Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Inspired by my intense desire to hop a plane back to Ireland today, I decided to share this bit of scholarly work about a fascinating topic in the anthropology/archaeology of Ireland. I wrote this a few semesters ago and became fascinated by the topic of infant burial practices in Ireland. On my trip to the old sod in January, I managed to ask a few nice locals whether they knew about any cillini nearby–having read so much about this topic I was eager to visit one. The two older gentlemen I asked were aware of these sites but emphasized that cillini were a part of Ireland’s past–the sites they knew of had all been grown over by brush. One emphasized that all souls in Ireland were offered a “proper church burial” these days. I felt like one of these men was embarrassed that I had asked and didn’t press him further. However, I emphasize that this essay is about historical burial practices. If you want to find out about contemporary infant burials in Ireland, see Garattini (2007), cited below.
Infant Burial Practices in Ireland
Across Ireland, archaeological sites of human burial have been found inside of old abandoned churches, in prehistoric megalithic tombs or monuments, against boundary walls or ditches, on the shores of lakes or oceans, and on the north side of Catholic churchyards. These sites are colloquially called cillini, or children’s burial grounds, and have been identified through oral histories as the place where unbaptized infants have been put to rest. Common understandings of cillini emphasize the importance of Catholic doctrine about the afterlife to explain the proliferation of these sites across Ireland.
The heavy influence of the Catholic Church on culture and social life in Ireland forbids infants who die before receiving baptism from being buried in Catholic Church yards or traditional cemeteries. Catholic doctrine has changed over the years to approach this difficult subject. Originally, St. Augustine of Hippo stated that “the souls of unbaptized infants were condemned to hell because of their Original Sin” (Murphy 2011: p. 410). This ideology was especially harsh on the Irish culture, which placed such importance on Catholic doctrine about the afterlife. Parents who lost children before they could be baptized often felt a deep sense of personal shame and fear about the idea of their lost newborns perishing in Hell for eternity. St. Thomas Aquinas and the medieval church changed St. Augustine’s strict doctrine by creating the concept of Limbo, which assured that while unbaptized infants would not be going to heaven, they would not suffer in hell for eternity either.
There is very little evidence that cillini were used before the 17th century in Ireland. Murphy (2011) writes that from 1966 to 2004, sixteen cillini sites in Ireland were excavated, and dating evidence proved that these sites demonstrated that they began to be used in the post-medieval period (p. 410). Therefore, cillini can be specifically tied to Catholic teachings. It is also worthy to note that in areas of Ireland where the Protestant Church of Ireland had many followers, cillini are less prominent. This is because the Protestant Church held less strict teachings about unbaptized infants, allowing for a “modified form of burial service for unbaptized infants of tender age, the offspring of Christian parents” (Murphy 2011: p. 411).
It is a commonly held opinion that while cillini were a reaction to Catholic doctrine, they also reflected the secretive and shameful nature of the loss of an infant in Irish culture. Finlay (2000) has written that the exclusionary nature of sites chosen for cillini reflects the “ambiguous category of the dead infant” and the “liminal state of the infant soul” (p. 408). Finlay (2000) writes of cillini: “Paradoxically, cillini are a visible, but yet concealed presence in the landscape. This ambivalent state between the known purpose and function of these sites…is mirrored in the frequently marginal and liminal locations in field corners, by roadsides as well as in abandoned monuments and disused buildings” (p. 419). Murphy (2011) argues against this hypothesis, claiming that connecting cillini with liminality and ambiguity is too simplistic of a conclusion that ignores the agency of grieving parents who used cillini to bury their unbaptized dead infants.
Murphy (2011) writes that the classic analysis of cillini as liminal and the conception of dead infants as marginal pieces of Irish family life ignores the presence of women and their lived experience of grief. Murphy (2011) writes that this popular notion reflects a “phallocentric nature of knowledge” that exists across the disciplines which very often ignores the experience of women (p. 411). Murphy challenges a simplistic reading of Irish infant burial practices that looks only to big institution like the Church for explanations of human behaviors and looks to the more complex patterns of behavior and emotion that were very real on an individual level for women and mothers. In her study of Irish oral tradition and folklore that describes aspects of women’s experiences with pregnancy and childbirth, Fionnuala Nic Suibhne (1992) states:
…even though there seems to have been an acceptance of the Church’s teaching…insofar as people believes the souls of unbaptized children went to Limbo, and insofar as they buried such children in unconsecrated ground, there often appears to have been a strongly felt respect and affection for unbaptized children in the account of many women. (p. 69)
Murphy urges readers to consider infant burial practices in Ireland as something that does not merely reflect the important influence of Church doctrine, but also as a practice that illuminates how Irish families interpreted and acted in response to that doctrine.
Murphy (2011) has recorded archeological evidence that points to cillini as sites for active remembrance of lost infants rather than simply liminal sites where the bodies of those infants went to be hidden and forgotten. Murphy (2011) is again arguing against Finlay (2000), who stated: “The simplicity and frequent absence of grave-markers serves to emphasize the anonymity of the infants and individuals interred within, turning the sites into passive memorials rather than places of active remembrance” (p. 419). Murphy cites numerous studies (Crombie 1990; Dennehy 1997; Nolan 2006) that have connected material topographic features with infant burials. Physical features like small stone markers or physical demarcation of the graves of infants in Ireland show that parents or kin did make an effort to mark the site of burial of their infants.
Murphy (2011) also urged readers to recognize that most families in Ireland in the post-medieval era would not have been able to afford elaborate headstones or burial markers for any family members, let alone stillborn infants. She writes that wooden or iron crosses have been seen across Ireland as grave markers for individuals of any age and may have been used for infants who were buried outside of formal graveyards as well. These materials do not hold up in the archeological record as well as stone and may have been lost, moved, or stolen. Therefore, the absence of material culture at infant burial sites like a cillin does not necessarily prove the liminal nature of these individuals or their burials.
Murphy (2011) also notes that the discovery of white quartz in unconsecrated infant graves suggests a more complex understanding of cillini as sites for active mourning and familial remembrance. Archaeologists (Crombie 1990; Dennehy 1997) have noted that small pieces of white quartz (sometimes alongside smooth sea pebbles) were often recovered from enclosed infant graves or found in large quantities among larger cillini sites. Crombie (1997) notes that white quartz, seashells, and sea pebbles have been used for decorative purposes since prehistory (p. 27). Crombie (1997) suggests that, depending on the historical context, white quartz may have symbolized a merging of traditional Irish Celtic mythology and Catholicism. In both contexts, white symbolizes purity, and white quartz has specifically been used for purifying or healing purposes. Murphy (2011) argues that the use of white quartz on the burial sites of unbaptized infants could symbolize a desire to bring religious or spiritual meaning to the cillini.
Murphy (2011) challenges another myth that is often associated with cillini and their popular image as a secretive, marginal site for liminal individuals. It is often stated that the burial of unbaptized children took place secretly, at night, and was performed by the father or a male relative of the infant only. Family and kin (according to popular understandings of cillini) were not expected to attend the burial or to acknowledge or mourn the infant at all. Murphy (2011) writes that these practices may have been “reserved for the burial of an illegitimate child or an early miscarriage” and cites oral history of cillini which present evidence for public, daytime burials (p. 424).
The absence of women from the burial of their dead infants may have other explanatory factors. Murphy (2011) writes that their absence may simply be connected to general rituals and practices regarding childbirth at that time (p. 424). Women were generally expected to practice a “laying in” period after giving birth. Nic Suibhne (1992) writes that this period of confinement could last anywhere from 9 days to two weeks (p. 21). In some areas, they could not leave the house until being “churched” or blessed, by a Priest. Murphy (2011) concludes that even following a live birth, a mother would often not be expected to attend her child’s baptism (p. 424). She also stresses that it should also be remembered that the ability to give birth was considered a sacred duty of a wife, so besides intense grief, a mother who had lost an infant would have felt a sense of shame and failure (Murphy 2011: p. 425).
Dennehy and Lynch (2001) also challenge some of the more simplistic anthropological understandings of cillini as merely “children’s burial grounds”. When conducting test excavations at an abandoned church site called Killalee, which was assumed to have no human remains (because the church did not have a formal cemetery), Dennehy and Lynch (2001) found twenty-three graves containing human remains. Of the four graves that were wholly analyzed, two infants of less than six months old were found. Upon this finding, Dennehy and Lynch (2001) assumed they had happened upon a cillin. However, when the next two skeletons were analyzed, they were found to be two adults: an adult female of undetermined age and a middle-aged adult of undetermined sex.
While a later analysis of the incomplete human remains showed that the site represented a bias toward burials of children, Dennehy and Lynch (2001) were puzzled by their finding of adult skeletons (p. 22). They also found many remains of older children between the ages of 1 and 5 years old. Dennehy and Lynch (2001) write, “The presence of older children and adults should not hinder the interpretation of this site as a cillin” (p.22). They emphasize that cillini, though named after the infants they so often contain, were very often used for other categories of people who were not deemed fit for a proper Catholic burial. Other archaeologists have recorded that suicides, strangers or foreigners, shipwrecked sailors, criminals, and murderers and their victims are also found in cillini across Ireland alongside unbaptized infants.
The adult female skeleton excavated at the Killalee site by Dennehy and Lynch (2001) was found buried with two coins and a porcelain bead. The authors write that the “inclusion of grave-goods went against Christian belief, with its particular abhorrence of the placement of coins in graves” (p. 23). The presence of these coins found under the hip of the skeleton implies that she was buried fully clothed. Dennehy and Lynch (2001) write that “criminals and victims of disease or suicide were not accorded traditional burial rites and were often buried fully clothed” (p. 23). By carefully analyzing the material culture existing at sites of unconsecrated burial, archaeologists are able to better analyze social and cultural context of mortuary practices. We see that cillini were not simply sites for the burial of unbaptized infants, but complex community sites where the religious, moral, and social significance of dead human bodies were interrogated and created.
Murphy’s (2011) arguments against a simple understanding of cillini as marginal sites for the secretive burial of marginalized individuals also speak to broader arguments about the conceptions of infants and children in history. McKerr, Murphy and Donnelly (2009) write that while in modern life, children are seen as the “primary focus of parental concerns,” there is a belief held by some that prior to the eighteenth century, parents did not value their children as individual people (p. 111). McKerr, Murphy, and Donnelly (2009) write that this “indifference hypothesis,” which supposes that the high mortality rates among children made emotional investment in one’s offspring undesirable, is largely connected to the work of Phillippe Aries in his book Centuries of Childhood (1973) (p.111).
Murphy (2011) notes that many anthropologists have taken issue with twentieth century historian’s views that parents in the past did not love their children as much as parents today and mourn them just as much when they died. She cites the work of Linda Pollock, (1983) who criticized earlier historians for their biased sources and publishes oral and written history accounts which show that “most parents were highly anxious and upset by the ill-health of a child—the high rate of infant mortality would appear to have only intensified this anxiety” (Murphy 2011: p. 414). Murphy cites the words of a mother writing in 1893 who, upon hearing that her friend had lost her young infant to scarlet fever, wrote “I think there must be no heartache like that of losing a child—for lover’s love, children’s love, husband’s love, and none of them so deep and high as mother’s love” (pg. 414). Murphy uses these sources to argue against the “indifference hypothesis” and argue that the parents of dead infants experienced grief, loss, and mourning, and would have used the cillini where their children were laid to rest as a site for remembrance and mourning.
Lally and Arden (2008) write that “few archaeologists have specifically considered how infant bodies were perceived and constituted in the past” and that this lack of inquiry about the concept of the infant body is based on a reliance “on the modern humanist biological model to explain social constitutions of the body…” (p. 65). Bodies are not only biological but are constructed at the intersection of the biological, social, and material world. These authors challenge simplistic readings of infant burial practices and urge archaeologists to consider the specific social and material meanings of infant internments.
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