Mattie Lennon, writing in Ireland’s Own magazine recently, described a burial ground for unbaptised children off the coast of County Donegal. It is called Oilean na Marbh (the island of the dead). It reminded me of the children’s burial ground I knew as a child growing up in County Roscommon.
This graveyard, known locally as Caltragh, is located within a ringfort in the townland of Creggan near Ballaghaderreen. It consists of a rectangular grass-covered area approximately 21m x 14m. The ringfort is roughly circular measuring 57m x 53m and is partly surrounded by a drystone wall. Mature deciduous trees are growing inside the perimeter making it visible for some distance.
|In the background: Children's Burial Ground|
Creggan, County Roscommon
Children’s burial grounds are thought to have been first established in the medieval period. In the fifth century AD, Augustine of Hippo declared that all unbaptised people were guilty of original sin. This prompted a debate in the Church which was to last for several centuries.
From the sixth century the burial of unbaptised individuals in consecrated ground was forbidden. In the twelfth century the church declared that all newborn children had to be baptised. Parents had to bury their unbaptised children in alternative unconsecrated burial grounds. As Mattie Lennon points out, we can scarcely imagine the heartbreak of the women in Ireland who were left to grieve silently as their babies were taken away at night to be buried secretly.
Although children’s burial grounds are normally associated with stillborn and unbaptised children, others were buried there including people who committed suicide, mentally disabled, the shipwrecked, criminals, famine victims, strangers and even women who had not been ‘churched’ after childbirth.
These burial grounds are frequently associated with earlier monuments such as early/medieval ecclesiastical sites and ringforts. It is not unusual to find ogham stones at these sites. Some experts have noted that children’s burial grounds are often located close to field, lakeshore, seashore or townland boundaries. Archaeologists have suggested that this choice of location may have served to separate these individuals from ‘normal’ society.
The County Roscommon Graveyard Survey carried out in 2005 identified a total of 287 graveyards in the county. Children’s burial grounds accounted for 25% of the total surveyed. Over half the graveyards in the county are recorded on the Record of Monuments and Places. This is important as it means that these sites are protected under the National Monuments Act 1930-2004. They are nearly always listed on ordnance survey maps as Cillin/ Killeen, Lios/Lisheen, Caltragh, Teampaillin, or simply as Children’s Burial Ground.
Individual burials are frequently marked by small stones placed around the margins of the graves with the remains interred in a cist-like structure. Wooden coffins were often used while some individuals were wrapped in shrouds fixed with pins. In some respects, these burials were similar to those in contemporary consecrated burial grounds and simple stone grave-markers are still to be seen in old graveyards.
It is now believed that many of these ancient burial grounds are much older than previously thought. An excavation of a cillin in Tonybaun, County Mayo in 2003, identified a total of 248 burials of which 147 were infants and 23 were children aged between two and six years. None of the burials were earlier than the fifteenth century.
This excavation revealed that many of the bodies had been placed in wooden coffins. Some 55 adult burials were identified providing evidence of the practice of using such burial grounds for adults who were not considered eligible for burial in consecrated ground. The presence of items such as shrouds, pins, buttons and a small crucifix show that care and religious observance was associated with these burials.
In 2005/06 archaeologists excavated a children’s burial ground at Carrowkeel, County Galway. This site comprised an early medieval enclosure ditch with a cemetery in the eastern half. The remains of 158 individuals, mainly children, were identified with the burials taking place over 800 years from the seventh to the fifteenth century.
In 2004, Pope John Paul 11 appointed a Commission to study Limbo and it reported its findings in 2007. The report, signed by Pope Benedict XV1, stated that it reflected a ‘restrictive view of salvation’ and that it was reasonable to hope that the souls of unbaptised infants are admitted to Heaven by a merciful God.
As Mattie Lennon states, such burial places serve as a reminder of our unenlightened past and a monument to centuries of heartbreak. For this reason, children’s burial grounds deserve to be preserved, suitably marked and maintained.