Development & Alumni Relations Office 


9 November 2018

A research study from Queen’s Institute for Irish Studies has found that the belief in ‘limbo’ has declined throughout the decades in Ireland due to the changing beliefs and values of the nation.

The study was led by the Institute’s Professor Liam Kennedy, Emeritus Professor in Economic History who conducted a survey questionnaire with the ICA – the Irish Countrywomen’s Association.

In Ireland, understandings of limbo were handed down by parents, schoolteachers, priests and nuns, drawing on the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Professor Kennedy said: “The term ‘limbo’ does not appear in the Bible or the New Testament. It seems the concept was developed over time by Christians to handle two problems: one was the fate of those who led just lives and who died before Christ came on earth to redeem humankind; the other was the fate of unbaptised babies in the event of death.”

“Children growing up in the Ireland of the 1950s will have a clear remembrance of a metaphysical space or the place known as limbo. For Catholics, though not Irish Protestants, this formed part of a spiritual cosmos which viewed Heaven and Hell as opposite poles, with Purgatory and limbo occupying rather vaguely defined intermediate positions.

“But limbo appears to have disappeared off the spiritual map,” Professor Kennedy explained.

Twenty-six women, including 23 from the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, took part in a questionnaire which was carried out in 2017. The women varied in ages, with birth dates ranging from the 1930s – 1960s and represented all four provinces on the island of Ireland.

“From the study, the decline in the belief of limbo was suggested to be due to the changing beliefs and values of the Church laity. Respondents in the study also said that the teaching authority of the Catholic Church – in other words the clerical hierarchy – was the source of change.”

Additional key findings on the decline in the belief of limbo include:

  • More people [were] less accepting of Church/Catholic myths
  • Young people became more educated and began to question stuff that did not make sense to them. They were no longer afraid of the ‘fire and brimstone’ that previous generations were afraid to question
  • People think limbo is a ... cruel place and don’t think that children go there. They believe in a more merciful God and that children will go to Heaven directly
  • Because people didn’t ‘buy it’ anymore

Speaking about their own experience of Limbo, a respondent in the study said: “I was the eldest of ten children. But in 1954 I had a sister born named Marian (as it was Marian year in Ireland). She was born on a Saturday but died the next day.

“As was customary then my dad had to take her little body late at night well after dark to an old graveyard and on the perimeter of the graveyard. My dad had to bury her with no grave markings (an unknown grave). But at the time he made a little cross shape tied together with twine, made from two sticks and stuck them in the ground. Every year my dad used to take me to Marian’s grave to say a little prayer.”

Another respondent said they felt that RTÉ radio and television presenter, Gay Byrne played a role in liberalising attitudes, so changing views on and beliefs in limbo.

The study also looked at the transition from early to late baptism in the last fifty to sixty years within Irish society.

The movement towards late baptism meant that the mother, who was rarely at the baptism ceremony, was present at the joyous moment of introducing the infant into her community of faith, an occasion enhanced by the presence of friends, relatives and loved ones.

Previously she would not have been present as the baptism was so soon after birth, and she would have been recovering.

Professor Kennedy concluded: “The survey was primarily concerned with belief in limbo and its subsequent demise, as seen from the viewpoint of women.

“As the decades have gone by, belief in limbo has completely declined. So much so that in this present day hardly any of those born in the new millennium will have the slightest notion of what limbo was (or is), other than as a colloquial expression for being in some indeterminate mood or situation, as for example in the feeling of being ‘in limbo’.”

Download the full report Whatever Happened to Limbo? - Liam Kennedy on the departmental website.  

General enquiries about this news story to Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen’s University Belfast, tel: +44 (0)28 9097 5321.


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