Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Bog Meadows and Baby Graves

On Sunday, I went for a trip to the Bog Meadows Nature Reserve, the largest stretch of untamed marshland in Belfast and home to much wildlife. The site is managed by the Ulster Wildlife Trust and is the recipient of a UNESCO award.

Had UNESCO visited at the weekend, it might have been disappointed by the apparent lack of conservation assigned to the area. I counted at least five shopping trolleys, either cast into the canals or dumped amid the foam upholstery of a discarded chair and the rusted frame of a old bicycle. A possible sixth shopping trolley seemed to have biodegraded into the wet earth, with only a single remaining wheel betraying its presence.

There was something upsetting at witnessing a mother duck and her cute brood of ducklings attempting to negotiate their way around an array of detritus dumped in the stream.

Things were no better down at the pond. Signs which once provided information on the habitat had been torn away. A man and two children were throwing bread to the wildfowl, while drinking from fizzy drinks cans. Once the picnic was finished, the cans and associated rubbish were thrown into the reeds to join the other litter dumped there.

I went looking for the bird hide, which was advertised on a map of the area but I couldn't find it. Eventually, I meandered into a stretch of mucky forest before tumbling over a fence into the baby graves of Milltown Cemetery.

The baby graves, displaying stone teddy bears, sleeping angels and faded flowers, looked like the kinds of graves children might design for themselves, if they had the chance. They are small and bright and clustered together beneath the knotted weeds at the most salient edge of the Cemetery.

Although I'm not an expert on the history of Catholic burial, I'm aware that the church forbade babies who were stillborn or who died prior to baptism a place in their Heaven - or to put it in church lingo, the babies were denied communion with the Beatific Vision. Instead they were interred in unconsecrated ground and condemned to inhabit the Limbo of Children, a kind of netherworld between Heaven and Hell.

On examining the gravestones in the plot, I couldn't see one that extended beyond 1979. Many were dated in the 1950s and 1960s. I've since discovered that it was 1970 before the church introduced a funeral rite for unbaptised infants and 1992 before the Catechism of the Catholic Church noted that babies who died unbaptised might still be saved.

However, on 20 April 2007, the Catholic Church's International Theological Commission published a document entitled "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised", which notes that the Limbo of Children remains a "Possible theological opinion," but indicates there are "Serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptised infants who die will be saved and enjoy the Beatific Vision." It also states that "These are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge," and concludes: "It must be clearly acknowledged that the church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptised infants who die."

It must also be acknowledged that publications issued by the International Theological Commission are not recognised as authoritative church teaching. The musings contained in the document suggest that the Catholic Church doesn't really believe in Limbo but isn't going to officially endorse its banning or issue any apology to the parents of generations of dead babies. Such is the compassion of the Vatican.

In researching this post, I came across this article which tells the story of eighty year old Mary Salmon from Letterfrack, Co. Galway, who, in 1994, finally witnessed the Catholic Church blessing her two dead children and many others, who were refused a Christian burial sixty years ago.

Speaking of the stillbirth of her children, Mrs Salmon said: "I didn't even get to see the baby. My husband had the child in a little box and took it to the seashore two miles away. Then I lost another baby and it was buried there as well. Hundreds of babies are buried here. We were told they were in Limbo and could not be let into consecrated ground."

Mrs Salmon has raised a memorial stone to all of the dead children buried in the unconsecrated plot at Letterfrack. Her actions are not unprecedented. In opposition to the church, John Tohill, once Bishop of Down and Connor, who died in 1914, chose to be buried in the unconsecrated plot at Milltown Cemetery, so that the blessings bestowed on him would extend to the entire plot.

More recently at Milltown, the Catholic Church has erected a rather ugly monument to na leanaĆ­ (the children) although there's no information display to indicate the reason for this structure's existence. It's even surrounded by a metal cage, probably to deter teenage drinkers from inhabiting the space, although said drinkers couldn't do any worse damage to the memory of the dead babies than the damage already done by the Catholic Church.

By the way, I eventually found the bird hide, although it was hidden behind a locked gate at the other end of the cemetery.


Anonymous said...

After the article on TV last week was interested to Google some info on The Bog Meadows. Am sorry to see that it is being used as a dump. Who is responsible for cleaning this up and are there any wardens to educate the litter bugs.

Anonymous said...

Bishop John Tohill died in 1914, not 1814.

Anonymous said...

The issue of 'Cillini' ie the unconsecrated ground used for the burial of unbaptised infants, is a common feature across our landscape and one that is becoming more important. The Catholic Church should pay more regard to the parents who are still alive and who are tortured daily as a result of the use to this outdated and unchristian doctrine.

The Great Wee Azoo said...

Thanks for correcting John Tohill's death date. I've fixed it.

Toni said...

I have studied Cillini for a number of years now and identified the site at Milltown Cemetery in early 2006. I am currently the archaeological consultant on the site at present and would like to hear from anyone who has any other information in relation to this site, or any other Cillini in Ulster. Contact m1355902@qub.ac.uk

Stewpot said...

I called into the Bog Meadows on Friday and was surprised by the range of wildlife living there so close to nearby housing. this was 3pm and I really did not expect to see much. There were (and I photographed these), common frogs, rabbits, Thrushes, Long-tailed Tits, Bluetits, A pair of Geese with their young, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Finches, robins, warblers of some kind and a lot mors that I couldn't get close enough to see.