Archaeologist works to identify unmarked mass graves

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Jim Chambers will always remember the splash the field containing his stillborn child made when it hit the mud. It was March 1957, and whereas his spouse, Kathleen, lay within the hospital recovering from a traumatic labor, Jim and his father-in-law had taken his son to be buried. When he arrived on the bathroom on the backside of Milltown Cemetery, a gravedigger took the field from him and threw it into a big pit, then carried on digging.

Finding the grave later would show unimaginable.

“We didn’t know where to look,” Kathleen Chambers mentioned. “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’ baby was considered one of 1000’s of youngsters buried in unmarked mass graves in Milltown Cemetery from the early twentieth century to the Nineteen Nineties. Some had been stillborn, and a few had died shortly after delivery. Others died in a few of Ireland’s now notorious mother and baby homes, the place pregnant, single girls had been hidden away to keep away from scandal.

The graves are a legacy of a time in Ireland when poverty and strict Roman Catholic teachings meant attitudes towards toddler mortality had been hardened. But the six acres of sentimental floor holding these youngsters have now come to symbolize the burden of 1000’s of people that have been dwelling with anguished uncertainty concerning the final resting place of their family members.

One of the infant 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 supply solutions, the identical course of has been slower in Northern Ireland due to decades of political violence and the persevering with instability of the local government. An investigation into mom and child properties in Northern Ireland was lastly promised in January. But as a substitute of ready for an official inquiry, many individuals have taken it upon themselves to discover solutions.

They’ve been aided of their quest by one girl: Toni Maguire, a forensic archaeologist who has made it her mission to analysis the unmarked graves in Milltown Cemetery and different websites in Northern Ireland and find the stays of youngsters who had been buried after which forgotten by everybody besides their household. Her work has given a whole lot of households what lots of the bereaved take as a right: a spot, a patch of earth the place they know their family members relaxation.

‘It’s my job to find you’

Born in Belfast to the daughter of a religious Catholic mom and a Catholic father who was a nuclear engineer, Maguire was introduced up to quietly respect the church but additionally 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 mentioned. “You would not do it, ever.”

While learning for a level in archaeology at Queen’s University Belfast within the early 2000s, Maguire, now 66, spent a number of years working to identify unregistered websites all through Northern Ireland the place stillborn youngsters had been secretly buried. These websites have a reputation in Irish: cillini, which implies “little church.”

Because the Catholic Church promulgated the idea {that a} baby who died unbaptized couldn’t be buried in consecrated floor, lay folks determined for his or her youngsters to be correctly laid to relaxation would discover their very own websites of significance. These websites is likely to be as shut to consecrated floor as doable, or someplace with sacred qualities in accordance to Irish custom, akin to below a hawthorn tree.

Maguire had her personal causes for being notably within the cillini. While anticipating her first baby, she had a miscarriage. A second being pregnant with twins additionally resulted in miscarriage.

When her professor requested her to undertake a venture discovering the cillini in County Antrim, “it just struck a chord with me,” she mentioned. Up to then, 11 such websites had been recorded. Within months she had discovered 97.

“You nearly feel like a surrogate mother,” Maguire mentioned 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 historical past mirrors that of the town that surrounds it, and elements of Belfast’s previous may be learn in its 1000’s of tombstones. Soldiers who died combating for Britain on this planet wars lie close to Irish republicans who took up arms in opposition to British rule. Victims of the 1918 Spanish flu are there, in addition to victims of Northern Ireland’s outbreaks of political violence.

Controversy erupted in 2008, nevertheless, when it was revealed that cemetery trustees had bought off the land containing the unmarked mass graves. The Diocese of Down and Connor, which owns the cemetery, mentioned the sale was a mistake, apologized and organized for an archaeological research of the bottom to uncover the extent of the burials. Eventually the land containing the graves was purchased again.

Maguire was given entry to the cemetery on the finish of that December. Until then her work had concerned finding websites the place maybe one or two infants had been buried. Now she confronted the problem of making an attempt to map out burial plots that contained 1000’s of stays. However, she shortly discovered the proper 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 within the working-class neighborhood of Carrick Hill in north Belfast, the son of a dock employee on the metropolis’s famed shipyards.

“It was two rooms, no gas, no electric,” he mentioned. “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 baby, he bought a job by way of 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 infants from the hospitals and different establishments had been 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 mentioned.

“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 within the cemetery’s bathroom measured 9 by 4.5 toes, and a single one may maintain a whole lot of stays. Partly from reminiscence, and partly from analyzing the bottom with a educated eye, Skelly may discover these unmarked graves. In 2009 he started serving to Maguire just do that.

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By this level Maguire was usually spending six days per week on the Milltown Cemetery, in between finishing her Master’s diploma in anthropology. She had turn out to be identified locally as somebody who was dedicated to figuring out cillini and was already receiving a gradual move of requests for data from native residents.

Every request takes Maguire on a paper path by way of delivery and loss of life certificates, burial information and archives from mom and child properties or different establishments.

If Maguire can discover a identify, she will be able to usually hint it to a baby’s burial place utilizing maps of graveyard plots, a few of which she has drawn up herself with Skelly.

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

Each request Maguire receives, nevertheless, brings to mild a person tragedy from the previous.

‘Don’t be raising your hopes’

Fionnuala Boyle was born in Belfast in 1975 to a mom being stored in a mom and child dwelling. A judicial fee of investigation within the Republic of Ireland discovered “appalling” charges of toddler mortality at such properties.

Adopted at 15 weeks, Fionnuala was raised in rural County Tyrone by dad and mom who lavished her with love, whereas all the time being open about the truth that she was adopted and had an older sibling. As an grownup she travelled to the City Hospital in Belfast to request a delivery certificates for her brother. She was additionally offered along with his loss of life certificates.

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 mentioned.

Further inquiries prompt that her brother was buried at Milltown Cemetery, however no one knew the place.

“I had no clue about how to find out anything more,” she mentioned. “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 assist in 2014.

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

Similar questions gnawed at Arlene Simmons, whose second baby was born significantly unwell on Feb. 1, 1978.

Five torturous days of medical remedy adopted. After finally being persuaded to go dwelling for some relaxation, Simmons awoke at 3:40 a.m. on Feb. 6 with an terrible feeling of certainty.

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

In the preliminary phases of grief, Simmons mentioned she agreed to the hospital’s suggestion that she let it bury her baby. Later, nevertheless, she regretted not figuring out the place 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 mentioned. “Every January and February I took a massive downer because I felt I’d failed him.”

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

For Kathleen Chambers, 57 years had handed since she’d suffered the heartache of shedding her first baby. Now dwelling in England, she noticed Maguire being interviewed on TV and managed to join along with her by way of a pal in Belfast.

Speaking to Maguire by telephone, she recounted the small print of what had occurred greater than half a century earlier than. Within weeks, Maguire had discovered the location the place Jim Chambers had handed over his child son.


With 1000’s of youngsters buried in Milltown Cemetery and different websites, there’s a restrict to how a lot Maguire can do. Even although she has been pursuing this work for years, she’s recognized solely a fraction of the burial websites that exist. Many households are nonetheless ready to see what she may uncover.

But for the households she has been ready to present solutions to, the sense of reduction and closure is gigantic.

“I was allowed to grieve,” Kathleen Chambers mentioned of the second Maguire confirmed her the place her son lay.

Gerard Joseph Chambers lies in the midst of the 5.9 acres of floor that the Milltown Cemetery trustees had initially bought off in 2008. A heart-shaped gravestone carries his identify.

Of the ache, Kathleen Chambers mentioned: “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, large brother to Fionnuala Boyle, died of bronchial pneumonia at 7 months, having been within the care of a mom and child dwelling.

His burial floor lies about 100 yards away from that of Gerard Joseph Chambers, within the cemetery’s northeast nook.

“It has brought me so much comfort,” Boyle mentioned. “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 shut to the highest of Belfast City Cemetery, the place the bottom slopes up towards the Black Mountain that overlooks the town.

It took Arlene Simmons a number of years to summon up the power to go to the location. But, she mentioned, “I was actually able to heal from that stage on.”

And whereas Maguire’s venture started as an area one, it has since turn out to be worldwide in scope. She is now receiving inquiries from the United States, Canada, Australia and continental Europe, as phrase of her work has traveled by way of the Irish diaspora.

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

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