Priceless dignity rather than building frenzy


The remains of thousands of people disturbed by building works must be given the respect they are due, writes SARAH CAREY

ALMOST A year ago, I wrote about a graveyard discovered during the construction of the M4 motorway near Enfield in Co Westmeath. If you ever take the west-bound off-ramp at Enfield, you’ll be driving over a plot known locally as Scaruppa. In advance of the motorway works, archaeologists spent months exhuming bodies from two separate burial sites on the land.

The main cemetery had been in use from the 6th to the early 17th centuries and contained 399 bodies. To one side, a Cillín was discovered which told a sadder story. A Cillín was a burial place for unbaptised infants, traditionally barred from interment on consecrated ground. This Cillín was used from the 1800s, and the last of its 62 burials took place around 1920.

Although the main graveyard had not been used in living memory and no headstones marked its existence, the locals knew this was holy ground. If the babies could not be buried with God, the intention appeared to be that they could be buried near Him.

My mother arranged for a memorial stone to be erected, and it stands opposite the entrance to the Marriott Johnstown House Hotel. However, I got to wondering about the fate of the bodies. Previous generations went to a great deal of trouble to bury these souls with dignity. Once they’d been removed and forensically examined, what happened to them? It transpired they were in vaults in the National Museum, where they and the remains of thousands and thousands of other bodies exhumed during our national construction frenzy are stored.

The director of the National Museum, Pat Wallace, ignored my numerous inquiries to his office, but he responded in jig time to an invitation from Pat Kenny to discuss the matter on his RTÉ Radio 1 programme. With the Bishop of Meath Michael Smith also on the case, Wallace assured Kenny there would be no problem returning the bodies to their parish for reinterment on consecrated ground.

Anyhow, I am really pleased to report that great progress has been made.

Last Friday, an official from the National Museum brought home the remains of the 62 infants. He, our parish priest and my mother brought them to our local undertakers. The bones were so small and the skulls so barely formed that the little packages fitted into a single coffin. The coffin was placed in our church at Jordanstown, Enfield, and a burial arranged for after 11 o’clock Mass on Sunday.

Now, the graveyard at Jordanstown is notoriously cold. I know that people lead hectic lives and I operate on the basis that the grievances I nurture are not necessarily shared by others. So I imagined that the burial would be attended by just the National Museum representative and the dozen or so boffins who are members of our local graveyard recording group (a long story for another day).

Instead, as the choir sang a beautiful lament, the entire congregation (which is a big one) followed the coffin up through the cemetery. The sun shone, the prayers were recited, the holy water was sprinkled and the men gently lowered the coffin into what is hopefully its final resting place.

What can I say? It was a point where the rational meets the irrational. Even though we know that the contents of that coffin amounted to not much more than crumbled calcium, everyone felt something special was happening.

Funerals are usually occasions of suffering. In this case, there was no personal grief but there was sadness because these poor little babies never had a chance at life. Yet there was joy and relief too, because they seemed to be getting some kind of justice. There is so much despair in the world that it was wonderful to be present at a simple ceremony where the overwhelming feeling was of a wrong being righted.

It wasn’t just that the infant remains had been rescued from storage and given a proper burial, but that having been denied burial on consecrated ground originally – which must have caused great pain to their parents, they were now in the right place.

In fact, though the disturbance of old graveyards is an unfortunate side-effect of road building, had the M4 not been built, they would have been completely forgotten. Now they’ll get a headstone and be remembered every year at the Blessing of the Graves and by any visitor to our cemetery.

The National Roads Authority was extremely courteous throughout and is contributing to the costs of the burial.

It was a nice end to a small chapter of local history. However, the story is not finished. The remains of the 399 still languish in a vault – and we want those back too. There is also the matter of the thousands of other bodies exhumed as roads and buildings were constructed throughout the country. Every one of them, except perhaps those with particular archaeological value, is entitled to a decent burial in the parish of their origin.

In crowded cemeteries, this may not always be practical. My mother suggests that the museum should buy a plot of land somewhere in the country and have it consecrated. It could be used as a central but fitting location to reinter remains disturbed during building works.

While we are understandably focused on the economy these days, every decent society shows respect for the dead. The cost involved? Modest. Doing the right thing? Priceless.