A unique and moving ceremony took place in Tyrrellspass Co Westmeath on Saturday last June 23. Cillin or infant burials that were excavated during the building of the M6 Motorway just outside Tyrrellspass were reinterred in Tyrrellspass Cemetery following a Funeral Mass and ecumenical service in StStephen’s Catholic Church.
Almost 1,000 remains were taken from the site during the building of the motorway. Most of the removed remains (dating back as far as 500AD) are still in the possession of the National Museum of Ireland. Only about a third of the site in Ballykilmore has been excavated so far leading to informed speculation that there could still be thousands more buried there. The ruins of an ancient church was also discovered with the bodies during these excavations.
The townland of Ballykilmore lies just north of Tyrrellspass where the road from Tyrrellspass to Croghan crosses the M6 motortway and is not far from the border with County Offaly. A large crowd attended the Mass and ceremony which was celebrated by Tyrrellspass Priest and Native of Rahan Fr Barry Condron. Rev G Fields from the Church of Ireland in Tullamore Union of Parishes was also in attendance as were representatives from Westmeath County Council,
The National Roads Authority and The National Museum. Fr. Barry thanked Westmeath County Council for their support with the funeral ceremony and also in commissioning the Memorial bog oak sculpture to mark the grave. This sculpture of a child being cared for (created by Casey bog oak studios, a sample of whose other works include Poullough Church Altar and sanctuary) was sculpted from local bog oak which was radio carbon dated as being 5,600 years old.
Fr Barry paid particular thanks to Archaeologist Orlaith Egan for her caring dedication and hard work over the past year and thanked the National Roads Authority and the National Museum. He said “it is a great privilege for all of us to be a part of giving these 200 children and one adult a long overdue and dignified burial. They were once excluded from their communities because of societal and religious practices but now they will remain at the heart of our community for all time. Their Souls are in the arms of God,” he said.
Despite the inclement weather a large crowd turned out for the burial ceremony. The grave and memorial can be visited at Tyrrellspass cemetery. People are welcome to leave flowers at the grave.
Cillin burials, also known as Ceallunaigh, Lisheen or Reilig can be found in ring forts, At cross roads, under lone bushes, near wells at megalithic tombs, outside graveyard walls or at disused churches. All places that were likely not to be disturbed. Although there is some evidence to suggest that some of these segregated burial places are pre Christian in origin, the majority are thought to have originated following the Christian practice of Baptism being taught as necessary for salvation or to inherit eternal life.
This led to the theory (Although never official church dogma) of limbo as a place where the unbaptized or socially marginalised went after death. Sadly, this theory existed until relatively recently.
Those who died without being baptised and other marginalised or non religious groups were not buried with the baptised. Instead and with no ceremony they were placed in one of these Cillin sites. This was usually done by male family members under cover of darkness. With infant burials family grief was undoubtedly compounded all the more by belief that their little ones would never see God or Parents again
and would live for eternity in the state of ‘limbo’.
There is also evidence to suggest that these exclusions were not just the result of religious belief but that ordinary society of the day had it’s opinions regarding who was welcome and who was not. Those who broke from the social norms and morals could be banished or rejected even in death.