Monday 6th November 2023 marked a milestone along the banks of the ‘mutinous’ Shannon river. An ancient cemetery closed for nearly 70 years welcomed its last eligible member, Teresa Larkin from Moate in County Westmeath. Some 72 years after her husband, Joe, had been laid to rest, Teresa joined him in the old cemetery of Clonmacnoise. A cemetery that had been shut since 1954 with the exception of those who wished to be interred alongside their loved ones.
RTÉ deemed it newsworthy, but had the good sense not to cover the actual burial of Teresa on their bulletins. Their piece on it was written in a matter-of-fact and dry manner, leaving any joining of the dots to the Irish who have a quiet fascination with just this sort of subject.
There is nothing more ancient, nor sacred in Ireland than the sight and indeed smell of an old graveyard: the tilted tombstone, the ornate design flourishes, the obsequious wording on the stone, the lichen, the mustiness, the artful atrophy, the stillness, the otherness. All imbuing the site with a rich air of mournful mystique. Throw in its location by the banks of the iconic Shannon river and the rich heritage of Clonmacnoise and you have a very sacred site indeed. A place worthy enough for the Pontiff to visit in 1979 and even have a notorious agnostic call his most famous novel after a nearby place name.
In Ireland, once a person dies and a suitable send-off is given, they are brought back to be ‘with their own people’, be it their ancestors or their beloved spouse as was the case here. This is journey’s end, so masterfully saluted in Huston’s montage at the end of The Dead. Another powerful work on the departed was 1948’s Cré na Cille by Máirtín Ó Cadhain. Written almost entirely as conversation between the dead in a Connemara graveyard, the talk is full of backbiting, flirting, feuds, gossip and scandal-mongering. I sincerely hope all was more peaceful in Clonmacnoise!
Levity aside, this is an elegiac event the likes of which we are unlikely to see again. A salutary reminder that we too will at some point get to be with our ‘own people’ – just in a less auspicious and serene location.
The Dead at Clonmacnoise
In a quiet water’d land, a land of roses,
Stands Saint Kieran’s city fair;
And the warriors of Erin in their famous generations
There beneath the dewy hillside sleep the noblest
Of the clan of Conn,
Each below his stone with name in branching Ogham
And the sacred knot thereon.
There they laid to rest the seven Kings of Tara,
There the sons of Cairbrè sleep-
Battle-banners of the Gael that in Kieran’s plain of crosses
Now their final hosting keep.
And in Clonmacnois they laid the men of Teffia,
And right many a lord of Breagh;
Deep the sod above Clan Creidè and Clan Conaill,
Kind in hall and fierce in fray.
Many and many a son of Conn the Hundred-Fighter
In the red earth lies at rest;
Many a blue eye of Clan Colman the turf covers,
Many a swan-white breast.