Countless empty arms, countless grieving wombs…

As an Irish Anglican parent of a stillborn, I was shocked to read of the shameful stillborn burial practices in Catholic Ireland, going back in history. Due to the mistaken, unbiblical belief in “limbo”, those babies were not “allowed” proper graveyard burials. As if that wasn’t enough parental pain, the unbaptised dead were believed to be capable of malevolence, ill will and capable of bringing bad luck on a house, even if they were only infants.

And the poor mother was not supposed to hold her baby or mourn it although it is a certainty that many made it their business to make secret and lonely journeys to mourn their lost children.

Instead these sad stillborns were secretly buried near rivers and beaches, without priestly ministration. The sad burial journey to the cillin was conducted by a male member of the family and in darkness. Other family members were not encouraged to recognise the birth of the child or to accompany it on its final journey…. but small white stones were left as “markers” to the site.


Hear that hammer hitting, nailing down your sorrow,

your still born baby silent, your heavy heart unhallowed,

motherhood murdered, O cruel, poisoned arrow.

O un-baptised baby with unemotional eyes;

parents plaintive question, kissed tenderly goodbye;

creation vomit-heaves, the heavenly Father cries.


Guardian angels quietly watch and weep,

secret graves stubborn spades dig deep,

keening midnight mothers refuse to sleep.


Accursed limbo lies! Sad Cillini plots moan,

parental pain observed by small sentinel stones,

storms pitifully expose scattered baby bones….


Countless empty arms, countless grieving wombs

there’s no human hope to fill such a vacuum,

stillborn babies wait beyond this hopeless gloom.


Not ‘unknown souls’, as clergy wrongly claimed,

all your hairs are numbered, you are newly named,

loved by the heavenly Father, freed from such shame.


illustrations by

A Place that Harbours Memory

“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 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?”

A place that harbours memory

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s