Oileán na Marbh


OILEÁN NA Marbh in Co Donegal tells us much about ourselves and about a society that allowed religion to dictate in the intimate sphere, that suppressed rather than enhanced, that categorised levels of spiritual worthiness and sniffed at those outside the orthodox strait-jacket. Times past, no doubt, but the remnants still linger in the failure of some churchmen to fully take on board the sexual cruelties that were visited on many vulnerable children.

Few will feel proud of a theology that demanded stillborn and unbaptised babies should be laid to rest outside of consecrated ground. Even the coldest heart will feel for women around Ireland who were enjoined to grieve silently as their babies were taken away at night for burial beside a cemetery wall, or for the disconsolate father who had to walk across to Oileán na Marbh at low tide to lay his child to rest.

Séamus Peter Boyle, a founding campaigner to have a plaque erected in honour of the island’s dead, expressed it poignantly. They had all watched the mothers and fathers on the beaches and the pier over the years, some going to the island alone and “we knew but it was never really spoken about”. The 200 people who gathered on this rocky Carrickfinn island last week were there to speak about it, and to honour the 500 babies interred on the island between the Great Famine and 1912 and the immeasurable suffering of their parents. They were there not only on behalf of the island’s dead, but also in a sense for those buried in more than 1,200 known burial sites around the country. They were there to demonstrate that, as Mr Boyle said, “things have changed”.

There is now more sensitivity in how we deal with death generally. Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin has been responding to issues raised by parents about the Angels areas. A Little Lifetime Foundation has continued to comfort, inform and support many couples who have endured stillbirth and neonatal deaths. The Irish Hospice Foundation, through the Forum on End of Life, its Hospice Friendly Hospitals Programme and the Final Journeys project, has brought a professional and compassionate focus to end-of-life issues. The funeral business is tailoring its sometimes costly services to meet changing needs, among them the increasing desire for non-religious funerals, cremation, and a reduction in removals. The regulation of this sector is vital and could be organised at little cost. Like the Oileán na Marbh commemoration, it would enhance the Irish way of doing death.