Skip to content

BELFAST, Northern Eire — Jim Chambers will in no way ignore the splash the box made up of his stillborn newborn manufactured when it strike the mud. It was March 1957, and when his wife, Kathleen, lay in the medical center recovering from a traumatic labor, Jim and his father-in-law experienced taken his son to be buried. When he arrived at the bathroom at the bottom of Milltown Cemetery, a gravedigger took the box from him and threw it into a big pit, then carried on digging.

Getting the grave later on would prove not possible.

“We did not know where to look,” Kathleen Chambers stated. “There was no marker, practically nothing, and nobody talked about it. When I tried out to converse about it, it was pushed apart. I was explained to ‘You’re a young lady, you are going to have extra babies.’”

The Chambers’ baby was one particular of hundreds of little ones buried in unmarked mass graves in Milltown Cemetery from the early 20th century to the 1990s. Some had been stillborn, and some experienced died shortly right after start. Others died in some of Ireland’s now infamous mother and baby homes, exactly where expecting, unmarried women had been hidden absent to keep away from scandal.

The graves are a legacy of a time in Ireland when poverty and demanding Roman Catholic teachings meant attitudes towards toddler mortality were hardened. But the 6 acres of comfortable floor holding these little ones have now appear to symbolize the stress of 1000’s of individuals who have been residing with anguished uncertainty about the final resting area of their cherished kinds.

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

Though the Republic of Ireland has produced initiatives to reckon with this previous and give responses, the exact procedure has been slower in Northern Eire thanks to a long time of political violence and the continuing instability of the area government. An investigation into mom and baby properties in Northern Ireland was last but not least promised in January. But rather of waiting around for an official inquiry, several men and women have taken it on on their own to locate responses.

They’ve been aided in their quest by a single woman: Toni Maguire, a forensic archaeologist who has manufactured it her mission to investigate the unmarked graves in Milltown Cemetery and other web sites in Northern Eire and track down the stays of children who were being buried and then forgotten by all people besides their spouse and children. Her operate has specified hundreds of people what quite a few of the bereaved acquire for granted: a place, a patch of earth the place they know their liked kinds relaxation.

‘It’s my career to locate you’

Born in Belfast to the daughter of a devout Catholic mother and a Catholic father who was a nuclear engineer, Maguire was brought up to quietly respect the church but also embrace a spirit of irreverent inquiry.

“I can don’t forget escalating up, oh my god, the believed of difficult just about anything a priest or a nun mentioned was like difficult Christ himself,” she said. “You would not do it, ever.”

Whilst learning for a degree in archaeology at Queen’s College Belfast in the early 2000s, Maguire, now 66, invested many decades doing the job to recognize unregistered sites all over Northern Eire the place stillborn young children experienced been secretly buried. These internet sites have a identify in Irish: cillini, which indicates “little church.”

Since the Catholic Church promulgated the belief that a little one who died unbaptized could not be buried in consecrated floor, lay persons determined for their children to be correctly laid to relaxation would obtain their individual internet sites of importance. These sites could possibly be as near to consecrated ground as possible, or someplace with sacred qualities in accordance to Irish tradition, these kinds of as less than a hawthorn tree.

Maguire experienced her individual motives for staying significantly interested in the cillini. While expecting her to start with child, she experienced a miscarriage. A second being pregnant with twins also ended in miscarriage.

When her professor questioned her to undertake a task discovering the cillini in County Antrim, “it just struck a chord with me,” she claimed. Up to then, 11 this kind of sites had been recorded. Within just months she had found 97.

“You just about experience like a surrogate mom,” Maguire claimed of her function. “It’s my occupation to locate you. Simply because I really don’t know the place my toddlers are buried. The clinic disposed of them. … It never leaves you.”

Unmarked graves

Milltown Cemetery’s storied historical past mirrors that of the city that surrounds it, and sections of Belfast’s previous can be examine in its hundreds of tombstones. Soldiers who died combating for Britain in the globe wars lie close to Irish republicans who took up arms against British rule. Victims of the 1918 Spanish flu are there, as nicely as victims of Northern Ireland’s outbreaks of political violence.

Controversy erupted in 2008, even so, when it was discovered that cemetery trustees had bought off the land containing the unmarked mass graves. The Diocese of Down and Connor, which owns the cemetery, said the sale was a mistake, apologized and organized for an archaeological examine of the floor to discover the extent of the burials. Inevitably the land made up of the graves was purchased back.

Maguire was supplied access to the cemetery at the conclusion of that December. Right until then her get the job done experienced associated finding web pages wherever possibly just one or two infants have been buried. Now she confronted the challenge of seeking to map out burial plots that contained 1000’s of continues to be. However, she quickly observed the excellent ally.

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

Dan Skelly was elevated in the doing work-class neighborhood of Carrick Hill in north Belfast, the son of a dock worker at the city’s famed shipyards.

“It was two rooms, no gas, no electric,” he reported. “We used to have to cook dinner on the hearth. It was rooms to enable, and at that time there were being 18 of us living in two rooms.”

Sent to get the job done as a baby, he got a job by his brother-in-law digging graves at Milltown Cemetery in 1971. Skelly was 17, and he’s been a gravedigger at any time since. He remembers how toddlers from the hospitals and other establishments were being buried unceremoniously.

“At that time some of the undertakers employed to collect the toddlers out of the morgues, carry them up in shoeboxes, cardboard containers. Some of them had coffins, some did not,” he reported.

“If a mum or dad arrived, they’d bring the mother or father down and enable them see the little one receiving buried, but other than that the shoebox would just be put on the back of the tractor, taken down and buried.”

The pits dug in the cemetery’s lavatory measured 9 by 4.5 feet, and a one a single could maintain hundreds of continues to be. Partly from memory, and partly from analyzing the ground with a qualified eye, Skelly could uncover those unmarked graves. In 2009 he started supporting Maguire do just that.

Download the NBC News application for breaking information and politics

By this place Maguire was generally investing 6 days a 7 days at the Milltown Cemetery, in in between finishing her Master’s degree in anthropology. She had turn into recognized in the community as another person who was committed to pinpointing cillini and was already acquiring a continuous move of requests for information from nearby inhabitants.

Each and every request takes Maguire on a paper path as a result of birth and dying certificates, burial information and archives from mother and infant residences or other establishments.

If Maguire can locate a identify, she can frequently trace it to a child’s burial position utilizing maps of graveyard plots, some of which she has drawn up herself with Skelly.

Not each individual lookup is effective. Referring to one particular such case, she stated, “It bugs me nevertheless that we cannot find that infant.”

Each ask for Maguire receives, however, provides to mild an personal tragedy from the past.

‘Don’t be elevating your hopes’

Fionnuala Boyle was born in Belfast in 1975 to a mom getting retained in a mom and child household. A judicial commission of investigation in the Republic of Eire observed “appalling” fees of infant mortality at these kinds of houses.

Adopted at 15 weeks, Fionnuala was lifted in rural County Tyrone by parents who lavished her with love, although usually remaining open up about the truth that she was adopted and had an more mature sibling. As an grownup she travelled to the City Healthcare facility in Belfast to request a birth certificate for her brother. She was also presented with his dying certification.

The revelation was a shock.

“I’d say it was another two decades in advance of I actually bought the bravery up to go back again to see what experienced transpired to him,” Boyle mentioned.

Additional inquiries suggested that her brother was buried at Milltown Cemetery, but nobody knew exactly where.

“I had no clue about how to find out nearly anything additional,” she said. “Whenever I at first experienced gone to the office they experienced form of pointed at a little bit of ground and in essence said he’s someplace in there. But somewhere wasn’t superior ample for me. I wanted to know where by just is he?”

She attained out to Maguire for help in 2014.

One of the little one graves in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Eire, on Feb. 16.Charles McQuillan / for NBC News

Very similar thoughts gnawed at Arlene Simmons, whose next baby was born critically ill on Feb. 1, 1978.

5 torturous times of clinical therapy followed. Right after sooner or later remaining persuaded to go property for some relaxation, Simmons woke up at 3:40 a.m. on Feb. 6 with an dreadful emotion of certainty.

“I phoned the clinic, and I stated, ‘He’s died.’ I understood the exact minute that he died,” she stated. “They claimed sure, he experienced died.”

In the preliminary stages of grief, Simmons stated she agreed to the hospital’s suggestion that she allow it bury her little one. Later on, having said that, she regretted not figuring out where her son was buried.

“As the decades followed — his birthday, the anniversary of his loss of life, Xmas — you had nowhere to go to form of recall,” Simmons claimed. “Every January and February I took a substantial downer simply because I felt I’d failed him.”

Maguire experienced warned Simmons that the chances of obtaining her son’s burial plot ended up compact. “She mentioned to me, ‘Don’t be elevating your hopes,’” Simmons stated.

For Kathleen Chambers, 57 several years experienced passed given that she’d experienced the heartache of dropping her to start with youngster. Now living in England, she observed Maguire remaining interviewed on Television set and managed to link with her through a good friend in Belfast.

Talking to Maguire by cellular phone, she recounted the specifics of what had transpired additional than 50 % a century prior to. In just months, Maguire experienced identified the web site where by Jim Chambers had handed more than his baby son.


With countless numbers of young children buried in Milltown Cemetery and other web sites, there is a limit to how considerably Maguire can do. Even however she has been pursuing this operate for several years, she’s recognized only a portion of the burial web sites that exist. Many households are still ready to see what she could possibly uncover.

But for the households she has been capable to provide solutions to, the feeling of aid and closure is enormous.

“I was permitted to grieve,” Kathleen Chambers stated of the moment Maguire confirmed her where her son lay.

Gerard Joseph Chambers lies in the center of the 5.9 acres of ground that the Milltown Cemetery trustees had to begin with offered off in 2008. A coronary heart-formed headstone carries his title.

Of the pain, Kathleen Chambers said: “It’ll hardly ever close as considerably as I’m worried, but at minimum we ended up capable to go and basically say we had a son and this is where by he was. … I’ll owe Toni a financial debt for the relaxation of my existence.”

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, major brother to Fionnuala Boyle, died of bronchial pneumonia at 7 months, owning been in the treatment of a mother and newborn home.

His burial floor lies about 100 yards absent from that of Gerard Joseph Chambers, in the cemetery’s northeast corner.

“It has introduced me so a lot convenience,” Boyle mentioned. “I know he’s there and I can go there and I can get a lot of peace from being aware of I have frequented him.”

Throughout the Falls Road, Robert Simmons is buried beneath a birch tree shut to the top rated of Belfast Metropolis Cemetery, exactly where the floor slopes up towards the Black Mountain that overlooks the metropolis.

It took Arlene Simmons many several years to summon up the strength to pay a visit to the web page. But, she reported, “I was truly able to mend from that stage on.”

And although Maguire’s challenge commenced as a nearby just one, it has since develop into international in scope. She is now obtaining inquiries from the United States, Canada, Australia and continental Europe, as term of her do the job has traveled through the Irish diaspora.

“All individuals really want to do is locate their spouse and children,” Maguire reported. “It’s like getting a lost boy or girl. You can not settle until you know wherever they are.”

Resource backlink