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Children’s Burial Grounds

The phrase “Children’s burial grounds” refers to an unconsecrated site used primarily, though not exclusively, for the burial of unbaptised children. The custom of setting aside a special place for the burial of very young unbaptised babies was common practice in Ireland until the 19th century but continued on a less frequent scale up to the mid 20th century. It is believed to have been practised by the ancient Greeks and Romans and began in Ireland in the 5th or 6th century, when the Catholic Church decreed that the burial of unbaptised babies in consecrated ground was not permitted.

It was in this era that St. Augustine of Hippo declared that all unbaptised individuals were guilty of original sin and so were consigned to Limbo, with the belief that on the last day they would be taken up to God. Naturally this caused controversy, suffering and pain as, due to the high infant mortality rate, children were its main concern. As no official endorsement by the Church of the existence of Limbo is to be found and it is not mentioned in scripture, it would appear to have been a concept used by theologians in their efforts to define the need for Baptism for salvation.

We use the term “Children’s Burial Grounds” for these sites but it is important to say that it wasn’t just unbaptised children who were buried there. These sites were also chosen as the resting places for vagrants, criminals, victims of famine, murder, disease and suicide. Often, children of unmarried mothers and children who had not received their First Holy Communion were not considered worthy to be buried in consecrated ground either. In some cases, there was an economic factor to be considered- there were families who could not afford the cost of a grave or headstone and so opted for the “Cillín”.

Parents suffered unbearable grief and anguish in these situations. It is safe to say that in those times all births were home births and so mothers had their dead children taken from them straight away. The father had the task of taking the baby away, wrapping it in a little blanket, and with the help of a neighbour, slowly and secretly headed for the burial area. There, usually under the cover of darkness, they dug a small shallow grave and laid the infant to rest. There was no wake and no support of the neighbours, many of whom would be unaware of what was happening. They would have offered a prayer and very likely marked the grave with an upright stone. They then returned home and entered into a world of silent suffering.

The choice of location for these burial places would have been an old derelict church site, a ring fort or a sheltered corner of a field, close to a river, stream or a lake. The reason for choosing a church site was because it was once consecrated ground and was a way of getting round the “rules or recommended practice of the day”. Many of the sites are close to village or parish boundaries and so symbolise the sense of “placelessness”, which the term Limbo conveyed. They were known by different names such as Cillíní, Caldraghs or Lisheens and, because they are classed as a type of archaeological site, are marked on the Ordnance Survey maps.

  There are six of these burial grounds in the general Garrafrauns area.

Cloondergan: This one is generally called the “Teampaillín” as there are the remains of a church here. The burial ground is south of these ruins and small stones are visible, indicating graves oriented in an E-W direction; there are approximately 200 of these stones, varying in size , and local information suggests that adults were buried here as well as children. An entry in the Primary Schools Folklore Collection, from Shanballymore N.S., written by Kathleen Quinn, Knockatee, states:

There is a place in Cloondalgan called “Teampaillín”. There are the remains of an old church there still. The old people say that St. Patrick passed there on his way to Addergoole. It is also said that there is an old warrior buried there. It is now used for burying young children who die before being baptised.

Gortnagine: It was situated within a ringfort but there are no visible traces there now. It is believed that burials took place there up to the 1940’s.It is also known as the Lios or the Lisheen.

Gortnalea: This burial ground was also situated within a ringfort. In Fr. Neary’s “History and Antiquities of the Parish of Dunmore”, this site is called a cemetery. It is believed that the last burials to have taken place here were those of a family who lost 6 or 7 children, in the 1930’s. No visible traces of it are to be seen.

Kinnakinella: This burial ground is also situated beside an old church site and is quite similar to that site in Cloondergan. It measures roughly 10m by 25m. There are small set stones to be seen in N-S direction; there could be up to 100 marked graves. The following inscription on one stone is very clear Lord have mercy on thee” and there is a small cross etched out above these words.

Knockatee: The only visible evidence that this was a burial ground is 3 or 4 upright stones and some others scattered on field-clearance rubble. Burials took place there up to the 40’s.A lone thorn tree gives the site a kind of eerie appearance.

Quinaltagh: This site is generally referred to as the “Lisheen” and is situated within a ringfort, known locally as Glynns’ Fort. It is about 9m. in area and contains about 130 stones in an E-W direction. There is a low circular earthen mound in the centre and it is believed to be the remains of an altar. Burials took place there up to the late 1940’s.




In recent years, these lost, hidden places are being located and uncovered from years of wild growth of briars and furze and thorn bushes. Thankfully, many people in the country, especially farmers, have ensured that these sites have not been destroyed or lost, but have been protected and remembered as the resting places of “Little Angels”.