My grandparents’ middle child, Florence, died a few short hours after she was born on October 1, 1925. They were told that because she had not been baptized, they could not give her a Catholic burial.
I wrote about baby Florence and my search for her grave in an earlier article for IrishCentral, “How Original Sin, According to the Catholic Church, Tore My Family Apart.” I followed that with a short film, “The Death of Baby Florence.” The number of comments I received on each, particularly from Ireland, surprised me. I didn’t know how widespread this practice was in Ireland and the impact it had on so many families.
While there is some debate among Catholic scholars as to whether it was theology or doctrine that dictated the church’s actions toward the unbaptized, it is clear that denying the unbaptized burial in consecrated ground was accepted church practice and a common occurrence. In many Irish parishes, the babies were secretly buried between dawn and dusk in the hedgerows and ditches around the cemetery by the parents themselves. They wanted their babies close to consecrated ground.
In some parishes there were infant burial places called cillíní. Cilliní were the designated resting places for individuals considered unsuitable for burial within consecrated ground by the Roman Catholic Church, most traditionally, unbaptized infants. There are thousands of unmarked mass graves throughout Ireland, in which are buried tens of thousands of stillborn babies and babies who died shortly after birth. These babies, like Florence were hidden and secret, as though they never existed.
For many years, grieving was frowned upon after the death of a baby; there was little understanding of the need to grieve. Often parents did not see their babies – they were not allowed to hold or cuddle them. They were discouraged from arranging a funeral and were told to forget their loss as quickly as possible. “Have another,” they were told.
Not long ago, B.B.C. Radio Northern Ireland aired a program called “Limbo Babies.” The documentary included an interview with Ron Smith-Murphy, the national chairperson for A Little Lifetime Foundation, an organization that helps grieving parents and assists parents who want to trace the location of babies buried in communal graves.
Smith-Murphy tells of her parent’s journey to Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin to trace their daughter Carol, thirty-three years after her birth.
When Carol was stillborn it was the practice for the hospitals in Dublin to bury the babies in a communal grave in Glasnevin called the Holy Angels Plot. Over fifty thousand infants are buried in the Plot, which is now called the Angels Memory Garden.
Shortly after I posted my video I received a note from Connie Roberts, a native of Offaly, Ireland who emigrated to the U.S. in the early ’80s and was the 2010 winner of Ireland’s prestigious Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award.
Connie and her foster-mother, Eileen, viewed the “The Death of Baby Florence” together. I was surprised to once again read the words “Holy Angels Plot” and “Glasnevin” in one of Connie’s notes:
My foster-mother, Eileen, from County Offaly, who just turned eighty, was recently here for a visit. Over the course of the few weeks we often chatted and one night she happened to mention a baby girl that she lost nearly fifty years ago: Clare was born in a Dublin hospital but died two days later. (I’d never heard about this part of her life before.) The baby was taken from her and buried in some unknown grave in Dublin. Eileen had no say in the matter.
Needless to say, this incident caused her terrible mental anguish, both then and in subsequent years. It wasn’t until several years ago, when she heard on the radio about an organization in Ireland that helped reunite mothers and children was she offered some hope. (I believe the same organization, A Little Lifetime Foundation, reached out to you.) To cut a long story short, she found the unmarked grave where her daughter was buried. It was a bittersweet moment.
To this day, her loss haunts her. I told her about your film, about Florence, and we sat down and watched it together. She was very moved by it. I know she found comfort in watching it, as well as in reading all the responses to it on your blog. For the rest of the vacation, Clare entered our daily conversations as easily as if she were still here with us. The need to talk about her lost daughter was palpable. Thank you, Charles, for your part in all of this. God knows, how many lives you’ve touched with your work…
Hope to see you soon.
I responded to Connie:
Thank you for your kind words and for sharing that story.
Yes, the response in Ireland has been incredible. I have been contacted by a person who is doing a radio documentary who would like me to contribute to that, an archeologist, Toni Maguire, who is doing research on burial sites in Belfast, Ireland and who has uncovered thousands of graves, and an on-line TV station, Anlar TV, which has shown “The Death of Baby Florence” a number of times.
I plan on writing a follow-up on the impact of Baby Florence’s story. I would love to include what you wrote if that’s okay. I think people should read Eileen’s story.
All the best,
Connie wrote back:
I asked my foster-mother if you could write about her story in your follow-up piece and she happily gave permission. A few details you might need: The hospital in Dublin where she gave birth to Baby Clare was Holles Street; the cemetery where she eventually found her daughter buried–with the help of A Little Lifetime Foundation–was Glasnevin. The plot of ground was called “Holy Angels Plot.”
Now, I hasten to add that Eileen said that she never felt that Baby Clare was in that cold ground, her coping mechanism I suppose. A religious woman, she felt Baby Clare went straight to heaven and became an angel. And I can’t stress enough how much she believes that Baby Clare has been a guardian angel to the rest of her three children throughout their lives. She recounted how years ago when her son, who was a long-distance truck driver on the Continent in Europe, told her of the many times when he felt himself falling asleep while driving. He’d feel someone tapping him on the shoulder to keep him awake. They both felt, and still feel, it was Angel Clare.
The writer in me feels compelled to tell you of one great turn-of-phrase my foster-mother used when relaying her story: “No more than if I’d had a tooth pulled…” She was describing people’s, family, as well as professionals, reaction to her loss. She recalled, with the slightest bit of anger still, how family members didn’t have the wherewithal to remove, for a short time, at least, all of Baby Clare’s things: Eileen literally went home to an empty cradle. She didn’t even know where her child was buried.
As my foster-mother lay in bed that night, we discussed the video and how organizations like A Little Lifetime Foundation give parents an opportunity for prayer and remembrance. Something Ireland lacked…back then, at least.
Speaking of children, I’ve got to put my little lad down to bed now.
Thank you and all the best, Charles.