Archaeologist works to determine unmarked mass graves

BELFAST, Northern Eire — Jim Chambers will always remember the splash the field containing his stillborn child made when it hit the mud. It was March 1957, and whereas his spouse, Kathleen, lay within the hospital recovering from a traumatic labor, Jim and his father-in-law had taken his son to be buried. When he arrived on the lavatory on the backside of Milltown Cemetery, a gravedigger took the field from him and threw it into a big pit, then carried on digging.

Discovering the grave later would show inconceivable.

“We didn’t know the place to look,” Kathleen Chambers stated. “There was no marker, nothing, and no person talked about it. After I tried to speak about it, it was pushed apart. I used to be advised ‘You’re a younger girl, you’ll have extra infants.’”

The Chambers’ baby was one in all hundreds of kids buried in unmarked mass graves in Milltown Cemetery from the early 20th century to the 1990s. Some have been stillborn, and a few had died shortly after beginning. Others died in a few of Eire’s now infamous mom and child properties, the place pregnant, single girls have been hidden away to keep away from scandal.

The graves are a legacy of a time in Eire when poverty and strict Roman Catholic teachings meant attitudes towards toddler mortality have been hardened. However the six acres of sentimental floor holding these kids have now come to represent the burden of hundreds of people that have been dwelling with anguished uncertainty concerning the final resting place of their family members.

One of many child graves in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Eire, on Feb. 16.Charles McQuillan / for NBC Information

Whereas the Republic of Eire has made efforts to reckon with this previous and supply solutions, the identical course of has been slower in Northern Eire on account of a long time of political violence and the persevering with instability of the native authorities. An investigation into mom and child properties in Northern Eire was lastly promised in January. However as a substitute of ready for an official inquiry, many individuals have taken it upon themselves to seek out solutions.

They’ve been aided of their quest by one girl: Toni Maguire, a forensic archaeologist who has made it her mission to analysis the unmarked graves in Milltown Cemetery and different websites in Northern Eire and find the stays of kids who have been buried after which forgotten by everybody besides their household. Her work has given lots of of households what most of the bereaved take with no consideration: a spot, a patch of earth the place they know their family members relaxation.

‘It’s my job to seek out you’

Born in Belfast to the daughter of a religious Catholic mom and a Catholic father who was a nuclear engineer, Maguire was introduced as much as quietly respect the church but additionally embrace a spirit of irreverent inquiry.

“I can keep in mind rising up, oh my god, the considered difficult something a priest or a nun stated was like difficult Christ himself,” she stated. “You wouldn’t do it, ever.”

Whereas finding out for a level in archaeology at Queen’s College Belfast within the early 2000s, Maguire, now 66, spent a number of years working to determine unregistered websites all through Northern Eire the place stillborn kids had been secretly buried. These websites have a reputation in Irish: cillini, which suggests “little church.”

As a result of the Catholic Church promulgated the assumption {that a} baby who died unbaptized couldn’t be buried in consecrated floor, lay individuals determined for his or her kids to be correctly laid to relaxation would discover their very own websites of significance. These websites may be as near consecrated floor as attainable, or someplace with sacred qualities in accordance with Irish custom, corresponding to underneath a hawthorn tree.

Maguire had her personal causes for being significantly within the cillini. Whereas anticipating her first baby, she had a miscarriage. A second being pregnant with twins additionally resulted in miscarriage.

When her professor requested her to undertake a challenge discovering the cillini in County Antrim, “it simply struck a chord with me,” she stated. As much as then, 11 such websites had been recorded. Inside months she had discovered 97.

“You almost really feel like a surrogate mom,” Maguire stated of her work. “It’s my job to seek out you. As a result of I don’t know the place my infants are buried. The hospital disposed of them. … It by no means leaves you.”

Unmarked graves

Milltown Cemetery’s storied historical past mirrors that of the town that surrounds it, and components of Belfast’s previous may be learn in its hundreds of tombstones. Troopers who died combating for Britain on the planet wars lie close to Irish republicans who took up arms in opposition to British rule. Victims of the 1918 Spanish flu are there, in addition to victims of Northern Eire’s outbreaks of political violence.

Controversy erupted in 2008, nevertheless, when it was revealed that cemetery trustees had offered off the land containing the unmarked mass graves. The Diocese of Down and Connor, which owns the cemetery, stated the sale was a mistake, apologized and organized for an archaeological examine of the bottom to find the extent of the burials. Finally the land containing the graves was purchased again.

Maguire was given entry to the cemetery on the finish of that December. Till then her work had concerned finding websites the place maybe one or two infants have been buried. Now she confronted the problem of making an attempt to map out burial plots that contained hundreds of stays. Nevertheless, she rapidly discovered the proper ally.

Former Milltown gravedigger Dan Skelly pictured in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Eire, on Feb. 16.Charles McQuillan / for NBC Information

Dan Skelly was raised within the working-class neighborhood of Carrick Hill in north Belfast, the son of a dock employee on the metropolis’s famed shipyards.

“It was two rooms, no gasoline, no electrical,” he stated. “We used to need to cook dinner on the fireplace. It was rooms to let, and at the moment there have been 18 of us dwelling in two rooms.”

Despatched to work as a baby, he acquired a job by means of his brother-in-law digging graves at Milltown Cemetery in 1971. Skelly was 17, and he’s been a gravedigger ever since. He remembers how infants from the hospitals and different establishments have been buried unceremoniously.

“At the moment a few of the undertakers used to gather the infants out of the morgues, carry them up in shoeboxes, cardboard packing containers. A few of them had coffins, some didn’t,” he stated.

“If a mother or father got here, they’d carry the mother or father down and allow them to see the kid getting buried, however apart from that the shoebox would simply be placed on the again of the tractor, taken down and buried.”

The pits dug within the cemetery’s lavatory measured 9 by 4.5 toes, and a single one may maintain lots of of stays. Partly from reminiscence, and partly from analyzing the bottom with a educated eye, Skelly may discover these unmarked graves. In 2009 he started serving to Maguire do exactly that.

Obtain the NBC Information app for breaking information and politics

By this level Maguire was typically spending six days per week on the Milltown Cemetery, in between finishing her Grasp’s diploma in anthropology. She had grow to be identified in the neighborhood as somebody who was dedicated to figuring out cillini and was already receiving a gentle circulate of requests for data from native residents.

Each request takes Maguire on a paper path by means of beginning and demise certificates, burial information and archives from mom and child properties or different establishments.

If Maguire can discover a identify, she will be able to typically hint it to a baby’s burial place utilizing maps of graveyard plots, a few of which she has drawn up herself with Skelly.

Not each search is profitable. Referring to at least one such case, she stated, “It bugs me nonetheless that we are able to’t discover that child.”

Every request Maguire receives, nevertheless, brings to gentle a person tragedy from the previous.

‘Don’t be elevating your hopes’

Fionnuala Boyle was born in Belfast in 1975 to a mom being saved in a mom and child house. A judicial fee of investigation within the Republic of Eire discovered “appalling” charges of toddler mortality at such properties.

Adopted at 15 weeks, Fionnuala was raised in rural County Tyrone by dad and mom who lavished her with love, whereas at all times being open about the truth that she was adopted and had an older sibling. As an grownup she travelled to the Metropolis Hospital in Belfast to request a beginning certificates for her brot her. She was additionally offered along with his demise certificates.


The revelation was a shock.

“I’d say it was one other two years earlier than I truly acquired the braveness up to return to see what had occurred to him,” Boyle stated.

Additional inquiries advised that her brother was buried at Milltown Cemetery, however no person knew the place.

“I had no clue about learn how to discover out something extra,” she stated. “At any time when I initially had gone to the workplace that they had form of pointed at a little bit of floor and mainly stated he’s someplace in there. However someplace wasn’t adequate for me. I wished to know the place precisely is he?”

She reached out to Maguire for assist in 2014.

One of many child graves in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Eire, on Feb. 16.Charles McQuillan / for NBC Information

Related questions gnawed at Arlene Simmons, whose second baby was born significantly ailing on Feb. 1, 1978.

5 torturous days of medical remedy adopted. After finally being persuaded to go house for some relaxation, Simmons awakened at 3:40 a.m. on Feb. 6 with an terrible feeling of certainty.

“I phoned the hospital, and I stated, ‘He’s died.’ I knew the precise second that he died,” she stated. “They stated sure, he had died.”

Within the preliminary phases of grief, Simmons stated she agreed to the hospital’s suggestion that she let it bury her baby. Later, nevertheless, she regretted not figuring out the place her son was buried.

“Because the years adopted — his birthday, the anniversary of his demise, Christmas — you had nowhere to go to form of keep in mind,” Simmons stated. “Each January and February I took an enormous downer as a result of I felt I’d failed him.”

Maguire had warned Simmons that the probabilities of discovering her son’s burial plot have been small. “She stated to me, ‘Don’t be elevating your hopes,’” Simmons stated.

For Kathleen Chambers, 57 years had handed since she’d suffered the heartache of shedding her first baby. Now dwelling in England, she noticed Maguire being interviewed on TV and managed to attach along with her by means of a buddy in Belfast.

Chatting with Maguire by cellphone, she recounted the small print of what had occurred greater than half a century earlier than. Inside weeks, Maguire had discovered the positioning the place Jim Chambers had handed over his child son.


With hundreds of kids buried in Milltown Cemetery and different websites, there’s a restrict to how a lot Maguire can do. Though she has been pursuing this work for years, she’s recognized solely a fraction of the burial websites that exist. Many households are nonetheless ready to see what she may uncover.

However for the households she has been in a position to present solutions to, the sense of reduction and closure is big.

“I used to be allowed to grieve,” Kathleen Chambers stated of the second Maguire confirmed her the place her son lay.

Gerard Joseph Chambers lies in the course of the 5.9 acres of floor that the Milltown Cemetery trustees had initially offered off in 2008. A heart-shaped gravestone carries his identify.

Of the ache, Kathleen Chambers stated: “It’ll by no means shut so far as I’m involved, however not less than we have been in a position to go and really say we had a son and that is the place he was. … I’ll owe Toni a debt for the remainder of my life.”

Archaeologist Toni Maguire pictured alongside Dan Skelly in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Eire, on Feb. 16.Charles McQuillan / for NBC Information

Paul Vincent O’Hanlon, massive brother to Fionnuala Boyle, died of bronchial pneumonia at 7 months, having been within the care of a mom and child house.

His burial floor lies about 100 yards away from that of Gerard Joseph Chambers, within the cemetery’s northeast nook.

“It has introduced me a lot consolation,” Boyle stated. “I do know he’s there and I can go there and I can get a number of peace from figuring out I’ve visited him.”

Throughout the Falls Street, Robert Simmons is buried beneath a birch tree near the highest of Belfast Metropolis Cemetery, the place the bottom slopes up towards the Black Mountain that overlooks the town.

It took Arlene Simmons a number of years to summon up the energy to go to the positioning. However, she stated, “I used to be truly in a position to heal from that stage on.”

And whereas Maguire’s challenge started as an area one, it has since grow to be worldwide in scope. She is now receiving inquiries from the US, Canada, Australia and continental Europe, as phrase of her work has traveled by means of the Irish diaspora.

“All individuals actually need to do is use their household,” Maguire stated. “It’s like having a misplaced baby. You’ll be able to’t settle till you recognize the place they’re.”


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *