Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery: “Limbo Babies,”
Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery: Atmosphere ‘tense,’ ‘emotions … just below the surface’
(First published 2012) Last year’s BBC documentary on Ireland’s “Limbo Babies” [featured on our Family History YouTube channel] brought to light an emotionally charged issue that affected almost all of our Irish ancestors. Ever since the Roman Catholic Church declared that the non-baptized were forbidden burial in consecrated ground, faithful Catholics, particularly parents, were tormented by the uncertain fate of these infants.
Family stories have been transmitted, often in muted conversations, through the centuries, of burials carried out in secret along the fence lines of consecrated ground. In secret and under the cover of night, our ancestors placed their loved ones, mostly stillborn who had not yet been baptized, as close to consecrated ground as possible or in a place they felt God would better find and embrace them.
The lack of records for the cillíní [children’s burial grounds] makes it challenging for archaeologists to identify them. This difficulty is compounded by the Church’s ambivalent attitude toward those buried within – they were, in the Church’s view, neither in nor completely beyond the family of Christianity. Even the word cillíní itself, meaning ‘little graveyard’ in Irish, suggests the separation of the graves.
Toni Maguire, the archaeologist and anthropologist featured in “Limbo Babies,” started her research in 2006 with the 11 sites recorded by the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency (Sites and Monuments). Maguire eventually recorded 97 cilliní for County Antrim alone, a number that is growing. “Cillíní sites can vary from bog land to hill tops, fairy trees and prehistoric standing stones, to disused Christian and pagan sites down through the ages,” says Maguire.
This issue was drawn into the public eye when in 2000 the Diocese of Down and Conor, the trustee of Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery, sold 37 acres of cemetery land to the Ulster Wildlife Trust for £37,000 [$57,000 US]. The church later described the sale of the land as a “clerical error.” This acreage had long been known to contain thousands of bodies in mass inhumation [unconsecrated] graves.
Maguire came in to assist the families in finding proof that there were far more burials in the land sold than the 11,000 listed in the cemetery records, so they could convince the diocese to buy back the land and return it to its stewardship. The diocese authorized a survey using ground-penetrating radar to determine just how far into the bog meadows the graves might extend. The results were so staggering that an extensive excavation project, exploring 51 trenches, was started last month, headed by the Northern Archaeological Consultancy (NAC).