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Voices from the Cillín

The tragic fate of countless thousands of infants who were buried secretly, at night, in unconsecrated ground, and the heart break that followed from this custom, (which continued up to the middle of the twentieth century), is what gave rise to the project, Glórtha ón gCillín/Guthan on Chladh Bheag/ Voices from the Cillín. The general understanding of the cillíní or ceallúraigh or cillínigh (as they were known in different parts of the country) was that babies, who were unbaptised because they died at birth or shortly after, were buried in these places. During research on the project it became clear that children up to seven or eight years of age were buried there as well, the explanation given for this being that it was a result of the dire poverty of the parents. Adults were also buried there, for example, people who died by suicide, murder victims, those whose religion was unknown and bodies brought in by the sea.

The burial of infants in separate locations from adults goes back thousands of years in Europe. About the time that Christianity came to Ireland, St. Augustine was proclaiming the doctrine of Original Sin which he claimed pertains to all humans, according to which, unbaptised children cannot enter heaven because they were conceived in lust. By the twelfth century, the church had created a new concept, Limbus Infantium/Limbo, where these children would be confined, it was claimed, for eternity. In view of the high fertility rate and the corresponding high infant mortality rate of almost 7% up to the 1930s, it’s not difficult to imagine how this prohibition affected parents, particularly mothers, who weren’t allowed be present at the burial and who believed they would never see their children in heaven. It has to be said that some of these children were the victims of infanticide, for one reason or another. The  secrecy associated with the cillíní helped those who committed the crime to escape detection.  

Sheena Graham-George’s first encounter with a cillín on Achill Island inspired her to research and create artwork on the subject. One thing led to another when she met Bríd Ní Mhórain, who was raised within a stone’s throw of a cillín and had published a poem on the subject. Sheena made contact with the film maker and sound designer, Angelica Kroeger, who lives in Ullapool, on the Northwest coast of Scotland. Bríd’s friendship with Máire Breathnach, one of the leading traditional musicians and composers in the country, led to Máire composing music for the soundtrack of the film and Bríd invited  Meg Bateman, poet, translator and lecturer in Sabhal Mór Ostaig, on the Isle of Skye, to participate in the project. That’s how the artistic threads were interwoven. Since they began the work, both Angelica and Meg have discovered cillíní in Scotland – another connection between our two countries which deserves further investigation in the future. Although the cillíní are to be found all over Ireland, for the purposes of this project, we have concentrated, for the most part, on those  situated in the Southwest, on the three peninsulas of West Kerry, Iveragh and Beara.

We are very grateful to numerous people living there for their help in finding cillíní and for the information they shared so generously. We are endebted, also, to scholars and numerous organisations which have supported us, especially, Colm Cille, Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne, Ealaín na Gaeltachta, An Lab, Féile na Bealtaine, Tech Amergin,  Anam Chara, Roinn Bhéaloideas Éireann, and in Scotland, to Sabhal Mór Ostaig agus  Fèisean nan Gàidheal.  

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