Miscarriage and Stillbirth in Irish history

This appeared in the North Clare Local in November. I also spoke on this topic on Newstalk’s Talking Point. 

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Glasnevin Cemetery (Jawed Karim via Wikimedia Commons)

Recently I appeared on Newstalk’s Talking Point show with Sarah Carey, discussing the beliefs surrounding the burial of unbaptised children in times past. This is a distressing topic and to us in the 21st century, the attitudes were astonishing.

Unfortunately, miscarriage is still very common, with up to 20% of pregnancies ending before 28 weeks. Stillbirth (generally pregnancies that end after 28 weeks) has declined massively due to advances in medicine. Prior to the late 20th century, the loss of pregnancy was a fact of life for many women. It’s also important to note that women had a lot more pregnancies in the past, and having a miscarriage can increase the chance of subsequent failed pregnancies.

Even today the cause of these events is often a mystery, but in less medically-advanced times understanding was very limited. I have written previously of the many superstitions surrounding pregnancy, and it was easy for a woman to blame herself for the loss if she had somehow contravened these.

Ireland has been under the influence of Christianity since the fifth century, but our own pagan beliefs were not completely overtaken by the Church. Instead these beliefs fused with those of the church. This is evident in the treatment of the unbaptised throughout the centuries.

In the Catholic Church, all children are born with original sin, the punishment for Eve’s fall from grace. In order to be absolved of this, they needed to be baptised. If a child died before they could be baptised, they could not enter a state of grace with God.

It’s important to note that there never was an official Catholic doctrine on this, and it was a subject of debate throughout the centuries. St Augustine believed these souls went to hell. The most common belief was that of the Limbo of the Infants. Along with heaven, hell, Purgatory, Limbo of the Fathers (where those holy souls born before Christ resided), the Limbo of the Infants was a realm of the afterlife. This was exclusively for the souls of unbaptised babies. These souls were in a blissful state, but they stopped just short of the full bliss of heaven. This was cold comfort for many bereaved parents. Limbo was also taught up until the 1990s. I was taught it myself, as well as a rather chilling belief that the souls of the unbaptised were destined to carry a candle for eternity, looking for the mercy of God.

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Image by Engledow Jenni via Flickr

In the church’s defence, “emergency baptism” could be performed. Priests sometimes used invocations such as “if thou art a man” and “if thou art alive” while baptising stillborn babies, therefore allowing the parents to bury their child in consecrated ground.

For a culture with an emphasis on death and funerary rites, this was a source of heartbreak. All over Ireland, there are “cilíns”; small, discreet graveyards, often unmarked. By their nature they are quite secretive places, but at a conservative estimate there are just under 1400 in Ireland. The earliest are believed to date back to 1000AD. As well as the unbaptised, suicide victims, murderers, the mentally ill, and strangers to the area could find themselves buried there. They were often placed near fairy trees and forts. This is where our pre-Christian and Catholic traditions mingle. From a practical point of view, this meant the graves would not be disturbed, as only the very foolish would interfere with anything fairy-touched. However, especially if we go back to the far distant past, where belief in changelings was at its strongest, there may have been an expectation that the deceased would get a second lease of life in the realm of the fairies.

Generally the man of the house buried the child, and sometimes they tried to bury the child as close to an official graveyard as possible, even at the boundary wall. It was believed the rain from a graveyard wall could cleanse original sin. This was against church rules, so often these burials happened at night. Another way around the Church’s rules was the sneaking of the child’s body into the coffin of a recently deceased relative; they would then be buried on consecrated ground.

Stillbirth was common, but it wasn’t talked about. For many people, it was a secret, a taboo. Couples were merely told to try again. In the 20th century, hospital treatment became common, and women were prevented from seeing their babies by medics. In Dublin, babies were buried in the Holy Angels plot in Glasnevin. Consecrated as this is, it is still a mass grave. In an RTE radio documentary from 1999, Orla Bourke spoke to couples whose children were buried there. A heart-breaking but worthwhile listen, it’s available on the RTE player. Thankfully, we live in more compassionate times, where the pain of such unimaginable loss is better recognised.

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