03 February 2012


     Do you have an ancestor who suffered an untimely or unusual death, such as a death by execution or suicide? Did your great great grandmother die in childbirth, along with her unbaptized infant? Have you been unable to find them in a cemetery?
     Perhaps your ancestor was buried in a "little graveyard," also known in Gaelic as a Cillin (Cilliní, pronounced "killeeni," is plural). These burial grounds, often secret and neglected, contain the remains of those who were marginalized in death.
     I turned to Toni Maguire, an archaeologist and anthropologist in Northern Ireland, for an expert's explanation of these burial grounds.  Toni specializes in the area of marginalised infant and adult burial within a Christian context.

Who is buried in Cilliní? When did this burial practice begin and end?
       Toni: The answer to the first part of your question is anyone who was considered to have died an unusual or untimely death.  Individuals traditionally buried in Cilliní were consigned to an anonymous grave either by their spiritual status at the time of death (such as unbaptised infants and mothers who died in childbirth), or the nature of their death (such as suicides or executed criminal).  The second part of your question is more difficult. Opinions vary, while some archaeologists consider the practice to be post medieval, while other, myself included, believe that the practice has its origins much further back in time. 

Was this the practice of religions other than Roman Catholicism? Which?
      Toni: The practice of exclusion was not exclusive to the Catholic Church and the practice was common as literary works such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Under the Hawthorne Tree demonstrate. 

Are there records kept of the names of persons buried in cillini?
      Toni: By the very nature of this type of burial there were no records kept.  The church considered the infants buried there as pagan and therefore outside the remit of their care.  Markers were traditionally field stones, they did not record the name of the person buried beneath, but sometimes the stones carried a mark which would distinguish the location within the landscape.  There is a distinction between Cilliní and Poor Ground burial, although they reflect similar traditions on many levels, records were often kept of the people buried in Poor Ground. 

 Where are cillini located? How do you find them?
      Toni: In Ireland, Cilliní are cited at a variety of location; everything from prehistoric sites to the ditches of raths; fairy trees to the land outside consecrated or blessed ground.  They can be also be found along townland and field boundaries, bog land and spots of outstanding natural beauty in the landscape. 

THANK YOU, Toni, for the fascinating information. To learn more about Toni's work and Cilliní, click on the links below.