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

  • Eileen M. Murphy


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.


Burials Unbaptized infants Archaeology of emotion Ireland 



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.


  1. Aldridge, R. B. (1969). Notes on children’s burial grounds in Mayo. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 99: 83–87.Google Scholar
  2. Archer, J. (1999). The Nature of Grief: The Evolution and Psychology of Reactions to Loss, Routledge, London.Google Scholar
  3. Ariès, P. (1973). Centuries of Childhood, Jonathan Cape, London.Google Scholar
  4. Ballard, L. M. (1985). “Just whatever they had handy”: Aspects of childbirth and early child-care in Northern Ireland, prior to 1948. Ulster Folklife 31: 59–72.Google Scholar
  5. Berg, S. J., and Wynne-Edwards, K. (2001). Changes in testosterone, cortisol, and estradiol levels in men becoming fathers. Mayo Clinical Proceedings 76: 582–592.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bradley, R. (1993). Altering the Earth, Alan Sutton, Stroud.Google Scholar
  7. Church, C. (1995). Catechism of the Catholic Church: Pocket Edition, Veritas, Dublin.Google Scholar
  8. Cecil, R. (1996a). Memories of pregnancy loss: recollections of elderly women in Northern Ireland. In Cecil, R. (ed.), The Anthropology of Pregnancy Loss, Berg, Oxford, pp. 179–196.Google Scholar
  9. Cecil, R. (1996b). Introduction: An insignificant event? Literary and anthropological perspectives on pregnancy loss. In Cecil, R. (ed.), The Anthropology of Pregnancy Loss, Berg, Oxford, pp. 1–14.Google Scholar
  10. Church of Ireland (1960). Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other rites and ceremonies of the Church according to the Use of the Church of Ireland (first edition 1549), Association for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Dublin.Google Scholar
  11. Clarke, L. (2002). An early medieval enclosure and burials: Johnstown, Co. Meath. Archaeology Ireland 16(4): 13–15.Google Scholar
  12. Cooper Foster, J. (1951). Ulster Folklore, H. R Carter, Belfast.Google Scholar
  13. Crombie, D. (1990). Children’s Burial Grounds in County Galway. Unpublished master’s thesis, National University of Ireland, Galway.Google Scholar
  14. Curl, J. S. (1986). The Londonderry Plantation, 1609–1914, Phillimore, Sussex.Google Scholar
  15. deMause, L. (1974). The evolution of childhood. In deMause, L. (ed.), The History of Childhood, Psychohistory Press, New York, pp. 1–73.Google Scholar
  16. Dennehy, E. A. (1997). The Cellúnaigh of County Kerry: An Archaeological Perspective. Unpublished master’s thesis, University College CorkGoogle Scholar
  17. Dennehy, E., and Lynch, L. (2001). Unearthed secrets: A clandestine burial-ground. Archaeology Ireland 15(4): 20–23.Google Scholar
  18. de Paor, L. (1974). Inishcaltra (Holy Island): monastic site. In Delaney, T. G. (ed.), Excavations 1973: Summary Accounts of Archaeological work in Ireland. AYIA, HIS, and the UAS, Belfast, pp. 5–6.Google Scholar
  19. Donnelly, C. J. (2004). Masshouses and meetinghouses: The archaeology of the Penal Laws in early modern Ireland. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 8: 119–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Donnelly, C. J., and Murphy, E. M. (2008). The origins of cilliní in Ireland. In Murphy, E. M. (ed.), Deviant Burial in the Archaeological Record, Oxbow Books, Oxford, pp. 191–223.Google Scholar
  21. Donnelly, S., Donnelly, C., and Murphy, E. (1999). The forgotten dead: The cilliní and disused burial grounds of Ballintoy, County Antrim. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 58: 109–113.Google Scholar
  22. Duggan, K. (2004). The Lifelong Season: At the Heart of Gaelic Games, Town House, Dublin.Google Scholar
  23. Fanning, T. (1981). Excavation of an Early Christian cemetery and settlement at Reask, County Kerry. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 81C: 67–172.Google Scholar
  24. Finlay, N. (2000). Outside of life: Traditions of infant burial in Ireland from cillín to cist. World Archaeology 31: 407–422.Google Scholar
  25. Fletcher, A. (2008). Growing up in England: The Experience of Childhood 1600–1914, Yale University Press, New Haven.Google Scholar
  26. Flower, R. (1978). The Western Island, Oxford University Press, Oxford.Google Scholar
  27. Francis, D., Kellaher, L., and Neophytou, G. (2005). The Secret Cemetery, Berg, Oxford.Google Scholar
  28. Gannon, P. (1999a). Sméaróid. In Gannon, P. (ed.), The Way It Was, Paul Gannon, Renvyle, pp. 142–154.Google Scholar
  29. Gannon, P. (1999b). Consummatus in brevi. In Gannon, P. (ed.), The Way It Was, Paul Gannon, Renvyle, pp. 135–41.Google Scholar
  30. Garattini, C. (2007). Creating memories: Material culture and infantile death in contemporary Ireland. Mortality 12: 193–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Gélis, J. (1991). History of Childbirth. R. Morris (trans.), Polity Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  32. Gilchrist, R., and Sloane, B. (2005). Requiem: The Medieval Monastic Cemetery in Britain, Museum of London Archaeology Service, London.Google Scholar
  33. Gillespie, R. (1993). Plantations in early modern Ireland. History Ireland 1(4): 43–47.Google Scholar
  34. Gross, D. M. (2006). The Secret History of Emotion: From Aristotle's Rhetoric to Modern Brain Science, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.Google Scholar
  35. Hamlin, A., and Foley, C. (1983). A women’s graveyard at Carrickmore, County Tyrone, and the separate burial of women. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 46: 41–46.Google Scholar
  36. Hurl, D. P., and Murphy, E. M. (1996). Life and death in a County Antrim tower house. Archaeology Ireland 10(2): 20–23.Google Scholar
  37. Jalland, P. (1996). Death in the Victorian Family, Oxford University Press, Oxford.Google Scholar
  38. Johnson, M. (2010). Archaeological Theory. An Introduction, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester.Google Scholar
  39. Jones, W. (1990). Miscarriage: Overcoming the Physical and Emotional Trauma, Thorsons, Wellingborough.Google Scholar
  40. Kelly, J. (1992). Infanticide in eighteenth century Ireland. Irish Economic and Social History 19: 5–26.Google Scholar
  41. Lynch, L. G. (1998). Placeless Souls: Bioarchaeology and Separate Burials in Ireland. Unpublished master’s thesis, University College Cork.Google Scholar
  42. McKerr, L., Murphy, E., and Donnelly, C. (2009). “I Am Not Dead, but Do Sleep Here”: The representation of children in Early Modern burial grounds in the north of Ireland. Childhood in the Past 2: 110–132.Google Scholar
  43. Montgomery, H. (2008). An Introduction to Childhood: Anthropological Perspectives on Children’s Lives, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.Google Scholar
  44. Moulder, C. (1998). Understanding Pregnancy Loss, Macmillan, London.Google Scholar
  45. Murphy, E. M., and McNeill, T. E. (1993). Human remains excavated at Doonbought Fort, Co, Antrim, 1969. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 56: 120–138.Google Scholar
  46. Mytum, H. (2004). Mortuary Monuments and Burial Grounds of the Historic Period, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, London.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Nic Suibhne, F. (1992). “On the Straw” and other aspects of pregnancy and childbirth from the oral tradition of women in Ulster. Ulster Folklife 38: 12–24.Google Scholar
  48. Nolan, J. (2006). Excavation of a children’s burial ground at Tonybaun, Ballina, County Mayo. In O’Sullivan, J., and Stanley, M. (eds.), Settlement, Industry and Ritual, National Roads Authority, Dublin, pp. 89–101.Google Scholar
  49. O’Connor, A. (1991). Child Murderess and Dead Child Traditions, Academia Scientiarum Fennica, Helsinki.Google Scholar
  50. Ó Muircheartaigh, M. (2004). Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh: The Autobiograph—From Dún Síon to Croke Park. Penguin Ireland, Dublin.Google Scholar
  51. Ó Súilleabháin, S. (1939). Adhlacadh leanbhí. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 69: 143–151.Google Scholar
  52. O’Sullivan, A., and Sheehan, J. (1996). The Iveragh Peninsula: An Archaeological Survey of South Kerry, Cork University Press, Cork.Google Scholar
  53. Orme, N. (2001). Medieval Children, Yale University Press, New Haven.Google Scholar
  54. Peppers, L. G., and Knapp, J. (1980). Motherhood and Mourning, Praeger, New York.Google Scholar
  55. Pollock, L. A. (1983). Forgotten Children: Parent-child relations from 1500 to 1900, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  56. Reeve, J. and Adams, M. (1993). The Spitalfields Project. Volume 1–The Archaeology. Across the Styx. Council for British Archaeology, York.Google Scholar
  57. Scheper-Hughes, N. (1985). Culture, scarcity, and maternal thinking: maternal detachment and infant survival in a Brazilian shantytown. Ethos 13: 291–317.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Sheehan, J. (1994). Caherlehillan: Early ecclesiastical enclosure and ceallunach. In Bennett, I. (ed.), Excavations 1993, Summary Accounts of Archaeological Excavations in Ireland, Wordwell, Bray, pp 41–42.Google Scholar
  59. Sheehan, J. (1995). Caherlehillan: Early ecclesiastical enclosure and ceallúnach. In Bennett, I. (ed.), Excavations 1994, Summary Accounts of Archaeological Excavations in Ireland, Wordwell, Bray, pp 43–44.Google Scholar
  60. Sheehan, J. (1996). Caherlehillan: Early ecclesiastical enclosure. In Bennett, I. (ed.), Excavations 1995, Summary Accounts of Archaeological Excavations in Ireland, Wordwell, Bray, pp 40–41.Google Scholar
  61. Smith, P., and Kahila, G. (1992). Identification of infanticide in archaeological sites: A case study from the Late Roman-Early Byzantine periods at Ashkelon, Israel. Journal of Archaeological Science 19: 667–675.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Stone, L. (1977). The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.Google Scholar
  63. Storey, A. E., Walsh, C. J., Quinton, R. L., and Wynne-Edwards, K. E. (2000). Hormonal correlates of paternal responsiveness in new and expectant fathers. Evolution and Human Behaviour 21: 79–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Sugrue, D. (1993). An Examination of Aspects of Tradition Relating to Some Ceallúnaigh in Uaibh Rathaih. Unpublished master’s thesis, University College CorkGoogle Scholar
  65. Talbot, K. (2002). What Forever Means After the Death of a Child: Transcending the Trauma. Living with the Loss, Brunner-Routledge, London.Google Scholar
  66. Tarlow, S. (2000). Emotion in archaeology. Current Anthropology 41: 713–746.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Tedeschi, R. G., and Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Helping Bereaved Parents: A Clinician’s Guide, Brunner-Routledge, Hove.Google Scholar
  68. van Gennep, A. (1909). The Rites of Passage, Routledge and Keegan Paul, London.Google Scholar
  69. Walsh, M. (2005). Roman Catholicism: The Basics, Routledge, Abingdon.Google Scholar
  70. White Marshall, J., and Walsh, C. (1998). Illaunloughan, Co. Kerry: An Island Hermitage. In Monk, M. A., and Sheehan, J. (eds.), Early Medieval Munster, Archaeology, Cork University Press, Cork, History and Society, pp. 102–111.Google Scholar
  71. Woods, R. (2006). Children Remembered: Responses to Untimely Death in the Past, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool.Google Scholar
  72. Woywod, S. (1957). A Practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (revised ed.), Joseph F. Wagner, New York.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Geography, Archaeology and PalaeoecologyQueen’s University BelfastBelfastNorthern Ireland

Personalised recommendations