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Its odd. Most graveyards in Connemara appear to be near water, if not actually right on the coast. Why? West Galway, or Connemara, has a lot of unused space. Admittedly, much of the land Connemara is industrially and agriculturally useless, […]
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Its odd. Most graveyards in Connemara appear to be near water, if not actually right on the coast. Why? West Galway, or Connemara, has a lot of unused space. Admittedly, much of the land Connemara is industrially and agriculturally useless, or has been seen as such in the past. But that’s not all there is to it.
Objectively speaking, and ignoring the historical facts of Connacht’s plantation-era populating, any parcel of land in Connemara is generally one or more of the following; boggy, scrubby, near vertical, thinly covered with soil or sodden. This creates small pockets of, by rural standards, quite populous areas. Many of these seem so close together, as if the carpet of earth was pulled from under them, up into the mountains, tumbling the houses together in a strip along the coast.
The odd thing is that, when it comes to density of population, Connemara, or parts of it at any rate, used to be jammed to the rafters. It was bursting. So why is there so much empty space without remnants, ruins, cadavers or buildings, cottages and hovels? Well, there are plenty, but nearly every human edifice appears to be coastal.
There are two certainties in life. Fifty years ago and more, for many unfortunate people these two certainties arrived with precious little time separating them. Infant mortality was high, families were large to offset this, ensuring there would be children to care for the parents in old age, and for cultural & religious reasons (It seems, these people just couldn’t figure out what their bodies were intended for…)
There were no maternity hospitals, no post-natal care beyond a blanket and a slug of Poitín. Consequently there are no buildings standing as monuments to the start of life, no crumbling edifices majestic nor minute. Obviously birth could happen anywhere, but mostly at home. A child’s death similarly so.
The Connemara landscape is almost invisibly dotted with these graves, which appear all but unmarked to the untrained, or unfamiliar. There are still those alive today whose infants are buried, all but nameless and forgotten, under cruel cold stone in scrubby patches between fields, beside pathways, on the bogs. The unbaptised dead were not celebrated, but slipped away and mourned quietly. It is a terrible facet of Catholic theology that unbaptised children were not seen as permitted into heaven.
Still these cilliní, or burial grounds for unbaptised children, are there, just not on consecrated ground, but in hedgerows, behind walls or at the back of houses.
The dead are eminently less than mobile, with some exceptions. At the far end of life’s range we need to be put somewhere. Cremation was ruled out – once again we see denial of sense on religious grounds – but would have been tricky enough in the sodden west anyhow. So, to trace where the population once was, we could just follow the graveyards.
There are a number of towns in Connemara of lengthy history. Oughterard and Moycullen were both medieval boundaries, and remained the seats of landowners up until the early twentieth century. Clifden, although it feels older nestled into the valley that runs down to a sheltered bay well back from open waters, was only created in the early nineteenth century (in 1812 by a 26 year old landowner called John D’Arcy).
Nearly all other population centres are coastal.
Aside from the geography forcing the issue, transport was a factor. Until very recently, these towns, villages, townlands and parishes were not connected by roads. Even still, in the few cases where they actually did have roads, the ocean was still the most direct route. It was indeed, the only route for the many who lived on the offshore islands in tiny closely-linked communities.
Currachs, hookers and other manner of traditional seacraft were the preferred means of getting from place to place. This was not without its dangers, even for those who knew the waters. This direct route is often still the case, when the nearest shop is either a short hop across a bay, or a long bumpy jaunt on twisty rounds around it. Check a map – (link) Connemara is a shattered plan of bays, inlets, harbours and islands.
When a person dies in a close-knit community the turnout at the funeral is understandably large, their attendance beyond personal feelings for the deceased, it is a public outpouring of grief and a chance to stand together. It is a chance to bind the community.
So, to allow the greatest attendances graveyards in Connemara have been traditionally predominantly coastal.
Poitín, Dir. Bob Quinn, 1977
The Atlantean Irish: Ireland’s Oriental and Maritime Heritage, Bob Quinn, Lilliput Press, 2004
The Connemara Journal
Connemara: Listening to the Wind, Tim Robinson, Penguin Ireland, 2006
Garrafrauns Heritage Group on the sad legacy of unbaptised children in a time of high infant mortality
Population centres in Connemara
Human remains evident on beach after storms on Atlantic seaboard – 1
Human remains evident on beach after storms on Atlantic seaboard – 2
Human remains evident on beach after storms on Atlantic seaboard – 3
Human remains evident on beach after storms on Atlantic seaboard – 4
Human remains evident on beach after storms on Atlantic seaboard – 4
This article was posted by Ronan McDonnell on
Tuesday, February 25th, 2014 at
It is archived in Culture, History, Ireland, Religion, Wild Places and tagged connemara, famine, Galway, graves, History, west coast.
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