A MUCH MORE HONEST NAME
SIR JOHN BETJEMAN is one of my favourite poets. I can relate to his poems and I am fascinated that his knowledge of English church architecture and the little parish churches of England, has been excelled by few others. I thought of him lately when visiting the old Protestant cemetery at Beechfield in Fermoy, and later that day when I visited Killathy graveyard, near Ballyhooly. His poem, 'Churchyards' has often been quoted by me. It's a long poem that encapsulates much of what I feel when I visit graveyards, especially those ones that have been titivated into parks and manicured lawns.
I choose those terms – graveyard and cemetery - carefully. At the risk of sounding pedantic (which I'm told I can be), I make great distinctions between the two words and do not use cemetery when, in fact, I’m talking about a graveyard. They are not, nor should they be, interchangeable or indistinguishable. Let me explain. Beechfield is a cemetery. It does not now, nor did it ever have, a church attached. Killathy, like the old burial grounds at Brigown, Marshalstown, Rathcormac, Castlelyons, Lismore, Gortroe, Castlehyde, and so on, had or have a church (now in ruins), which means that it is a graveyard – the burial yard attached to a church.
Some graveyards have a special feel to them. I know Brigown intimately. My ancestors were buried there. I pass it almost every day and can see the ruins from my bathroom window. Its round tower, one of only 64 to have been built in Ireland, was demolished in 1807. In that year, a Church of Ireland clergyman who wanted its stones to build a rectory at Brigown, levelled its ruins. It was a tragedy really, for had it remained (albeit as a ruin because most of it collapsed in a lightening storm in 1720) then historians and archaeologists would probably pay far more attention to Brigown than they do. Like so much else in Ireland, we seem to value our ancient buildings when they are gone but not while they are standing. So you won't be surprised to know that I have always strongly agreed with Canon Courtenay Moore who remarked that, ‘for acts such as this [the demoliton of Brigown round tower], one is inclined to advocate the reintroduction of capital punishment'.
Of equal fascination to me is Labbamolagga in the parish of Kildorrery. Now there is a place oozing antiquity. The cursing stones of Labbamolagga, add to the mystery of a graveyard that I have also known since childhood. The whereabouts of only two of the original stones is now known. Others have been stolen from the site. Those cursing stones, when turned anti-clockwise, were used to place curses on people. One verse, from an old text, goes,
‘He loosed the stones that killed the King
He cursed them in their flesh and bones,
And ever in the mystic ring,
He turned the maledictive stones'.
Unlike Brigown, Labbamolagga still has its early medieval enclosing wall, which marked that place as a sanctuary from the secular world outside. In the field adjoining the graveyard is a set of Neolithic standing stones, perhaps some 5,000-years-old, ‘four posters’ as they are known to archaeologists. These overlook the graveyard from the south and provide evidence of the continuity from one culture and civilization to another.
In understanding that sense of continuity, it helps to know that graveyards are a Christian concept. It was once unthinkable not to be buried in a churchyard/ graveyard. Until modern times, only non-Christians were buried in cemeteries.
A few years ago I had the privilege of meeting and chatting with Dr. Zahi Hawass, probably the most famous living Egyptologist, who was then in charge of the antiquities in the Valley of Giza. He is a charismatic fellow, often seen on the Discovery and National Geographic channels. He speaks enthusiastically about excavations of dozens of small tombs in the valley, which were built to hold the remains of ordinary Egyptians, many of whom were involved in or directed the building of the great pyramids.
In those much simpler chambers were buried personal objects, just as people nowadays put mementos in the coffins of loved ones. Instead of their statue of an Egyptian god, or tokens to smooth their passage to the afterlife, we now place a watch or crucifix, or maybe a naggan of whiskey or some other object important in our understanding of the deceased person's life and what they loved. The objects we place in graves may be different to the Egyptians but the hope for eternal life was the same.
Sir John felt strongly about what we sometimes do to our graveyards and cemeteries. He railed against over beautification and perfection, preferring, as I do, a touch of untidiness and wildness. In one of his poems, a favourite of mine, he wrote:
‘I hate to see in old churchyards
Tombstones stacked round like playing cards
Along the wall which then encloses
A trim new lawn and standard roses.
Bird-baths and objects such as fill a
Garden in some suburban villa’.
Beechfield has that look – all trim and tidy, with the headstones propped against the wall. Someone had plans to make it a park for nearby residents, but despite all the grass cutting and ground levelling, I’m not sure that it gets much use. Somehow the idea of kicking ball or having kids playing football over the skeletons of Fermoy’s first Protestants and many of its Famine victims, does not appeal to me. Nor do I like the idea of dog owners using it as a toilet for their pets. But it's not as bad as in Kilbehenny, where the old Protestant church was demolished many years ago. During the 1970s and 1980s, the community built a carpark and tennis courts, and then an extension to their hall over the graves of an unknown number of local Protestants. I remember discussing the situation with Bishop Darling, who visited the site, and prayed for those buried there. But at the time, things in Northern Ireland were sensitive and nobody wanted local stupidity and disrespect for the dead to be turned into a controversy that could have had more serious consequences elsewhere. So, the Protestants of Kilbehenny lie in their graves driven over by cars and where tennis is played by people who never give a thought to those beneath them. It was not what Betjeman had in mind when he wrote:
‘The Bishop comes; the bird-bath’s blessed.
Our churchyard is now a "garden of rest"
And so it may be; all the same
Graveyard’s a much more honest name.
Oh why do people waste their breath
Inventing dainty names for death?
On the old tombstones of the past
We do not read "At peace at last"
But simply "died" or plain "departed".
It's no good being chicken-hearted.
We die; that's that; our flesh decays
Or disappears in other ways.
But since we're Christians, we believe
That we new bodies will receive
To clothe our souls for us to meet
Our Maker at his Judgement Seat.
And this belief's a gift of faith
And, if it's true, no end is death'.
Keywords: Beechfield, Betjeman, Brigown, John, Kilbehenny, Killathy, Leabbamolagga, Marshalstown, Sir, burial, cemetery, death, graveyard, headstones
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