Böll’s artist son revisits sites where Achill’s unbaptised buried
Sense of deep loss on Mayo island about storm damage to cillín near Dugort
Padraig Lavelle in a cíllin, or children’s graveyard, at Dugort, Achill Island, Co Mayo, which was damaged by recent storms, exposing some remains. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus.
When René Böll spent summers as a young child on Mayo’s Achill island, he remembers scrambling over rocks and exploring places that were taboo – the cilliní or graveyards for premature, stillborn and unbaptised children.
“There was no stone, no mark, no names,” the artist and son of Annemarie and writer Heinrich Böll recalls. “No one talked about it, and you might pass over one without even knowing it was there.”
Many of the island’s 20 such sites were in remote places, or on cliff edges and coastal margins, reflecting a sense of shame at the time about the birth of children who would not survive.
As residents recall, the harsh church policy of prohibiting burial of the unbaptised in consecrated ground effectively left bereaved families with nowhere to grieve.
Decades later and Achill has embraced its cilliní – as have many other communities across the State. Blessing ceremonies have attempted to heal the pain, with one such event held 14 years ago this month, when the graves of “paistí marbh” at Dookinella were cleared of rocks and boulders, and marked with borders and white stones taken from the Slievemore quarry.
Padraig Lavelle, then working with Mayo County Council, was a member of the Achill graveyard committee, and recalls that a cillín was traced then to “just about every village”.
With fellow committee members, he planned a memorial, which was designed by local architect Bob Kingston and built in the graveyard just below Slievemore and close to the island’s deserted village.
“We remember here the little ones in our cilliní and all those laid to rest outside this consecrated ground,” the memorial’s inscription reads in both English and Irish.
Lavelle, who experienced a close family bereavement at the time of its completion, says it serves as a “little oasis for reflection for all”.
The children’s burial grounds have become so important to the island, Lavelle says, that there is a sense of deep loss now about the damage inflicted by winter storms on a cillín near Dugort.
“We think there were unknown sailors buried here also,” islander and farmer Geoffrey Gallagher explains, as we took a trip across the dunes last weekend to the shoreline.
Here, tiny bones are scattered around, and larger sections of skeleton protrude through the remains of a sandy cliff bank which was torn away by the January storm surges.
“A rock armour wall was built in the early 1990s to protect this cillín na leanbh,” Gallagher says.