Archaeologist works to identify unmarked mass graves


Belfast, Northern Ireland – Jim Chambers will never forget the box his stillborn child had when he hit the mud. It was March 1957, and when his wife Kathleen was brought to the hospital to recover from a painful labor, Jim and his father-in-law buried their son. When he arrived at the swamp at the bottom of Milltown Cemetery, a gravelman took the box from him and threw it into a large pit, then dug.

It would later prove impossible to find the grave.

“We didn’t know where to look,” Kathleen Chambers said. “There was no marker, nothing, and nobody talked about it.” When I tried to talk about it, it was pushed aside. I was told that ‘you are a young woman, you will have more children’. ‘

Chambers’ child was one of thousands of children buried in unmarked mass graves in Milltown Cemetery from the early 20th century to the early 1990s. Some were stable, and some died shortly after birth. Some died in some of Ireland’s notorious mother and baby homes, where pregnant, unmarried women were holed up to escape the scandal.

The tombs are a legacy of a time in Ireland when poverty and strict Roman Catholic teachings meant that attitudes toward infant mortality had hardened. But the six acres of soft land holding these children has now become a symbol of the burden of thousands of people who are living with anguish and uncertainty about the last resting place of their loved ones.

On 16 February there is a child’s grave in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Ireland.For Charles McCilllan / NBC News

While the Republic of Ireland has made efforts to trust and provide answers with this past, the same process has been slow for decades in Northern Ireland due to political violence and the continued instability of local government. The investigation into mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland was finally promised in January. But instead of waiting for an official investigation, many people have taken it upon themselves to find the answer.

They are aided in their search by a woman: Tony Maguire, a forensic archaeologist who researched her unmarked graves at Milltown Cemetery and other sites in Northern Ireland and found her mission to locate the remains of children buried. Has been made By all except his family. Their work has given hundreds of families who take many of the bereaved: a place, an earth where they know their loved ones.

‘My job is to find you’

Born in Belfast as the daughter of a staunch Catholic mother and a Catholic father who was a nuclear engineer, Maguire was brought to the church to honor her silently, but also symbolizes a spirit of irreverent inquiry.

“I remember that I could grow up, oh my God, the idea of ​​challenging anything a priest or nun had said was like challenging Christ himself.” “You’ll never do that.”

Studying for an archeology degree at Queen’s University Belfast in the early 2000s, the now 66-year-old maguire spent several years working to identify unregistered sites throughout Northern Ireland, where children are still being clandestinely Was buried. These sites have a name in Irish: cillini, meaning “small church.”

Because the Catholic Church revealed the belief that a child who died without death cannot be buried in the Holy Land, people are incited to comfort their children so that they can visit sites of their own importance To be able to These sites may be as close to the Holy Land as possible, or somewhere with sacred properties according to Irish tradition, such as under the hawthorn tree.

Maguire had his reasons for having a special interest in Silli. Expecting her first child, she had an abortion. A second pregnancy with twins also ended in miscarriage.

When her professor asked her to start a project to find Cilini in County Antrim, “it struck a chord with me,” she said. By then, 11 such sites had been recorded. Within months it had got 97.

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

Rough graves

The archived history of Milltown Ceremonies shows the part of the city that surrounds it, and parts of Belfast’s past can be read in its thousands of mausoleums. The soldiers fighting for Britain in World Wars lie near the Irish Republic who took up arms against British rule. The Spanish of 1918 are victims of the flu, as well as the outbreak of political violence in Northern Ireland.

Controversy erupted in 2008, however, when it was revealed that the cemetery trustees had sold the land, which contained unsolicited mass graves. The owner of the cemetery, Doycey of Down & Connor, said the sale was a mistake, apologized and arranged an archaeological study of the land to discover the extent of the burial. Eventually the graves land was bought back.

Maguire was given entry into the cemetery at the end of that December. Until then, his work included places where perhaps one or two infants were buried. He now faced the challenge of trying to map the buried plots that contained thousands of remains. However, he quickly found the right ally.

On March 16, at Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Ireland, former Milltown gravidiger Dan Skelly painted.For Charles McCilllan / NBC News

Dan Skelly was raised in the working-class neighborhood of Carrick Hill, North Belfast, the son of a dock worker at the city’s famous shipyard.

“It was two rooms, no gas, no electricity,” he said. “We had to cook on fire. It was the living room and at that time 18 of us were living in two rooms. “

Sent to work as a child, he got a job in 1971 through his brother-in-law digging graves at Milltown Cemetery. Skelly was 17 years old, and has since been a cemetery. He recalls how infants from hospitals and other institutions were buried unconditionally.

“At that time, some entrepreneurs used to take the children out of the morgue, bring them in showboxes, cardboard boxes. Some of them had coffins, some did not, ”he said.

“If a parent arrives, they bring the parent down and watch them bury the child, but other than that the showbox will be put on the back of the tractor, taken down and buried.”

The dug dug in the mausoleum of the cemetery measured 9 by 4.5 feet, and the same can hold hundreds of remains. Partly from memory, and partly from examining the ground with a trained eye, Skelly could find those unmarked graves. In 2009 he began helping Maguire do just that.

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From this point on, Maguire often spent six days a week in Milltown Cemetery, completing a master’s degree in anthropology. He became known in the community as someone who was committed to identifying Cilini and was already receiving a steady flow of requests for information from local residents.

Every request takes a magure on a paper trail through birth and death certificates, burial records and archives from mother and child homes or other institutions.

If Maguire can find a name, he can often locate the burial place of a child using maps of cemetery plots, some of which he has prepared himself with scaly.

Not every search is successful. Referring to one such case, he said, “It still bothers me that we cannot find that child.”

However, each request goes to Maguire, which evokes a personal tragedy from the past.

‘Do not raise your hopes’

Fionnuala Boyle was born in Belfast in 1975 to a mother and child home in the home of her mother. A judicial commission of inquiry in the Republic of Ireland “appreciated” the infant mortality rate in such households.

Adopted at 15 weeks, Fionnuala was reared in rural County Tiron by parents who had lovingly raised her, while always being open to the fact that she was adopted and had an older brother. As an adult she traveled to Belfast’s City Hospital to request a birth certificate for her brother. He was also presented with his death certificate.

The revelation was a shock.

“I would say it was another two years ago when I really dared to go back to see what had happened to him,” Boyle said.

Further inquiries revealed that his brother was buried in Milltown Cemetery, but no one knew where.

“I had no clue about how to find anything else,” she said. “Whenever I initially went to the office, he pointed to a little bit of ground and basically said that he was somewhere. But nowhere was it very good for me. I wanted to know where exactly that is? “

She reached out to Maguire for help in 2014.

On 16 February there is a child’s grave in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Ireland.For Charles McCilllan / NBC News

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

After the medical treatment lasted for five days. After finally agreeing to go home to get some rest, Simmons wakes up on February 3 at 6 am.

“I called in the hospital, and I said, ‘He’s dead.’ I knew the exact time of his death would be known. “He said yes, he had died.”

In the early stages of grief, Simmons stated that he agreed with the hospital’s suggestion that he let it bury his child. Later, however, she did not know where her son was buried.

“As the years followed – his birthday, his death anniversary, Christmas – you had nowhere to go to remember,” Simmons said. “Every January and February I faced a massive downfall because I felt that I would fail him.”

Maguire warned Simmons that his son’s chances of finding a burial plot were slim. “He said to me, ‘Don’t raise your expectations,” Simmons said.

For Kathleen Chambers, 57 years had passed since she suffered the pain of losing her first child. Now living in England, she saw Maguire was interviewed on TV and managed to connect with him through a friend in Belfast.

Talking over the phone to Maguire, he gave details of what had happened more than half a century ago. Within the week, Maguire had found the place where Jim Chambers had handed over his child.


With thousands of children buried in Milltown Cemetery and other sites, there is a limit to how much Maguire can do. Even though she has been carrying out this work for years, she is identified only with a fraction of the burial sites. Many families are still waiting to see what she can uncover.

But for the families he is able to respond to, the feeling of relief and closure is enormous.

Kathleen Chambers said the time Maguire showed her where her son lay.

Gérard Joseph Chambers is located in the middle of a 5.9-acre site that was initially sold in 2008 by Milltown Cemetery trustees. A heart-shaped headstone carries its name.

Regarding the pain, Kathleen Chambers said: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s never going to stop, but at least we were able to go and actually say we had a son and this was the place Where he was. … I’ll pay Tony a debt for the rest of my life. “

Archaeologist Tony Maguire painted with Dan Skelly at Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on 16 February.For Charles McCilllan / NBC News

Paul Vincent O’Hallan, Fionnuala Boyle’s older brother, died of bronchial pneumonia at 7 months, under the care of a mother and child at home.

His burial ground is about 100 yards from Gerard Joseph Chambers in the northeast corner of the cemetery.

“It has brought me a lot of comfort,” Boyle said. “I know he is there and I can go there and I can be very peaceful knowing that I have met him.”

Across the Falls Road, Robert Simmons is buried under a birch tree close to the top of Belfast City Cemetery, where the ground slopes towards the black mountain that overlooks the city.

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

And while Maguire’s project started as a local, it has since gone international in scope. She is now receiving inquiries from the United States, Canada, Australia and continental Europe, as word of her work has traveled through an Irish diaspora.

“All people really want to do is find their family,” Maguire said. “It’s like having a lost child. You can’t sort out until you know where they are. “


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