Thursday, November 22, 2001

Castlecomer / Aran Island Funeral

Last week I returned to Castlecomer to give a talk to the local history society. It was for me a unique occasion as I was born in Castlecomer and lived the first few years of my life in part of a big rambling house next door to the Garda Barracks. Indeed that was the sum total of my knowledge about the town of my birth until after my lecture last week when I spoke to 82 year old Michael Ferris. He greeted me with the welcome if somewhat improbable claim, “I’d know you from your father”. Nobody has ever before claimed that my father and I bore anything other than a fleeting resemblance to each other. Michael knew my father in the days when they were both relatively young men, one a Garda Sergeant, the other a hackney driver and garage man.

I was born, according to Michael, in what was one time a British Army Barracks but which under the Irish Free State housed the Garda Barracks and accommodation for the Superintendent, the Sergeant and a number of the local Gardai. Nurse O’Mahony of Florentine Terrace was the local midwife and she apparently must take the responsibility for bringing a second red-head into the Taaffe family all those years ago. A formidable woman she was, so my informant told me last week, with the strength of two men and a thirst to match. Michael Ferris told me how my father had wanted to stay in Castlecomer but sought a transfer to Athy so that his five sons could attend secondary school. “You’ve Canon McNamara to thank for that” said Michael, referring to the man who was Parish Priest of Castlecomer between 1926 and 1957. As a former Rector of St. Kieran’s College in Kilkenny, the Canon sought to ensure that local boys with ambitions for secondary education attended St. Kieran’s College. For that reason, or so it is claimed, the Canon resisted any attempt to start a secondary school for boys in Comer, thereby unwittingly or otherwise depriving many young fellows of the opportunity of a secondary education. For not everyone could hope to fund the fees for St. Kieran’s College, and certainly a Garda Sergeant could not do so and as Michael Ferris said, “we lost a good Sergeant as a result.”

Another Comer man to greet me after the lecture was Eddie Collins who served Mass with my eldest brother Jack. Jim Downey’s daughter laughingly told me of how her father’s coal allowance for his steam threshing machine was utilised during the War. Apparently the anthracite provided was not suitable for the threshing machine and word soon got around the neighborhood of the availability of a supply of badly needed coal. Inevitably approaches were made to Jim for a few bags of anthracite and one of the supplicants was the local Sergeant, who with an empty grate at home with a couple of young children to keep warm, could not be refused.

“Cactus” Brennan also made my acquaintance, renewing a contact first made between us by telephone some years ago after I wrote of the Athy Hurling Team’s success in the 1959 championship. “Cactus”, so-called because of his crew cut, was a member of that team and now retired from the ESB he regaled me with a story of how my father once came to his rescue. Apparently Michael was in charge of the gelignite store in Thurles at a time when the IRA campaign in the North was ongoing. He togged out for a hurling match in Geraldine Park with the Athy team one Sunday afternoon, but since he had previously transferred to the Thurles club he played under an assumed name. During the course of the match he got a few “belts” and next day on returning to work his face bore the marks of battle, so much so that his superior questioned where he had been. “Up north” came Michael’s flippant response whereupon the Garda on duty at the gelignite store brought him to the Garda Station where he was questioned at length. “Lucky for me” said Michael, “I remembered seeing Sergeant Taaffe at Geraldine Park and a phone call to the Athy Station confirmed my sporting involvement over the weekend.”

A few days later I travelled to the Aran Island to attend the funeral of an elderly island woman. Catholic funeral rituals are the same wherever you go, even if the local funeral traditions differ from place to place. I have written previously of a funeral in rural county Cork, but this was my first time to attend a funeral on the Aran Islands. The local cemetery, located on high ground overlooking the Atlantic ocean, was 2 ½ miles from the Church and was approached by a narrow undulating road which circled around the edge of the island. In the past, coffins were brought by horse and cart from the Church to the cemetery, but today this has given way to the Fordson tractor and trailer. The journey across the island was made in clear, calm weather and at the start and for a short time thereafter the tractor and trailer was followed by an orderly group of men, women and children with cars bringing up the rear. The tractor’s pace, geared to maintain a purchase on the approach hills to the cemetery, soon saw those following on foot stretching back along the road for almost half a mile. As the hills steepened, those on foot fell further behind and the cars passed out the stragglers here and there picking up those for whom the journey was proving too much. Everyone assembled at the gate to the cemetery to await the last of the mourners before the coffin was carried shoulder high and placed beside the open grave which had been dug earlier that day by family and friends. Prayers were said and two of the deceased’s sons stood down into the grave to receive the coffin which was placed into their hands and which they reverently placed into position in the bottom of the grave. Then those same men took up shovels and while the rosary was being said filled in the grave. As a final act one of the deceased’s sons played the haunting tune “Se Fath mo Bhuartha” [The Cause of my Sorrows] on a tin whistle over the grave of his mother.

As I looked around at the nearby gravestones I could not but notice names in Gaelic script for those who died up to the 1940’s, but thereafter more often than not the inscriptions were in English. The O’Flaherty’s, the Conneely’s, the Costello’s were represented here by many generations and included references to service in the USA Army in World War II. Clearly the call of emigration found a ready response among the Aran Islanders.

What I wondered was the story behind the burial of Art O’Lundy, K.M. of Lisburn, Co. Antrim here among the islanders of Inis Mór. I was reminded of a conversation I had earlier that morning with a 70 year old islander who on hearing I was from Co. Kildare pointed to an elderly man in a distant group, “He’s a Kildare man too”. Seemingly the “Kildare man” was born to an Aran Island mother and a Kildare father, but despite having spent all his life apart from his early childhood on Inis Mór he was still regarded as “a Kildare man”.

Inis Mór graveyard had no more poignant reminder of the tragedies of life than the gravestone erected by Bridget McDonagh to commemorate her husband Coleman who died in 1956, aged 84 years of age, which also noted the deaths of her children Mary on 25th December 1918 aged 4 years, John on 27th December 1918 aged 3 years and Catherine on 28th December 1918 aged 2 years. The flu epidemic which ravaged the European mainland at the end of the Great War had obviously reached the Aran Islands and decimated a young family in the space of three days.

No matter where we live life and death are our constant companions.

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