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The forgotten graveyards of Clondegad and Kilchreest by Mary Hester

It is quite usual in many parishes throughout Ireland to have an area known as the cillín. Indeed there are townlands named cillín/killeen in several parishes. These sites are most numerous in the south-west of Ireland and County Clare has quite a number. They are often characterised today by the presence of a mound of stones, rocks or flags scattered in no particular order or sequence. Sadly, some are covered by vegetation, but locally they are identified as cillíní.

Dineen tells us that a cillín is a churchyard set apart for infants and that a cillíneach is a place set apart for the burial of unbaptised children.[1] They were also the burial places of other groups who were perceived to be in some way outside of society – aborted foetuses, suicides and famine victims.[2] Westropp records that strangers were buried in cillíní.[3] It is also remembered in West Clare that a person killed during the guerrilla warfare of the Troubles was secretly buried in a cillín.[4]

For the purpose of this article, the title cillín will be used throughout. However, kyle, killeen, ceallúnach, cullúragh, talamh beannaithe or simply children’s burial ground are used throughout the county and country.

The first academic references to the existence of cillíní occur in the works of nineteenth century antiquarians and it is in these writings that attempts were made to identify their origins. Seán O’Súilleabhaìn, in an article in 1939, suggested that even in pagan times children who died young were buried in a separate place to adults. This custom may later have been Christianised and so cillíní became burial sites for unbaptised children.[5]
Paul Gosling suggests five characteristics attached to these burial grounds:-
a) named on the six-inch ordnance survey map as a children’s burial ground
b) held by local tradition to be such
c) referred to as a burial ground in a printed reference
d) containing inscribed grave slabs exclusively to children
e) containing numerous diminutive graves defined by kerbs and/or head and footstones.[6]

Cillíní were often located near a blessed well or stream, at a crossroads or at a townland boundary. Walled enclosures such as ringforts were also used as burial sites. The cillín located in a ringfort in the townland of Tullycrine Lower in the parish of Kilmurry McMahon is a fine example of this type. It has been suggested that burial close to a blessed well or church was as close as possible to a sacred site as was permitted. Burial at a crossroads or at a townland boundary suggests a “no man’s land” thinking where nobody was responsible and nothing was mentioned. “Social and cultural taboos in rural areas did not encourage discussing such events.”[7]

“Veiled in secrecy, mired in shame, the burials took place in the middle of the night.”[8]

The memory of hearing a horse and car passing in the dead of night on the laneway to a cillín was recalled for me by somebody who heard it from his late mother.[9] A similar memory was also recounted to me recently of an infant burial in Coolsuppeen. “I can well remember the pony and trap passing and we knew where it was going.”[10] The small grave was marked by a stone brought from the home place or by a stone picked up on the way. Cold stone, a type of sedimentary rock, was often used.[11] This author was shown a burial site in the cillín in Clondrina, Cranny in June 2012 by the brother of an infant buried there sixty years before. The tiny grave was identified by the type of stone which was used as a marker.

Cillíní of Ballynacally/Kilchreest
Clondegad/Kilchreest is today known as the parish of Ballynacally/Lissycasey. It is situated in Mid-West Clare. It straddles two baronies – Clonderlaw and Islands and it stretches from Kilmaley to the Fergus Estuary and from Kildysart/Cranny to Ballyea/Clarecastle. Seven children’s burial grounds have been identified in the parish of Clondegad and Kilchreest (Ballynacally – Lissycasey) but it is possible that there may be others not marked on the OS map or not recorded in print. Four of these sites – Killea, Tubber, Furroor and Feenagh are marked on the six-inch OS map. Local tradition identifies three others at Coolsuppeen, Caherea and Breaghva. Killea, Tubber, Furroor and Caherea are all adjacent to holy wells while Feenagh and Coolsuppeen are both at field boundaries. Breaghva is reputed to be in the vicinity of a Mass rock. Burials took place in the majority of these sites up to the late nineteen forties and there is evidence of one burial ground being used in the early sixties. The second Vatican Council officially ended the use of cillíní.

Killea in the townland of Lisheen is mentioned by O’Donovan as well as being marked on the OS map. “There is a small burial ground in the townland of Lisheen called Cille Aodha or the church of Hugh.”[12] There is a holy well close by which is not in use today. However, it was cleaned up in August 2012 by George Spellissy, Lisheen, a member of the Killea Graveyard committee. The Clare Pilgrim Way walkers visited it on their way from Killone to Ballynacally later that month. It was understood to have been dedicated to St Hugh but a suggestion has also been made that it is St Aidan’s Well.[13] According to a local source, adults were buried here during the cholera epidemic and also during the reclamation works on the Fergus in the late nineteenth century.[14] The Rural District Council fenced in the burial ground after extra land had been given by local farmer Mr E Murphy, in the early part of the twentieth century. Some work was carried out also during the tenure of Fr Pat O’Reilly PP in the 1940s. [15]

Accessibility to this burial ground was a problem right up to this century. However, in the recent past, an access road and a car park have been built. Mass was celebrated there for the first time in living memory in July 2008 by Fr Tom O’Dea AP. One may ask if this was the first time Mass was ever celebrated at this scenic location overlooking the Fergus estuary.

Cille Fiddaun Burial Ground
Cille Fiddaun Burial Ground

Cille Fiddaun
O’Donovan records a little burial place for children called Cille Fiddaun in the townland of Tobar an Fhiodáin near a holy well of the same name. This site is also marked on the 1841 OS map. William Cleary, aged 14, wrote about this burial ground in the Fergus View (Caherea) School manuscript in the 1930s. His father, John Cleary, who was between 55 and 60 years old at the time, told him that many people were buried there during the Famine.[16] Burials took place here up to about fifty years ago. One local man is aware of having an uncle buried here.[17] At the beginning of the third millennium this site was cleared and fenced off. A right of way to the cillín and holy well was provided through the lands of the late Michael Meaney. The work was carried out with the help of a Fás scheme under the supervision of Kathleen Kelly. On 19 June 2001, more than two hundred and fifty people walked in pilgrimage from the Boree Log to Tobarniddaun where the parish priest, Fr Joe Hourigan and Fr Donagh O’Meara, CC presided at a prayer and blessing ceremony.[18]

The burial ground at Furroor (Frure) is marked on the 1841 OS map and has always been regarded locally as a cillín. A holy well dedicated to St Ruth is close by. How St Ruth came to be associated with this well is not known but the fact that the nearby cillín is in the townland of Cill Ruadh may shed some light on the origin of its name. A local man remembers being at the burial of an infant in this cillín in the late 1940s. His recollection is that he was in the garden with his late father who was ploughing. It was 25 March, the day of a horse fair in Kilrush. His father, on noticing a group of men coming up the road, remarked that they would hear the news from the fair. However this group were coming to bury an infant.[19] The cillín and well were restored in the 1990s with the support of Fás and Mass was celebrated there by the late Fr M J Neylon PP.[20] At what may be the entrance to the cillín, there is a large flat slab which is reputed to have been a mass rock in penal times.[21] Adult burials are said to have taken place here during the Famine.[22] Furroor is one of the larger cillíní in the parish and is well maintained. A tree was planted there a number of years ago by Fr Gerard Kenny, now PP of Kilkee/Doonbeg, in memory of all buried there.[23]

Furroor Burial Ground
Furroor Burial Ground

On Sunday, 26 May 2013 a pilgrim walk led by Fr Joe Hourigan PP took place to the cillín and well. It was a special time of remembrance – remembering all who visited the well over the centuries, remembering the infants and others buried in the cillín and remembering ancestors who may have attended Mass there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For Maureen Breen (nee Frawley) of Ballydineen, Kilmihil it was an especially poignant day. It was the first time that she ever visited the resting place of her only sibling, a brother. Having recovered recently from a serious illness it was her wish to see where her brother was buried. Johnny Kelly, on whose land the cillín is situated, was able to show her the exact spot.

Feenagh Burial Ground
Feenagh Burial Ground

Located at a corner of a field, the children’s burial ground at Feenagh is clearly recognisable as a cillín. It is marked on the 1841 OS map and O’Donovan refers to it thus – “There is a small burial ground for children called Fiadh-an-Eich i.e. the land of the horse, in the townland of Gort-Uí-Gaoithín.” The site is quite close to the boundary with the townland of Breaghva West. There is a well, though not a holy well, less than one hundred yards south of the burial ground. Children were buried there up to about the 1930s.[24] However, it was also used as an adult burial ground in famine times.[25]

The cillín at Breaghva is not marked on the 1841 OS map nor does O’Donovan refer to it but local knowledge has identified the burial ground.[26] There are some hazy local references to the location of a mass rock close by.

On the right hand side of the road leading from Lack Cross to Crovraghan, between the house once known as Mollie Barry’s and the gate to Rossmount farm, is sited the cillín of Coolsuppeen. This is quite small in size but is obviously a burial ground. It has always been regarded as such locally even though it is not on record in print or marked on the OS map. This author remembers being shown it by her late father Micko Griffin sometime in her childhood. Its location was corroborated by Flan O’Donoghue who is aware of a burial there in the 1940s.[27]

The cillín in Caherea is not named in any official records but its existence and location have been confirmed by local knowledge.[28] There is a holy well nearby where pilgrimages were held annually on 15 August.[29] One local woman is aware of burials there up to the middle of the twentieth century.

“The manner in which unbaptised babies were buried and the location of the burial places signifies their liminal status in both human and supernatural terms according to Irish tradition.”[30] The cillíní are certainly the forgotten graveyards. They have often been neglected through the years. They were not consecrated ground. There are rarely signposts or official entrances to these grounds. Some are not recorded anywhere. However, most of us living in the parish have ancestors buried in cillíní locally or elsewhere. However, most of us living in the parish have ancestors buried in cillíní locally or elsewhere. Although for many years they were forgotten by church and state, their location and the memory of those buried there has lived on, albeit silently, in the local consciousness.

Over the last number of years however, local efforts in the parish of Lissycasey/Ballynacally, and in other parishes across the country have attempted to bring these sites into the open in every sense of the word. Sites have been cleared, access routes created and religious services and pilgrimages have been held at many of them. In May 2012 a plaque in memory of all those buried in cillíní in the parish of Lissycasey/Ballynacally and throughout the country was erected by Flan O’Donoghue of Ardnagla at Mac’s Cross, Ballynacally.


1 Leland Mary, The Killeen, (London, 1985).
2 Gosling Paul, Archaeological Inventory of County Galway. Volume 1 (Dublin, 1993).
3 Westropp T. J., Folklore of Clare. Clasp Press (Ennis, 2000), p 77.
4 In conversation with Siney Corry, October 2010.
5 Donnelly, Colm J and Murphy, Eileen M., ‘The Origins of Cillíní’, Archaeology Ireland, Volume 22, (Dublin, 2008).
6 Gosling, Paul, Archaeological Inventory of County Galway Volume 1 (Dublin, 1993).
7 Chapple, Robert M, North Munster Antiquarian Journal No 43 (Limerick, 2003).
8 Irish Times, (Dublin, 2 February 2011).
9 In conversation with Siney Corry, October 2010.
10 In conversation with Mary Murphy, May 2013
11 In conversation with Johnny Kelly, 2 March 2012.
12 O’Donovan, John and Curry, Eugene, The Antiquities of County Clare: Ordnance Survey Letters 1839 (Clasp Press, Ennis, 1997), p. 164.
13 In conversation with Maura O’Reilly, August 2012.
14 In conversation with Martin O’Sullivan, RIP.
15 Diocesan Archives.
16 I.F.C. Mss 606.
17 In conversation with Tom Hill, 15 March 1012.
18 Clare Champion, 17 August 2001.
19 In conversation with John Kelly, 2 March 2012.
20 Clare Champion, 26 September 1997.
21 In conversation with John Kelly, 2 March 2012.
22 ibid.
23 ibid.
24 In conversation with Flan O’Donoghue, August 2010.
25 In conversation with Oliver Haugh, 29 May 2013.
26 In conversation with Flan O’Donoghue, August 2010
27 In conversation with Flan O’Donoghue, 14 March 2012.
28 In conversation with Mrs Mary Enright, 3 March 2012.
29 ibid.
30 O’Connor, Anne, Child Murderess and Dead Child Traditions: A comparative study, FF Communications (Helsinki, 1991) Vol. cvii2, No. 149.

This article was first published in The Other Clare Vol. 37 (2013). Clare County Library is grateful to Mary Hester for donating this article.

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