From the 7th Century, through the Middle Ages and continuing to the late 20th Century, unbaptised children were rarely buried in consecrated ground.
Denied access to the graveyard, they were buried in cillíní instead. These remote places were aligned with boundaries in the landscape, on the edges of townlands, at the bottom of cliffs, along the coastline at the sea or the edges of lakes. The locations are thresholds themselves, perched between two different spaces, and evoke a sense of looking back in time. Indeed, they are often sited within prehistoric sites, within ancient stone circles or by standing stones. Sometimes they were in early medieval enclosures, cashels or ringforts that had fallen out of use. These unofficial graveyards form a part of the Irish landscape, numbering several thousand across Ireland.
The babies were buried in the dark. The day the infant died the father would take the body from the home and journey on their own to the cillín which could be some distance away. They would then bury the infant between nightfall and dawn. These are bleak places. The level of neglect, the erasure, all echo the exclusion from communal ritual. Such a hard place at the end of what must have been a dreadful day, it was still a site where a solitary man gave care to a newly dead infant, a form of ritual in an ancient place.
Cillíní cover the countryside. The documented sites are numerous in certain counties, for example Galway has 476, but Sligo lists merely 22. A good deal are undocumented and are only known locally. Sligo has two additional cillíní, that are beyond the official register, near Rosses Point and beside Strandhill.
The locations vary, some being quite remote, deep in forests or high on hills, others situated within fields or just outside official graveyards. This body of work forms both the outcome of a period of research and an evolution of his prior work which focused on death, landscape and the making of art. Tommy Weir’s practice, partly performative, recreates the nighttime journeys these fathers made through the making of these images, and opens up for discussion the cultural and social structures which have enabled this very particular Irish phenomenon.
Weir collaborates with two writers, Una Mannion and Marion Dowd, in ways which amplify and deepen this work. Una Mannion is a poet and writer based in Sligo and Marion Dowd is a leading archaeologist. Weir is interested in situating the images, perhaps photography itself, between the discourses of science and poetry. Una Mannion has guided him to cillíní she is familiar with around Sligo. Her first published poem, Crouched Burial, was inspired by the discovery of an ancient skeleton on her own land, a small girl with a blue gem as an earring. Marion Dowd has guided Weir on relevant research and papers in archaeology and the Irish relationship to death and ritual over the centuries.
His process involves a good deal of preparatory research online using not only archaeological websites but also various mapping and photographic resources to determine good locations and key information relating to the sites, from history to access and ownership. ‘But nothing fully prepares you for the initial site visits, recce walks and shoots, and then the subsequent night time shoots over a period of days. Conditions must be right, nightfall, no rain, little wind, lighting, framing. These are a solitary experience and quite meditative and considered. I repeat them as needed, weather conditions and other factors having their impact. ‘
Cillín opened in Autumn 2019 the RHA Gallery in Dublin prior to touring to The Dock and Uillinn in Skibbereen.
Tommy Weir is a photographer based North West of Ireland. Originally from Dublin, he worked for many years in New York. The landscape around where he lives is rich in personal and social history. The relationship with the land is complex here, not only for artists but for anyone who ventures across it.
Over the course of his career he has worked through various forms of creative media, from visual arts through publishing and design, theatre and film, to software and back again. Weir has had various roles in that journey, from curator through creative producer to artist, working on both sides of the Atlantic.
Weir lectures in photography and film in the Yeats Academy of Arts, Design and Architecture at IT Sligo.
This exhibition was organised by the RHA, touring to The Dock, Carrick on Shannon and to Uillinn, West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, 7th November to 16th December 2020. Kindly supported through the Arts Council of Ireland‘s Touring and Dissemination of Work Scheme.
Image: Cillín, Ballydawley, Sligo, 2018, Tommy Weir, Pigment print on Hahnemuehle Rag, 110 x 81.5cm, Image courtesy of the artist.