby Mulqueeny, School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen’s University Belfast, for re-drawing Fig. 5.

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