Hundreds of children lie buried in an ancient ring in West Clare near a Holy Well. The unbaptized babies were buried, some in the 1950s, at night and only men were allowed to attend.
In a small ring-fort, in Tullycrine, in the parish of Kilmurry McMahon, small stones peek from the ground. Each of these represents a child’s grave. Burial sites like this are known as Cillins, Cilliní in Irish, and can be found across the island.
They have existed as long as the doctrine decreed by the 5th century St Augustine of Hippo which stated that those who had not received baptism could not be buried in consecrated ground, the church graveyard. It was believed that unbaptized babies would not go to heaven but live in Limbo, lost forever.
As so babies who died before baptism could be bestowed upon them would be brought in secret, away from the public, for a private burial carried out only by men.
Recently Colm O’Connor and Eamon Ward traveled to West Clare to meet with the locals who have spent the last 15 years working to project and maintain the area.
Local farmer Flan Kelly told the Examiner, “That was how it was in those days. And this is a tradition which continued up until the fifties and perhaps the sixties. We have no exact records but we estimate that there are hundreds of graves in the fort.”
But why were these babies buried in a ring-fort?
Kelly said, “It is unusual for these types of graves to be found inside a fort given all the past belief of the fairies residing in them. But perhaps it was because of this every point that people buried the babies here. By doing so they were putting them in a place they knew would never be disturbed by farmers. But it is not just babies who are buried here, we believe that many adults, the likes of farmer laborers or people who died on the roadside during the famine and were never claimed by their families are also in here.”
Cillíní became burial grounds for not only children who died before baptism but for illegitimate children and their mothers, the mentally ill, people who took their own lives, murderers and those whose religious affiliation was unknown. Some historians believe these sites were in use up until the 1970s.
Also nearby, just a hundred yards away is Tullycrine’s Holy Well, called Tobergrowata Holy Well of Tobar na Rabhartaí on old ordinance survey maps and now known as St. Mary’s Well.
One an illicit burial site, now, thanks to hundreds of hours work by Kelly and John Deely from the Kilmurry McMahon Heritage society, these graves are protected and maintained. Most importantly, they aim to ensure that future generations are aware of this history.
A plaque has been erected on the site giving the name of the the plot as “Lios na Leanaí,” which means “The Children’s Fort.” In 2008 the Bishop of Killaloe at the time, Willie Walsh, blessed the graves as Lios na Leanaí.
For more on the Children’s Fort at Tullycrine contact the author Colm O’Connor on Twitter @oconnorcolm.