When Roman Christianity invaded Ireland, a shameful Irish custom began, and continued until the 1960s. It was decreed that no unbaptised child or individual could be buried in consecrated ground. This was a concept used by theologians in an effort to compel individuals to be baptised into the Catholic faith.
Most unbaptised children, as well as victims of murder, disease or suicide, were buried in a lisheen. One such lisheen lies in the Ower countryside of County Galway, on the Black River. It is atop an ancient ring fort, which is now an overgrown forest. To previous generations, this would have been a ‘faerie fort,’ a landscape haunted by the fey. A place in between worlds, much like the ‘Limbo,’ unbaptised babies would be resigned to. To reach the lisheen, you have to traverse around briars and prickly hawthorne trees. In the springtime, the ground in this forest is covered in beautiful white wild garlic flowers. Always there is an air of extreme peacefulness here—an almost eerie calm—occasionally punctuated by the fluting of birds in the trees overhead and the rush of the river far below.
The land slopes down into the forest and the ground is covered in tumbled, moss-covered stones. Headstones.
Back when most babies were born at home and infant mortality was high, parents suffered unbearable grief and anguish, believing that their child would never get to heaven or they’d never see their unbaptised loved ones again. Standing in this forest, it’s easy to imagine a father burdened with the task of bringing a baby here, probably under cover of darkness, and laying the tiny creature in a shallow grave without a wake, or any support from neighbours.
In the centre of this forest is a large rectangular mound of stones which it is said was once an altar where the local Franciscan monks said mass during the time of the Cromwell invasion.
The Ower lisheen, like most of the Irish landscape, is fertile both agriculturally and emotionally . . . a place where stories seem to come up out of the ground, grab you by the ankle, and demand, ‘Write me!’