There are several hundred children’s burial grounds, cillíní, in Mayo, and at least eighteen in Erris – probably more, since some sites must be lost to memory. Most of the Erris survivals are on or near the coast, like the mound in the cemetery at Doohoma. There is another at Doolough, a few miles north. It nestles among the dunes and marram grass beside the beach. Bones exposed by the shifting sands were reinterred in Glencastle Cemetery, near Belmullet, about sixty years ago. When they were later stolen (by medical students, apparently) and more bones began to surface around the original cillín, the story quickly got about that the dead had returned to the shore. Their rightful place was on the edge of things.
Other cillíní are scattered around Blacksod Bay and Broadhaven Bay. At least one lies far out at sea on Dubhoileán Mór, the Big Black Island, where it stands beside ancient ruined buildings, ritual sites whose meaning has been lost, with only seabirds, seals and peregrine falcons to mourn for unknown children whose lives were ended before they began. There are two more cillíní, ignored and unnoticed, beside the main road from Castlebar to Belmullet. In the 1890s Dr Browne, the Dublin anthropometrist, found what he called ‘an infant cemetery’ at Bunmore, deep in the heart of Ballycroy. Browne commented that ‘unbaptised or still-born infants are buried at night in separate burying grounds, by themselves’.
There is another on the road from Bangor to Geesala, high up on the side of Mount Jubilee. This 130-metre high hill, where St Patrick himself is said to have celebrated mass, was originally called Tristia. It was renamed by Dr John MacHale, bishop of Killala, in about 1825 to mark Pope Leo XII’s Year of Universal Jubilee. He singled out such a modest hill because a villager was passing by it late one night when he saw a vision of the Virgin Mary perched on a ladder and either descending from or ascending to the heavens. Unfortunately, when the man went back to the site in daylight he couldn’t work out exactly where the vision had been. Bishop MacHale arrived on the spot and rolled a stone down the hill, announcing with commendable pragmatism that wherever it came to rest was the site of the Virgin’s ascent (or descent); and he caused a little church to be built there to commemorate the event. The cillín is close by this little chapel, a stony mound that gains significance from the nearness of holiness, becoming, like its neighbour, a place that harbours memory.
But not one that recalls it in any concrete way. The grave-markers at cillíní are always simple: nothing more than a small stone, standing or fallen, or perhaps a clutch of the white quartz pebbles. There are never names. I have stood at every cillín in Erris, from the jumble of stones inside the clifftop fortress of Dun Fiacr, where the sea foam flew round me like snow; to the little ringfort beside a sandy creek at Talach, down in the far south of the barony; and I have never found a single inscription to remember a child’s passing, no message of hope or mourning. Often there are no markers of any kind, so that a swell in the lie of a field and a note on a Victorian map are all there is to show that the dead are here. That and the tears.
Is that because these dead had no name? Quite literally, in the case of the stillborn, their identities as unformed as their bodies, and the sickly neonates for whom the act of naming seemed a pointless waste, and the strangers thrown up on the shore. By being buried with them, the suicides and the unrepentant sinners also have their identities stripped from them; they are denied both admission to the presence of God, and an admission that they have lived on earth.
Like the stillborn, it is as if they had never been.