Cillíní (unconsecrated children’s burial grounds) were an unfortunate outcome of the Roman Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation (1545-1648 AD/CE). During the Counter-Reformation, the Church went back to and promoted their older theological teachings, including those of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD/CE), who had proposed that unbaptised and stillborn children be refused burial in consecrated ground as they were still ‘tainted’ with Original Sin. Given no alternatives, the Irish began to bury their unbaptised and stillborn children close to or inside archaeological sites, and near anthropomorphic boundaries and prominent landscape features. Due to the complex emotions associated with the loss of a child, the locations of many cillíní have faded out of memory.
Although there are almost 1,700 cillíní recorded across the island of Ireland (~1650 in the Republic and ~50 in Northern Ireland), in-depth research on these archaeological monuments has been lacking until recently. Cillíní research did not really start until after the Ordnance Survey (OS) of Ireland in the 1830’s, where some surveyors recorded the existence of these burial grounds across Ireland on the OS maps and in the OS memoirs. Antiquarians picked up this topic and assumed cillíní were ‘pagan burial grounds’, never bothering to consult local Irish people about them.
Courtney Mundt’s work focuses on using the OS maps, OS memoirs and the IFC School’s Collection to find and record new or existing cillíní, use GIS mapping to better understand how they fit into their surrounding landscape, perform oral history research to find cillíní by interviewing locals, and research the religious origins for cillíní in three case study counties: Fermanagh, Meath, and Antrim. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, oral history fieldwork was only performed in County Fermanagh.
Currently, County Fermanagh has 6 recorded cillíní, Meath has 2 recorded cillíní, and Antrim has 19 recorded cillíní. Using the OS maps available from the Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) and the Republic of Ireland’s National Monuments Service (NMS), as well the OS memoirs and the IFC School’s Collection, an additional 51 cillíní were found: 7 in Fermanagh, 9 in Meath, and 35 in Antrim.
The religious origins research is still ongoing as to why cillíní are more recorded on the west coast of Ireland compared to the east coast and Northern Ireland. One theory is that the different Catholic orders applied Canon law in different levels of strictness. Other factors being taken into consideration are the effects of the Plantation in Northern Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as how the Famine affected the use of these burial grounds.
It is hoped that this research will inspire others into similarly researching cillíní in other counties, and that conversations about these burial grounds will happen in communities so that healing and commemoration can begin.
Courtney Mundt is an American fourth year PhD researcher at Queen’s University Belfast.. Before starting at Queen’s in 2019, Courtney completed an MSc in World Heritage (2016) and an MA in in Archaeology (2017) at University College Dublin. She has also worked in the Republic of Ireland for two years as a commercial archaeologist. She has presented several conferences, including EAA 2021 and 2022, as well as IAI 2022. After completing her PhD, Courtney hopes to work in the UK or Ireland in archaeology, heritage, GIS, and/or data analysis alongside continuing to research cillíní.
This CHAS talk will take place in the Seven Oaks Hotel, Carlow on Weds 15 February @ 8pm. All are welcome and admission is free.
The talk will be videoed for future viewing and will be available on the CHAS YouTube channel: