'They buried our baby for £5 and nothing more was said'
For generations, the Catholic Church ruled that babies who died before being baptised could not enter heaven – but were relegated to limbo. They were denied funerals and could not be buried in church graveyards. For the families of these babies, though, the grief lives on, writes CIAN TRAYNOR
THERE ARE countless mass infant graves scattered around Ireland, left unmarked, unconsecrated and containing hundreds of bodies.
They are a legacy of Roman Catholic tradition, which stipulated that babies who died before being baptised did not go to heaven, but to an in-between state known as limbo.
Baptism, it decreed, corrected humanity’s original sin in falling away from God. As a consequence, children who died at birth were forbidden to be buried on consecrated ground and denied a funeral service.
Instead they were buried in anonymous plots known as “cillín”. Veiled in secrecy, mired in shame, the burials usually took place in the middle of the night along cemetery boundaries to get the babies as close to sacred ground as possible.
Limbo complicated the grieving process for Eithne Hyland’s stillbirths in 1974, 1977 and 1982, posing insurmountable challenges to her faith.
“When you saw healthy babies growing up, you couldn’t keep your sanity thinking yours were floating around in limbo, as if they were stuck in some maze they couldn’t get out of. That image could torment you,” she says.
A priest said Hyland needed to be “churched” after her first stillbirth, kneeling her down with a hand on her shoulder before saying a prayer to cleanse her.
“I couldn’t understand: why would you need to be cleansed after bringing a life into the world? What has a mother done wrong in giving birth? That still gets me pretty mad. But back then our religion was so staunch that you had to go with what the Church told you.”
Hyland believes the Catholic Church’s attitude towards stillborns was so widely accepted that it made maternity wards unsympathetic places. Parents were not allowed to see or hold a child who died at birth, the logic being that any opportunity for attachment would prolong the grieving.
However, after Hyland’s second stillbirth the sight of her baby, Lisa, left at the end of the bed, tugged at her maternal instinct. “I said, ‘for Heaven’s sake, could you not wrap her up in something?’ The midwife called the student nurse, who came back with a plastic bag and the baby went in with the dirty sheets and everything. I thought, ‘oh my God, did she just throw her out?’” Parents were typically expected to bury the baby themselves. In Dublin, however, the city’s three main maternity hospitals had an arrangement with the non-denominational Glasnevin Cemetery where children were allowed to be buried in mass graves in what was known as the Angels Plot.
After her first stillbirth, Hyland was given the choice of burying her baby or having the hospital take care of it. “Naturally you’re trying to deal with the grief and shock, then suddenly you have to decide what to do. We wanted to protect the rest of the family from the trauma of burying a stillbirth at home but we didn’t know what the procedure was. So they buried our baby, for £5, and nothing more was said.”
Many parents held on to the bill, often framing it, as it was the only memento they had. Custom dictated it was never mentioned it again. “People said, ‘ah sure you’re young enough, you can start again’. After that, you were told to keep it to yourself; otherwise people thought you were looking for sympathy.” It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Hyland “found the courage” to look for her three stillborn babies.
“My husband said: ‘Listen, they’re in your heart. Don’t be puttin’ yourself through that.’ But I had this feeling it wasn’t finished and that it needed to be. To me, an unmarked grave was the real limbo.”
It was through Isands, a charity now known as A Little Lifetime Foundation, that Hyland learned she could trace the burials in Glasnevin Cemetery. They had kept exceptional records; all you needed was a name and date.
Ron Smith-Murphy, the charity’s chairwoman, lost a daughter at birth in 1993, as did her parents 29 years before. Like Hyland, Smith-Murphy didn’t know what her rights were as a mother when she was told her baby would live for minutes. That sense of vulnerability inspired her to establish a supportive framework for parents dealing with a similar loss, both past and present.
She constantly hears accounts of babies being snuck into adult coffins so they could be buried in consecrated ground, or unsympathetic priests telling mothers to bury their baby in the garden.
In many cases, she says, parents tend to return to the child they never got to be with once the rest of their family has been reared. “It’s almost like the grief was delayed because it was suppressed. Often when they’re near death, they talk of the baby they almost had. It’s heartbreaking.”
Change has been gradual. Isands successfully campaigned for a stillbirth register in 1995 and their booklet A Little Lifetime is now distributed to all maternity hospitals, offering parents crucial information and support.
Glasnevin’s Angels Plot, where more than 50,000 babies have been buried, with as many as 70 in each grave, has now been restored to include a memory garden and its annual blessings are well-attended.
“I suppose it’s a change in society, a change in the recognition of grief,” says George McCullough, the cemetery’s chief executive. “When I came here 24 years ago, the remains of babies would arrive at nine in the morning in the under-section of the hearse, with no parents, no ceremony and no recognition. It was an Irish solution to an Irish problem. Now you have 40 fathers, mothers, grandparents and children all with an emotional interest in the one spot for a loss from maybe 30 or 40 years ago.”
In 2007, the International Theological Commission announced there was “hope for the salvation of children who have died without baptism”. Though this upheld the concept of limbo, priests were finally allowed to bless limbo graves and bury the unbaptised in church grounds.
Fr Joe Brophy, who is based in Kiltegan, Co Carlow, says there is nothing about limbo in the scriptures and that it evolved from a climate of control. (St Augustine concluded in the fifth century that infants who die without baptism were consigned to hell.)
“The mind boggles,” he says. “Why would a child born without being baptised [not go to heaven]? It’s gobsmacking arrogance that a pope or someone in authority could say, ‘we’re sorry now but that child is not up to scratch for us’. And that’s really what we were saying. Thank God people have grown up a bit and we don’t take that anymore. It was nonsense.”
Smith-Murphy, and many others, feel the Vatican has not gone far enough. She believes parents of children who died prematurely are owed an apology and has campaigned for a plaque to be erected in every Church-owned cemetery to acknowledge those buried in its hedgerows and ditches.
“There are so many aspects of disrespect to these children and their families. Thankfully, we’re coming to a point where we’re acknowledging what they went through. But for a lot of them, it’s too late. My mum believed she would one day be reunited with her daughter, whereas my dad – a holy man who lived by the book – died believing he would never see her. They never got one shred of recognition from the maternity system, the State system or the Church.”
A Little Lifetime Foundation can be contacted on 01-872 6996 or isands.ie
Donegal's Oilean na Marbh
Oileán na Marbh (Isle of the Dead) is an island off the west coast of Donegal that was used by locals to bury children who died at birth.
In September 2009, the neighbouring community of Carrickfinn decided to have the island blessed and to erect a commemorative stone to recognise the 1,200-plus children buried there.
“It was always thought that something should be done because after our generation, nobody would know anything about it. It would all be forgotten,” says Seamus Peter Boyle, who led the campaign.
Many present at the ceremony had grown up with the sight of mothers and fathers standing on the piers and gazing across the water, not knowing, as children, that what they were seeing were parents pining for their stillborn babies buried on the island.
For Boyle, now 66, one image in particular has stuck with him: a man leaving for the island in the middle of the night with a spade to bury his twins, whom he carried in a shoebox.
The ceremony was so well-received by the town that they repeated the commemoration last September and hope to continue doing so.
“It was beautiful, so it was,” says Boyle. “There was joy and sadness in it at the same time. Everybody’s just pleased that things have changed. It’s very sad that it was left like it was for so long. It never should have happened that way.”