'No marker, nothing': Unmarked mass graves cause anguish for thousands in Northern Ireland

BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Jim Chambers will never forget the splash the box made of his stillborn baby when it hit the mud. It was March 1957, and while his wife Kathleen was in hospital recovering from traumatic work, Jim and his father-in-law had taken his son to the funeral. When he got to the moor at the foot of Milltown Cemetery, a gravedigger took the box from him, threw it into a large pit, and continued digging.

Finding the grave later would prove impossible.

“We didn’t know where to look,” said Kathleen Chambers. “There was no marker, nothing and no one talked about it. When I tried to talk about it, it was pushed aside. I was told, “You are a young woman, you will have more babies.”

The Child of the Chambers was one of thousands of children buried in unmarked mass graves in Milltown Cemetery from the early 20th century through the 1990s. Some were stillborn, others died shortly after birth. Others died in some of Ireland’s now infamous mother and child homes, where pregnant unmarried women were hidden to avoid scandals.

The graves are a legacy of a time in Ireland when poverty and strict Roman Catholic teachings led to heightened attitudes towards child mortality. But the six acres of soft ground these children live on now symbolize the burden of the thousands of people who have lived with fearful uncertainty about the final resting place of their loved ones.

One of the baby graves in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on February 16th.Charles McQuillan / for NBC News

While the Republic of Ireland has made efforts to reckon with this past and provide answers, the same process has been slower in Northern Ireland due to decades of political violence and the ongoing instability of local government. An investigation into maternity and baby homes in Northern Ireland was finally promised in January. But instead of waiting for an official request, many people have made it their business to find answers.

They were helped in their search by a woman: Toni Maguire, a forensic archaeologist whose mission is to research the unmarked graves at Milltown Cemetery and other locations in Northern Ireland and locate the remains of children who are buried and then forgotten by everyone but her family. Your work has given hundreds of families what many bereaved families take for granted: a place, a piece of earth where they know their loved ones are resting.

“It’s my job to find you”

Maguire was born in Belfast to a devout Catholic mother and a Catholic father who was a nuclear engineer. He was raised to tacitly respect the Church but also to accept a spirit of disrespectful inquiries.

“I remember growing up, oh my God, the thought of challenging something that a priest or nun said was like challenging Christ himself,” she said. “You would never do it.”

While studying archeology at Queen’s University in Belfast in the early 2000s, 66-year-old Maguire spent several years identifying unregistered places across Northern Ireland where stillborn children had been secretly buried. These places have a name in Irish: cillini, which means “little church”.

Since the Catholic Church proclaimed the belief that a child who died unbaptized could not be buried in consecrated ground, lay people desperate for their children to be properly laid to rest would find their own places of importance. These sites may be as close as possible to the consecrated ground or in places with sacred properties according to Irish tradition, such as under a hawthorn tree.

Maguire had reasons of her own for being particularly interested in the cillini. She miscarried while expecting her first child. A second pregnancy with twins also ended in a miscarriage.

When her professor asked her to do a project to find the Cillini in County Antrim, “I just got hit,” she said. Up to then, 11 such locations had been recorded. Within a few months she had found 97.

“You almost feel like a surrogate mother,” said Maguire of her job. “It’s my job to find you. Because I don’t know where my babies are buried. The hospital disposed of them. … It never leaves you.”

Unmarked graves

The history of Milltown Cemetery mirrors that of the city that surrounds it, and parts of Belfast’s past can be read in thousands of headstones. Soldiers who died fighting for Britain in the world wars lie close to Irish Republicans who took up arms against British rule. There are victims of the Spanish flu of 1918 as well as victims of the outbreak of political violence in Northern Ireland.

However, the controversy erupted in 2008 when it became known that cemetery trustees had sold the land containing the unmarked mass graves. Down and Connor Diocese, which owns the cemetery, said the sale was a mistake, apologized and initiated an archaeological survey of the soil to determine the extent of the burials. Eventually the land with the graves was bought back.

At the end of December, Maguire was given access to the cemetery. Until then, their job was to find places where maybe one or two babies were buried. Now she faced the challenge of mapping tombs with thousands of remains. However, she quickly found the perfect ally.

Former Milltown Gravedigger Dan Skelly was pictured in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Ireland on February 16.Charles McQuillan / for NBC News

Dan Skelly grew up in the working-class district of Carrick Hill in north Belfast as the son of a dock worker in the city’s famous shipyards.

“There were two rooms, no gas, no electricity,” he said. “We used to have to cook over the fire. There were rooms for rent, and at the time 18 of us lived in two rooms. “

Sent to work as a child, he got a job in 1971 through his brother-in-law who was digging graves in Milltown Cemetery. Skelly was 17 and a gravedigger since then. He remembers how babies from hospitals and other institutions were unceremoniously buried.

“At that time, some of the undertakers were collecting the babies from the morgues and placing them in shoeboxes and cardboard boxes. Some of them had coffins, some didn’t, ”he said.

“If a parent came they would topple the parent and let them see the child buried, but otherwise the shoebox would just be put on the back of the tractor, taken off, and buried.”

The pits dug in the cemetery bog were 9 feet by 4.5 feet, and a single one could hold hundreds of remains. Partly from memory, partly from examining the ground with a trained eye, Skelly was able to find these unmarked graves. In 2009 he started helping Maguire with this.

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At this point, Maguire often spent six days a week in Milltown Cemetery, between completing her master’s degree in anthropology. She had become known in the community as someone dedicated to identifying Cillini and already receiving a steady flow of requests for information from local residents.

Maguire traces every request through birth and death certificates, funeral records and archives from maternity and baby homes or other institutions.

Often times, when Maguire finds a name, she can trace it back to a child’s grave using maps of cemetery lots, some of which she created herself with Skelly.

Not every search is successful. Regarding one such case, she said, “It still annoys me that we can’t find this baby.”

However, every request Maguire receives brings to light an individual tragedy from the past.

“Don’t Raise Your Hopes”

Fionnuala Boyle was born in Belfast in 1975 to a mother who was housed in a home for mother and child. A judicial commission of inquiry in the Republic of Ireland found “appalling” child mortality rates in such homes.

Adopted at 15 weeks, Fionnuala was raised in rural County Tyrone by parents who showered her with love while always being open about the fact that she was adopted and had an older sibling. As an adult, she traveled to Belfast City Hospital to request a birth certificate for her brother. She was also presented with his death certificate.

The revelation was a shock.

“I would say it was two more years before I found the courage to go back to see what happened to him,” said Boyle.

Further investigation indicated that her brother was buried in Milltown Cemetery, but no one knew where.

“I had no idea how to find out anything more,” she said. “Whenever I’d initially gone into the office, they’d somehow point to a piece of floor and basically say it’s in there somewhere. But somewhere wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to know where exactly it is?”

She asked Maguire for help in 2014.

One of the baby graves in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on February 16th.Charles McQuillan / for NBC News

Similar questions nagged Arlene Simmons, whose second child was born seriously ill on February 1, 1978.

Five excruciating days of medical treatment followed. After finally being persuaded to rest, Simmons woke up at 3:40 a.m. on February 6 with a terrible sense of certainty.

“I called the hospital and said,” He died. “I knew exactly when he died,” she said. “You said yes, he died.”

Early in the grief, Simmons said she agreed with the hospital’s proposal to have her child buried. However, she later regretted not knowing where her son was buried.

“The following years – his birthday, the anniversary of his death, Christmas – was nowhere to be remembered,” said Simmons. “Every January and February I experienced a massive downer because I felt like I had let him down.”

Maguire had warned Simmons that the chances of finding her son’s grave were slim. “She said to me, ‘Don’t raise your hopes,” said Simmons.

For Kathleen Chambers, it had been 57 years since she had the heartache of losing her first child. Now she lives in England. She saw Maguire being interviewed on television and managed to get in touch with her through a friend in Belfast.

She spoke to Maguire on the phone and gave the details of what had happened more than half a century ago. Within a few weeks, Maguire had found the place where Jim Chambers had given his young son.


With thousands of children buried in Milltown Cemetery and other locations, there is a limit to how much Maguire can do. Although she has been doing this work for years, she has only identified a fraction of the existing burial sites. Many families are still waiting to see what they can discover.

But for the families she was able to provide answers to, the feeling of relief and closure is enormous.

“I was allowed to mourn,” said Kathleen Chambers from the moment Maguire showed her where her son was.

Gerard Joseph Chambers sits in the middle of the 5.9 acre property that the Trustees of Milltown Cemetery originally sold in 2008. A heart-shaped tombstone bears his name.

Kathleen Chambers said of the pain: “It will never be tight for me, but at least we could say we had a son and here he was.” … I owe Toni a debt for the rest of my life. “

Archaeologist Toni Maguire was pictured next to Dan Skelly in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Ireland on February 16.Charles McQuillan / for NBC News

Paul Vincent O’Hanlon, Fionnuala Boyle’s big brother, died of bronchial pneumonia at the age of 7 months after being in the care of a maternity and baby home.

His tomb is about 100 meters from that of Gerard Joseph Chambers in the northeast corner of the cemetery.

“It has brought me so much comfort,” said Boyle. “I know he’s there and I can go there and I can find a lot of peace knowing that I’ve visited him.”

Across Falls Road, Robert Simmons is buried under a birch tree near the top of Belfast City Cemetery, where the ground slopes towards Black Mountain, which overlooks the city.

It took Arlene Simmons several years to muster the strength to visit the site. But she said, “I was actually able to heal from that stage on.”

While Maguire’s project started as a local project, it is now internationally oriented. She is now receiving inquiries from the US, Canada, Australia and continental Europe as the word of her work has traveled across the Irish diaspora.

“All people really want is to find their families,” said Maguire. “It’s like a lost child. You can’t settle down until you know where they are.”

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