That, of course, isn't the reality. Yes, today Ireland is - for the most part - a country that tolerates diversity and demonstrates compassion to those people less fortunate than themselves. But it wasn't always that way. Not by a long shot. Like any country, Ireland has skeletons in its closet. These deeply kept secrets ('secrets' perhaps is the wrong word. Most are in the public domain. It's just that the Irish don't like talking about them very much. And who can blame them?) are hidden in the recesses of the Irish psyche, buried like the bones of the shamed.
Many of you may have heard about some of these: the Magdalene Laundries, for instance, in which hundreds if not thousands of youngsters were put to work in desperate conditions, there to be subjected to mental and physical abuse including rape and beatings. Or the other recent scandals involving the Catholic Church in which it was discovered that priests had raped and sodomized so many young people. Worse still, the Church was implicated in the cover up of these crimes.
But none of the sins of neglect, abuse, or scandal that I've heard about have affected me as much as those of the Cillini.
The Shame of Those Who Have ForgottenThe Cillini are cemeteries, and very unusual and disturbing ones at that. These are the unconsecrated grounds where the unbaptized were buried and where they still remain. And behind this grave sin - as usual it would seem - is the iron hand of the Irish Catholic Church. To understand the sense of betrayal here, I'm going to write a fictionalized story of one person's tragic experience. Unfortunately, what I write below is based on fact.
Let's call her Mary. She is 20. It is 1970. The year after man landed on the moon. Nixon is still in office. The Viet Nam War still raged. Most Americans enjoyed so many comforts: color television, dishwashers, refrigerators, modern telephone systems - and for most, a sense of safety. But not Mary. Because Mary doesn't live in America. She lives in Ireland.
She lives, in fact, in County Cork, way down south, in a small village by the sea. Her father is a farmer. Her mother a farmer's wife. Mary's schooling ended when she was 16 and she married a year ago to John. Together they hope to build a future: a family. A house. A small bit of land. John hopes to save to buy a trawler so that he can fish for a living. And when they marry it is a grand occasion not only for the happy couple, but for their parents and the entire village as well.
They try for a child. And Mary's prayer is answered when she becomes pregnant. Their joy, they believe, will soon be complete. Mary blooms in the first months of her pregnancy and the excited couple pick names: John Junior if it is a boy. Brigid if they are blessed with a girl.
But as the months go on, Mary becomes sickly. The locals and the parish priest say their prayers. The local doctor frets over her. But there is nothing to be done. And finally, on a dark night of horror, Mary's worst nightmare comes to pass.
Mary goes into labor and through the red-tinged fear of her pain she knows that something is terribly wrong. The priest is called. He gives her Last Rights, just to be sure. She survives. But the baby is still-born. And she knows, even as it leaves her womb, that there is no hope.
The priest hurriedly blesses himself and leaves the room, not wanting to be a participant in something that is so unholy. No kind words for the young woman. No blessing of the small innocent babe. Instead, he hurries into the darkness. John's father comes into the room. With a blunt knife he cuts the umbilical cord. He wraps the small parcel, still warm, in a torn bit of blanket. Now he too hurries from the room.
Mary is not even able to hold the small one before this horrible leaving. She is not told if it is a boy or a girl despite her pleas. Instead, she is ignored. Finally, exhausted, she sleeps.
At midnight, John and his father hurry furtively from the house. They enter a field dotted only with stones - the only markers of those that have been buried and forgotten. John silently holds the dead young one as his father works with a spade. Beyond the field, over a line of trees, John can see the spire of his Church. He tries to forget that what he now holds in his arms will enjoy no Church Baptism. Her name will never be recorded on Church records. Her existence will be quashed as if she never existed. Her name will be struck out because she was never given one. John hides his tears. Together they work. Then lay the parcel in the pit and cover it, as if burying garbage. They place an unmarked rock at its head as if an afterthought.
In the days that follow, Mary begs John, his parents, and her parents to tell her of the location of her wee one. They will not. They can not. Mary is not permitted to talk about her child. She is not permitted to visit its remains. She is not permitted to grieve, at least not publicly. She lives in a world of humiliation, guilt, loneliness, sadness, and denial and her child will never be acknowledged. Not even her best friend can discuss what has happened, for discussion will give the child substance and the child had no substance because it never happened.
Occasionally, secretly and only at night, Mary ventures out to the field. She stands at its edge, examining the many small rocks, wondering which one might hide her child. Her body wracks with grief but she obstinately puts it away, knowing that she will be beaten if she shows it. Knowing that she must keep it a secret. She knows that because only a month ago she asked her husband: "John, I don't know what to call it when I pray. Is it John Junior or is it Brigid?" Her question was met only with the back of his hand and silence.
She never talked about it again. Two years later Mary was diagnosed with depression. Her condition was also met with stony silence. Silence until she eventually cracked under its dark hand; silence until she was placed in a psychiatric unit where she was met with only more silence.
Silence until finally forty years later and on his deathbed, John's guilt also cracked. "It's Brigid," he said. "A small white rock on the left hand side of the field." And after John was buried, after the blessings of the priest and the tears of the villagers, after he had been laid to rest in the well-kept, consecrated cemetery in the company of those that had gone before... months after... Mary finally ventured into the field. Next to a wall, in the corner of the lost field, she found a small white rock overgrown with the tall grass. But her grief was finally given a home, and she blessed the unconsecrated grave of her Brigid with her bright tears. And only days before she died did she finally erect a small plaque hidden deep in the corner of the field, a secret known only to her.
"To Brigid from Mammy. Never forgotten in my heart."
The HorrorWhat I have written above is fiction but it is all based on fact. Babies born in still-birth or babies who died too young were never baptized, never given final rest, never placed in consecrated grounds. Instead, they were buried in the thousands of Cillini that are dotted throughout the country like Mothers' tears. Once again, the Church turned its back on those to whom it should have shown its greatest compassion.
Today, some within Irish society are recognizing the sin made against these innocent babes and their mothers and many fathers. Some of the Cillin have been rescued. Grass has been tidied. Stones set properly. Crosses erected. Sanctified finally by the Church who had ignored them for so long.
But others, many others, lie abandoned and forgotten, the children placed within them lost for all time. Only their mothers' tears, long since dried, can remember. Such was Ireland and the Irish Catholic Church without the benefit of Green-tinted glasses.
May those days never return.