Hilary Fannin: Shame among the graves at Letterfrack

In one row, four brothers are buried side by side, their deaths occurring at two-year intervals

The former industrial school at Letterfrack, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

The former industrial school at Letterfrack, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

‘Unfortunately you’ve missed the harpist,” said the proprietor, a neat woman with blueing hair and yellowing pearls, her diminutive frame replete with the whisper of a dowager’s hump. She moved among the diners, welcoming new guests, greeting her regulars. The room was almost entirely populated by middle-aged couples, comfortable men in well-ironed shirts, ladies with gnarled toes in silver sandals, their rings stacked up on freckled fingers, painted nails carefully breaking open their mussel shells.

We had driven across bog roads in a mad, swirling mist that obliterated our surroundings so completely it felt like we had passed into another world, another stratosphere. In minutes, mountains were felled by fog and the entire landscape subsumed in a sea of drizzle and cloud. We drove on through ever-increasing whiteness, carelessly mislaying the wavy signage that heralded the Wild Atlantic Way. We motored past swirly horned rams and absurdly delicate black-stockinged sheep, their woollen coats daubed in electric-blue ink, tottering around the rocks like mildly embarrassed drunks.

The rain was so dense it was as if it was falling behind our eyes, falling into our craniums, saturating memory.

“I thought it was summer,” said my companion from behind the wheel, his words whipped sideways by the sweep of the hysterical windscreen wipers.

“It is,” I replied. “I checked my phone this morning. It definitely said it was July.”

Donkeys braying
I remember summers in the west of Ireland when I was a child, my mother and I travelling from Dublin with her musical friends, all of us packed into the back of a red Hillman Hunter. We stayed in a guesthouse near Letterfrack, with a turf basket next to the grate and donkeys braying in the field. The family who owned the house had a little girl called Breda, and for months after our visits we would write to each other, Breda and I, on pink writing paper, diligently printing our addresses with our fountain pens.

“Dear Breda, I hope you are well and that the donkeys are in a good mood.”

I remember the Coral Strand and Dog’s Bay and eating ham rolls on Mannin Bay, and the spectral beauty of Kylemore Abbey. I think I remember sunshine.

It felt like we had been driving for a long time when we came across the hotel. (The car certainly needed a cup of tea and a lie-down.) We had taken the scenic route from Oughterard (via Ulan Bator) and I was ready to eat the upholstery. We were just short of boiling up the huskies to make hot, beefy Bovril when the hotel rose out of the mist. We pulled in and parked under sopping rhododendrons.

We ate in the dignified, arthritic diningroom beside the ruched curtains, whispered to one another over the antique salt cellar, the faded mats under our plates making a backdrop of dead grouse. Celestial harpist or not, it all felt dreamlike, soporific, ancient.

Later, in our rented cottage, we slept. I dreamed that I reached out to touch the proprietor of the time-worn, elegant hotel and that she disintegrated under my fingers.

We woke the next day to sun and damp grass and mountains unspooling from under clouds and a pool of sea in the distance and two white horses tinkering around the hedgerows wondering if the city folk in the dirty car had fluorescent green apples they would like to part with from their plastic bags of groceries.

We walked that afternoon up to the restored St Joseph’s Industrial School graveyard in Letterfrack, which commemorates 78 named children, the vast majority of whom died in the former Christian Brothers institution nearby.

We paced among the neat rows of marble hearts, pausing to read their inscriptions: “In Memory of John Sweetman, Died as a Young Boy.” In another row, four brothers are buried side by side, their deaths occurring at two-year intervals. I stood in front of them, wondering what metronomic savagery or act of an indifferent god led them to their deaths.

Dark hollows
St Joseph’s remained open until 1974, exactly the same year that privileged little me was eating my ham roll on Mannin Bay, filling my sand-bucket with pink coral, picking sea-urchin shells off the shore and peering into their dark hollows.

I looked at the toy cars and faded teddy bears that had been left for these dead boys at the graveyard, many on a plinth that holds a plaster virgin, and I felt so ashamed. It is a haunting place, a sombre place, a place of pilgrimage that no healing mist should obliterate from our collective memory.

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