In the absence of archaeological evidence we can’t be sure when the Esker Children’s Burial Ground was first used for the interment of human remains, or, if the site was always reserved for children only. It is situated on an east-facing Esker ridge in the centre of the townland overlooking a running stream. The elevated site is off the beaten track and commands an unimpeded view of the rising sun. From time immemorial until the 1970s bonfires were lit on an adjacent hilltop overlooking the burial ground on St. John’s Eve to mark the summer solstice. The location may have been associated with ancient rituals and have topographical significance.
In Pre-Christian times it was common practice for children who died early on in their lives to be buried in a separate location from adults. The custom of burying the remains of children who died without baptism in unconsecrated burial grounds, or Cillíní, evolved in Christian times as theologians speculated about the destination of their souls before settling on Limbo. Those who died without baptism were excluded from a Christian burial and a full burial service wasn’t read over the remains. High infant mortality rates arising from inadequate antenatal and postnatal medical care exacerbated by recurring famines, epidemics and insufficient means resulted in a proliferation of such sites across the Irish countryside. In the parish of Glenamaddy Boyounagh alone six Children’s Burial Grounds have been identified in the townlands of Ballinastack, Ballinlass (Clooncon East), Clondoyle More, Eskeromullacaun (Esker), Middletown (Boyounagh More) and Scotland. Children from Lisheenaheltia, Woodfield and surrounding townlands were buried in Littlecashel Children’s Burial Ground (historically describes as ‘Castle’ in the adjoining parish of Dunmore). Nowadays a Christian funeral rite may be celebrated for a child who dies without baptism and whose parents intended their child to be baptised and burial arrangements are left to the parents and their pastor.
When a child died without baptised in the dim and distant past it was the accepted practice for male family members to inter the child’s remains in a designated Children’s Burial Ground between sunset and sunrise, away from public attention, and without ceremony. Superstitions surrounding the burial ritual varied from place to place. Burials weren’t publicly acknowledged and went unrecorded. Family privacy was respected and the sad events weren’t openly discussed in the community. Social stigma meant that grieving parents were often left to suffer in silence. Whereas burials in the Esker Children’s Burial Ground ceased many years ago the outdated practice is still fresh in the minds of the older generation. Local people can account for twenty children from the townland who were interred there since the 1870’s with the last known burial taking place in the 1940’s. A number of families buried more than one child in this location. No gravestone marked the final resting place of the unknown number of children who were laid to rest here down through the years.
In 1999, on the eve of the Millennium, residents of the townland erected a fence to protect the burial ground and define its boundaries. A cross was affixed to the entrance gate of the enclosure to signify the presence of a sacred place and on Sunday 24th October 1999 Very Rev. Michael Goaley P.P., Glenamaddy, celebrated Mass at the site in memory of all those who are buried there. [See Esker townland map for location]
Children’s Burial Grounds are registered with the National Monument Service and are entitled to statutory protection. The location of the Esker Children’s Burial Ground is published in the National Monuments Service website.
Author: Pat Keaveny