Sunday, 3 July 2016

“In silent need they searched for Hallowed ground” The Pagan burials of rural Ireland.

Rath Coffey, also known as Raheen or the Fairy Hill.

I visited Rath Coffey before Bealtaine, when the leaves were just a haze on the branches and the Aos Sídhe had not yet emerged to travel the land.

A boreen skirts the river and leads to a tangled ditch filled with brambles but once clambered over, the mound is just a short walk away.
Although close to the road, it remains somehow remote and isolated.
The ráth is home to the Good People and there are many stories which relate the consequences of interfering with the trees and land about it. 

Human activity near the Otherworld mound is unwelcome, 
today Raheen Field is used to graze cattle.

It was understood that entering the mound led to underground passages which radiated outwards, enabling the Good People to travel beneath the land to various locations in the neighbourhood.

One such passage led to another local Fairy Fort near to the home of a family, the Bells, who were tormented by invisible hands. 
Why they attracted this attention isn’t recorded, though it was known that the unseen activity led the householders to block up a window.

The strong belief in the Good People meant that the Fairy Hill was respected but avoided and it’s position, close to the river Barrow, added to the perception that it was a liminal place, between this world and the Otherworld. 

Known as ‘the graveyard of Pagans’ the rath invokes an air of sadness even 
on a clear spring morning.

Rath Coffey once held an important role in the community but today few remember its’ secret: the mound was a cillín, an unofficial burial ground, where grieving families came to bury their unbaptised babies. 

Stones were placed to mark small graves on Rath Coffey.

The Church held that stillborn or unbaptised babies who died soon after birth, could not be regarded as members of the Church.
As they were considered to inhabit the Limbo of Children, a place between Heaven and Hell, these infants were denied internment in the consecrated grounds of Catholic cemeteries.

In the face of this decree some parents, if they had land, buried their infant in the corner of a field or garden, others had no choice but to lay their babies to rest in a once sacred place, away from prying eyes.

This ruling also applied to people who had died by suicide, mothers who died 
in childbirth but hadn’t been churched and strangers whose religion was unknown.
But the greatest number of those buried in pagan graves were unbaptised babies.

Throughout rural Ireland cillíní were in special locations, at the in-between places; 
by Megalithic tombs and ring forts, on beaches and islands, near sacred wells and old churches 
or beneath lone whitethorn trees.

Lone thorn and stone on Rath Coffey.

Perhaps some families believed that their infants would be cared for by their Ancestors or by the Good People when there was no place in heaven for them.

Research in 2013 recorded 1,394 children’s burial grounds within the Republic.

It was customary in rural areas to perform burials between dusk on the day the infant died 
and sunrise the following day. Often the father would be alone when he dug the grave and marked 
the site with stones.  
In one community, where 21 babies had been buried, WHITE QUARTZ  had been used to outline each resting place.

Raithin Well, Co. Clare which is surrounded by an air of melancholy. 
Research after my visit showed the presence of a cillín behind the well, 
close by the lakeshore.

Visiting the cillíní was a very moving experience for me, remembering the lost infants and the countless bereaved women brought me to tears and it is unsurprising that many of these places are still shrouded in aura of sorrow.

However these lonely burial places are now being remembered and brought back into the community. 

This is a reclaimed ring fort in the Midlands, used by generations as an unofficial burial
ground for their unbaptised babies until recent times.

The site was cleared of brambles and undergrowth, the stones placed upright where they had fallen and new trees planted to create a place of remembrance and play.

On some days the space is filled with the laughter and shouts of local children

and offerings are left.

As time passes the fort will hold happier memories but the lost children will always be recalled by local people. 
And the land still remembers.

Please take 30 minutes to watch Oileán na Marbh, Island of the Dead, a programme first shown on TG4, broadcast in Irish with English sub-titles.


  1. Thank you for writing about this sad piece of Irish history in such a respectful manner. It's good that now finally some recognition and respect is being shown towards these children and adults. It would be good if the church would also recognise publicly that it has played such a questionable role.

  2. Beautiful and informative as always, dear Jane.
    Do you use crystals?
    I have a rose quartz that I used to wear a lot (I'm also a Libra) but haven't in years. And recently, with me delving into some paths, I have been reading more about crystals; with wanting to focus,concentrate and meditate more, they may be helpful.


  3. Thanks Martin and I agree with you. There was a lot more I could have written but didn't. The post itself I kept quite short because I was so moved after visiting the graves and my experiences stayed with me for weeks. It must have been terrible for the grieving women.

  4. Thank you Carol. I have used crystals in the past but no longer really work with them. PM me on FB and we can chat more about this. xx

  5. The subject of this post resonates with the relationship that I had with my mother because every year of my life on a certain date she would tell me " Janet would have been x or xx today had she lived "
    I was always a bit unsure of how to relate to this for Janet was still-born 3 or 4 years before me, so no photos or anything of her existed, not even a grave. My father registered his first child as
    being born dead and dealt with her remains. As he never ever mentioned Janet then it seemed to me that only our mother remembered.

  6. Thank you Heron - yes the mothers would have remembered. It is such a pity that there was no grave to visit, perhaps that would have been some sort of comfort to your mother.

  7. Jane, Heron,

    I would like to mention something that you may not have been aware of.

    The so-called Family Constellations by Bert Hellinger deal with this theme, among many other spiritual themes. Although Hellinger's ideas are considered quite controversial, in my opinion he merely observes what he has seen happening, in an objective manner. Even if what he observes does not align with common opinion.

    I have personally been so lucky as to experience the strong healing power of such family constellations, also with respect to this particular theme.

    It appears that if it is important that each family member, even if they have never seen the light of day, gets the place within that family the he or she deserves intrinsically by having entered the family. Remembering them, mentioning them, and giving them a name all contribute to this recognition.

    If such recognition lacks, whether on purpose or unwittingly, it can result in issues and disbalances within the family, sometimes with far reaching consequences.

    I think it is very good to perform such selfless acts as to visit these sites, while showing all due respect and honouring these nameless dead. I'm convinced that this in itself has a healing effect. The burden can indeed be almost too heavy to carry, especially for a sensitive person, but on the other hand, most likely only the sensitive can do it.

    With warm regards,


  8. Martin - thank you for your thoughtful comment. I have heard of Family Constellations and to me it makes perfect sense. I am not part of a family which has suffered from the loss of a child (as far as I know) but I do understand how secrets and the act of trying to ignore or hide 'problems' can affect us all.
    I was surprised at how deeply the visits upset me, especially when I went to the local cillín, and the atmosphere at each place was really palpable - not just to me but to others.
    I intend to visit Rath Coffey again, at Samhain, to pay my respects, not just to the wee ones but also to honour the grieving local women.
    Thanks again for your thoughts - they are appreciated.

  9. I lost my son 8 years ago --- thank you for offering wise words of solace.

  10. I am so sorry for your loss Stephanie and I hope that you have support and someone to to talk with. x


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