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Queen’s research finds that belief in ‘limbo’ has declined throughout the decades

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

Liam Kennedy - whatever happened to limbo?

The study was led by Professor Liam Kennedy, Emeritus Professor in Economic History from the Institute for Irish Studies at Queen’s University who conducted a survey questionnaire with 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.

26 women in total, 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 within 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.”

The 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 our 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’.

Another respondent said they felt that radio and television presenter, Gay Byrne also played a role in liberalising attitudes, and so changed people’s views and beliefs on 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’.”

To read the full report please click Whatever Happened to Limbo? - Liam Kennedy

To find out more about the study click here