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Northern Ireland’s hidden history: Archaeologist works to identify unmarked mass graves

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Jim Chambers will never forget the splash the box containing his stillborn baby made when it hit the mud. It was March 1957, and while his wife, Kathleen, lay in the hospital recovering from a traumatic labor, Jim and his father-in-law had taken his son to be buried. When he arrived at the bog at the bottom of Milltown Cemetery, a gravedigger took the box from him and threw it into a large pit, then carried on digging.

Finding the grave later would prove impossible.

“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 ‘You’re a young woman, you’ll have more babies.’”

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

The graves are a legacy of a time in Ireland when poverty and strict Roman Catholic teachings meant attitudes toward infant mortality were hardened. But the six acres of soft ground holding these children have now come to symbolize the burden of thousands of people who have been living with anguished uncertainty about the last resting place of their loved ones.

One of the baby graves in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Feb. 16.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 continuing instability of the local government. An investigation into mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland was finally promised in January. But instead of waiting for an official inquiry, many people have taken it upon themselves to find answers.

They’ve been aided in their quest by one woman: Toni Maguire, a forensic archaeologist who has made it her mission to research the unmarked graves in Milltown Cemetery and other sites in Northern Ireland and locate the remains of children who were buried and then forgotten by everyone except their family. Her work has given hundreds of families what many of the bereaved take for granted: a spot, a patch of earth where they know their loved ones rest.

‘It’s my job to find 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 remember growing up, oh my god, the thought of challenging anything a priest or a nun said was like challenging Christ himself,” she said. “You would not do it, ever.”

While studying for a degree in archaeology at Queen’s University Belfast in the early 2000s, Maguire, now 66, spent several years working to identify unregistered sites throughout Northern Ireland where stillborn children had been secretly buried. These sites have a name in Irish: cillini, which means “little church.”

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Because the Catholic Church promulgated 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 sites of significance. These sites might be as close to consecrated ground as possible, or somewhere with sacred qualities according to Irish tradition, such as under a hawthorn tree.

Maguire had her own reasons for being particularly interested in the cillini. While expecting her first child, she had a miscarriage. A second pregnancy with twins also ended in miscarriage.

When her professor asked her to undertake a project finding the cillini in County Antrim, “it just struck a chord with me,” she said. Up to then, 11 such sites had been recorded. Within months she had found 97.

“You nearly feel like a surrogate mother,” Maguire said of her work. “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

Milltown Cemetery’s storied history mirrors that of the city that surrounds it, and parts of Belfast’s past can be read in its thousands of tombstones. Soldiers who died fighting for Britain in the world wars lie near Irish republicans who took up arms against British rule. Victims of the 1918 Spanish flu are there, as well as victims of Northern Ireland’s outbreaks of political violence.

Controversy erupted in 2008, however, when it was revealed that cemetery trustees had sold 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 arranged for an archaeological study of the ground to discover the extent of the burials. Eventually the land containing the graves was bought back.

Maguire was given access to the cemetery at the end of that December. Until then her work had involved locating sites where perhaps one or two infants were buried. Now she faced the challenge of trying to map out burial plots that contained thousands of remains. However, she quickly found the perfect ally.

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

Dan Skelly was raised in the working-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 said. “We used to have to cook on the fire. It was rooms to let, and at that time there were 18 of us living in two rooms.”

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

“At that time some of the undertakers used to collect the babies out of the morgues, bring them up in shoeboxes, cardboard boxes. Some of them had coffins, some didn’t,” he said.

“If a parent came, they’d bring the parent down and let them see the child getting 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 bog measured 9 by 4.5 feet, and a single one could 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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By this point Maguire was often spending six days a week at the Milltown Cemetery, in between completing her Master’s degree in anthropology. She had become known in the community as someone who was committed to identifying cillini and was already receiving a steady flow of requests for information from local residents.

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

If Maguire can find a name, she can often trace it to a child’s burial place using maps of graveyard plots, some of which she has drawn up herself with Skelly.

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

Each request Maguire receives, however, brings to light an individual tragedy from the past.

‘Don’t be raising your hopes’

Fionnuala Boyle was born in Belfast in 1975 to a mother being kept in a mother and baby home. A judicial commission of investigation in the Republic of Ireland found “appalling” rates of infant mortality at such homes.

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

The revelation was a shock.

“I’d say it was another two years before I actually got the courage up to go back to see what had happened to him,” Boyle said.

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

“I had no clue about how to find out anything more,” she said. “Whenever I initially had gone to the office they had sort of pointed at a bit of ground and basically said he’s somewhere in there. But somewhere wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to know where exactly is he?”

She reached out to Maguire for help in 2014.

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

Similar questions gnawed at Arlene Simmons, whose second child was born seriously ill on Feb. 1, 1978.

Five torturous days of medical treatment followed. After eventually being persuaded to go home for some rest, Simmons woke up at 3:40 a.m. on Feb. 6 with an awful feeling of certainty.

“I phoned the hospital, and I said, ‘He’s died.’ I knew the exact moment that he died,” she said. “They said yes, he had died.”

In the initial stages of grief, Simmons said she agreed to the hospital’s suggestion that she let it bury her child. Later, however, she regretted not knowing where her son was buried.

“As the years followed — his birthday, the anniversary of his death, Christmas — you had nowhere to go to sort of remember,” Simmons said. “Every January and February I took a massive downer because I felt I’d failed him.”

Maguire had warned Simmons that the chances of finding her son’s burial plot were small. “She said to me, ‘Don’t be raising your hopes,’” Simmons said.

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

Speaking to Maguire by phone, she recounted the details of what had happened more than half a century before. Within weeks, Maguire had found the site where Jim Chambers had handed over his baby son.

Closure

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 pursuing this work for years, she’s identified only a fraction of the burial sites that exist. Many families are still waiting to see what she might uncover.

But for the families she has been able to provide answers to, the sense of relief and closure is enormous.

“I was allowed to grieve,” Kathleen Chambers said of the moment Maguire showed her where her son lay.

Gerard Joseph Chambers lies in the middle of the 5.9 acres of ground that the Milltown Cemetery trustees had initially sold off in 2008. A heart-shaped headstone carries his name.

Of the pain, Kathleen Chambers said: “It’ll never close as far as I’m concerned, but at least we were able to go and actually say we had a son and this is where he was. … I’ll owe Toni a debt for the rest of my life.”

Archaeologist Toni Maguire pictured alongside Dan Skelly in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Feb. 16.Charles McQuillan / for NBC News

Paul Vincent O’Hanlon, big brother to Fionnuala Boyle, died of bronchial pneumonia at 7 months, having been in the care of a mother and baby home.

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

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

Across the Falls Road, Robert Simmons is buried beneath a birch tree close to the top of Belfast City Cemetery, where the ground slopes up toward the Black Mountain that overlooks the city.

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

And while Maguire’s project began as a local one, it has since become 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 the Irish diaspora.

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

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