Doolough Cillin, Geesala in Co. Mayo

The Cillin, an old burial ground, is situated in Doolough beside a stretch of golden strand similar to what you would find anywhere along our coast. For many years people cut the marram grass in summer to mix with straw when thatching their humble dwellings, until eventually the banks were left bare. Gradually the sand was blown away and many skeletons lay exposed and scattered on the surface.

When, about sixty years ago, it became evident that the burial ground was in danger of being submerged, a very successful campaign was organised by local people to have the area re-planted with fresh marram cuttings. The exposed bones and were collected and buried in the Glencastle cemetery. Unfortunately, it was discovered afterwards that the grave had been opened and the bones removed.

In the meantime, more bones had appeared in the Cillin, leading the more superstitious of the community to believe that the dead had returned to their original resting place! The matter does not appear to have been investigated, but it was generally believed that some enterprising medical students carried out the second removal. However, the new crop of marram flourished, the sand dunes piled up again and the dead lie safely hidden from wind and wave.

Strangely enough, even though their were marvellous story tellers in the village, native Irish speakers, fairy tales, ghost stories, accounts of journeys to Scotland and England, of accidents and tragedies at sea abound, very little has been spoken of the famine. Perhaps their reticence is due to a sense of pride that has always made the Irish reluctant to admit or acknowledge their poverty.

Most of them would have chosen to go hungry rather than apply for the meagre help available from the relieving officers, as they were called in the past, and those who did apply went to great lengths to hide the fact from their neighbours. People who remembered the tragedy were possibly so traumatised by what they heard, that they had to erase it from their memories in order to survive.

We shall never know how many adults and children lie buried beneath the sands of the Cillin nor how long it remained in use as a burial site. Were the sand dunes chosen because grave digging would have been less laborious there than on hard soil or had the place some special significance? O'Duinnin defines Cillin as a little church, a small cell or a churchyard set apart for infants. It might well have served all these purposes for all we know. The parish graveyard at that time was eight or nine miles away at Kiltane.

It is recorded in the Doolough folklore collection, that two young men Eibhear Barrett and Sean Tony O'Donoghue were appointed to bury the dead and that their task often included the burial of bodies that had been washed ashore. What tragic and harrowing experiences must have remained etched on their memories for the rest of their lives!

We have come a long way during those one hundred and fifty years. Thatched cabins have disappeared and have been replaced by modern, spacious, comfortable homes, equipped with electric power and running water. Sadly, some of these houses are becoming vacant due to emigration, migration and lack of employment.

The Great Famine was the ultimate degradation of an impoverished suppressed people. The Cillin is a stark reminder of how disaster can suddenly strike and bring a people to the verge of despair.

In 1991 a committee was formed in the Doolough village in order to commemorate the closing of the Doolough school in the year of 1966. A monument was erected on the site of the Cillin so that it would not be forgotten.

Article by by Mary Togher

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