Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cilliní / Children's burial ground.

Cilliní or Children’s burial ground.

The phrase "Children's burial ground" refers to an unconsecrated place used primarily, though not exclusively, for the burial of unbaptised children. Those most commonly used in Co. Mayo are cillin/Killeen, lios/Lisheen. The word cill is derived from the Latin cella, and means Church or Graveyard. (History of Mayo).

Old Burial Grounds:

The custom of setting apart a special place for the burial of very young or unbaptised children appears to have been common practice in Ireland until the 19th century. Numerous such burial grounds, known as Children's Burial Grounds, Cillíní, Calluraghs, Caldraghs or Cealhúinacha, are recorded on the Ordnance Survey maps, particularly in the west of Ireland.

Frequently the locations chosen were abandoned Early Christian church sites or ringforts, but children were also buried in such places as haggards and fields, boundary fences, cross-roads, under lone bushes, in cliff-clefts, on the sea-shore or outside a graveyard wall. Children's burial grounds are frequently located within a pre-existing early ecclesiastical site or ringfort.

Those sites which are not associated with an older monument are usually marked now by little more than an area of uncultivated stony ground, often raised above the general surroundings.

Within the burial grounds, the individual graves may be marked by a low mound or by a low uninscribed standing stone and sometimes the graves themselves are visible above ground as small box-like arrangements of stones. The presence of quartz pebbles is also a common feature. It was said that little coffins were brought in the night and the only sign that a burial had taken place was a newly made grave. This practice stopped around 1900

Local folklore relates that adults, particularly strangers or suicides, were sometimes interred in these burial grounds. The Ordnance Survey recorded many instances of the continued use of children's burial grounds into the 19th century and an example of the custom was recorded in Co. Mayo as recently as 1964. When the custom began in this country has not yet, however, been established.


Cilliní were the designated resting places for individuals considered unsuitable for burial within consecrated ground by the Roman Catholic Church. Traditionally associated with the burial of unbaptised infants.
The saddest of all customs were those that dealt with the death of babies and young children. Unbaptised babies could not be buried in consecrated ground so they were buried between sunset and sunrise outside the walls of the graveyard or in a disused graveyard, a cillín or a ring fort.

The souls of the little babies were said to be cursed to carry a candle forever. These baby-lights were often seen at night outside graveyards especially in the month of November. People were led to believe by the religious that the lonely little souls were searching for their parents or relations inside the graveyards but they could never enter as they were unbaptised.

Up to fifty years ago in some areas, unbaptised babies were buried in the path around a graveyard. Parents did not go to the grave with the dead child particularly if it was their first child. They believed that if they brought one child to the grave they would bring the next and possibly all their children there also. Should more than two infants from the same family be born dead the cycle could be broken by changing the place in which the infants were buried.

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