Recent lecture sheds light on the history of local Cillíní

The Cillín at Heir Island, Aughadown Parish. Pic: William Casey

Posted on: 10th April, 2017

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Patrick J. Mahoney

Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway’s Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column highlights the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.

Last month, William Casey delivered a fascinating and well-researched lecture on the subject of ‘Cillíní – Children’s’ Burial Places’ to Dúchas Clonakilty Heritage members and the general public at the Parish Centre. The talk came at a fitting time, given the gruesome discovery in Tuam, County Galway, of 796 babies who had died in a local mother and baby home from 1925 to 1961, and were buried in a septic tank on the facility’s property. In the aftermath of the revelation, which was brought to light by local Galway historian Catherine Corless, many commentors harkened back to the burials of unbaptised children in unconsecrated areas as a precedent to the cruel disdain shown in the Tuam case. It must be noted that William’s research deals primarily with an earlier period than that described in the recent news, and thus must be contextualised within a different social context. Yet, his research and recent lecture nonetheless help to shed light on the broad history of burying young children outside of usual graveyards over the centuries, which came about as a result of various decrees of the Catholic Church, which deemed unbaptised children unfit to enter heaven. Drawing from the twelfth century teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, it was believed that those who died without being baptised were sent to neither heaven or hell, but rather an in-between place known as ‘Limbo’. Therefore, they were deemed unfit to rest in consecrated ground like older, baptised people on earth. Instead, they were buried in the liminal sites known as cillíní. Such sites were often located on marginal locations, such as old church sites, ringforts, sites next to ancient monuments, or areas located near various boundaries. The debate regarding why specific areas were chosen as the locations of cillíní ranges from seeking to reflect the spiritual ‘sense of placelessness’ of the deceased, to loved ones seeking a place where their remains would lie undisturbed. As William notes, these small, unconsecrated, and often forgotten grounds were not only the final resting places of children, but also included suicides, unrepentant convicts, strangers or shipwrecked individuals whose religion was unknown. He further relays that in some instances, this list was extended to include others, such as pregnant women or those who suffered from mental or physical disabilities. Drawing from the School Folklore Commission, he asserts that there is evidence that local cillíní were used for adult burials. For example, the cillín at Skeaghanore West, Kilcoe was recorded by the School Folklore Commission as a burial site for famine victims. An entry in the 1840 Ordnance Survey (OS) Note Books further supports this notion, stating that one of the cillíní in Munnane, Aughadown was ‘an old burial place for children and strangers’. He also points to local lore; in which it is said that two shipwrecked sailors are among those buried in the Heir Island cillín. However, as he notes, this goes against the general practice in the area, which was to bury dead sailors close to where their bodies were found.

Despite their regular use since the 1560s, changing societal attitudes and a more enlightened approach from the Catholic Church meant that by the mid 1960s, the use of cillíní had all but faded out. However, as is evident from William’s research, Cillíní were very common throughout the West Cork area, with over 300 known examples in existence. Comparatively, this number is much higher than the eastern part of the county, and also higher than the results of similar studies which have been conducted in Counties Kerry and Galway.

At the conclusion of his lecture, William pointed out that it is vital that farmers and people leasing land are made aware of the locations of these burial places, as in most cases, they are overgrown and unmarked. He believed that while no one will deliberately disturb one of these resting places, they may very well be destroyed accidentally by a lack of knowledge, especially in today’s world of large farm machinery. There was a long question and answer session after the lecture, with many in the audience recounting Cillíní they were made aware of when they were young. One man recalled how he remembered his infant sister who had died, and was subsequently buried by their father in a local cillín in the 1950’s. The lecture was based on information first obtained by William while completing a Masters in Local History in the Spring of 2013, during which time he carried out an in-depth survey of the cillíní in the old civil parishes of Aughadown and Kilcoe. Reflecting this interest, and indeed concern for preserving the memory of these unique archealogical sites, he also appealed to the crowd that if they were aware of a cillín existing anywhere, they should report its location to groups such as Dúchas Clonakilty Heritage, similar local history groups and the County Council. If you are interested in learning more local cillíní, or would like to relay information about a site in your local area, further information is available on the Dúchas Clonakilty Heritage Facebook page.

**Many thanks to William Casey for information relayed in this article

Above: The Cillín at Heir Island, Aughadown Parish. Pic William Casey

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