MAKING A DIFFERENCE Some of the students from Coláiste Pobail Acla at the local Church of Ireland war graves plot, which they helped to restore with local gardener and landscaper John Sweeney. From left: John McGinty, Eugene Doran, Laoise Conway, Emma McNulty, John Sweeney and Aeryn Gibbs.
Achill students restore cemetery containing remains of soldiers whose bodies washed up on the island during WWII
It was the sight of an elderly woman trying to gain access to the Church of Ireland graveyard in Polranny, Achill, that stirred John Sweeney to act.
That was ten years ago, and the woma had come over from England to pay her respects to a relative who had been killed while fighting in World War II and whose body had washed up on Achill Island.
In total, eleven people who were killed in World War II are buried in a large plot in this graveyard. All eleven were among those who washed up on the island during the war. And, having discovered this was her relative’s final resting place, this woman had come over to the west coast of Ireland to pay her respects.
“But she couldn’t get next or near to it. The graveyard was covered in rhododendrons and it had been a long time since anyone took care of the graveyard,” local landscape gardener John Sweeney told The Mayo News.
“I told her she wouldn’t be able to get access and she was so disappointed. She explained she had a relative in there and that she probably would never be able to get to Achill again. I was totally embarrassed,” he explained.
So, together with others, including like Paddy Corrigan and Noel Gallagher, Sweeney set up a local committee to restore the graveyard as best he could. Then he came up with a gem of an idea.
“The Church of Ireland has no one left in Achill to maintain the graveyard so I had the brainwave then to make it a TY project. We started eight or nine years ago. Back then we didn’t realise how many graves were here and just how big the graveyard is. We discovered a famine graveyard in here as well,” he said.
On a bright Wednesday afternoon last week, John Sweeney and Transition Year and Fifth Year students from Coláiste Pobail Acla bring The Mayo News for a tour of the graveyard and the work they have done is clear to see.
Rhododendrons were sawed down by hand and paths through the graveyard have been cleared. It now looks a lot more fitting of a final resting place for people killed in World War II.
The first clearing shows the local Church of Ireland graveyard, walk further in and there is a large plot with eleven war dead buried there. It was this plot that, undoubtedly, the English visitor a decade ago was hoping to pay her respects at.
And so in this old Church of Ireland graveyard there are headstones to mark the final resting place of able seamen with names like Ironside, Walters and Kirkpatrick, along with unknown soldiers, simply marked ‘a sailor of the war 1939-1945’.
The rhododendrons performed a certain useful function too. They smothered so much of the graveyard that they served to protect the war graves from the elements and when Sweeney and his students uncovered them, they were in good condition.
In total, hundreds of graves have been discovered by Transition Year students as part of their Horticulture model under the guidance of Sweeney. Many, towards the back, are famine victims, with no headstone or marking. But, thanks to the hard work of Sweeney and his crew, the growth over their graves have been cleared and the graveyard is now very presentable.
The engagement of the students is clear to see too. Not alone are they providing a community service, but they are learning about local history as well.
“If it wasn’t for all the previous Transition Years before us, we wouldn’t know anything about this. A few years ago this graveyard was in a really bad way. People didn’t know about it but John got us involved and got us interested and caring about it,” said Laoise Conway. “We’ve learned a lot about Achill from this,” said Cormac Lyons.
“If it wasn’t for John, we’d know none of this,” added Sadhbh McCarthy.
Spreading the net
This year’s Transition Years expanded the research beyond the graveyard in Polranny.
“When we were working with the students on this graveyard we discovered about other graves in Achill and so we sent the students home to ask their grandparents about them,” said John Sweeney.
“It is a great way to get to know our history. They are learning history without realising it. They are bringing stories home and then they are bringing stories back into me which is brilliant. It really is a fun way of learning,” he added.
And so, from talking to their grandparents and neighbours, students in Coláiste Pobail Acla discovered that there were four war dead buried in The Valley, three in Dooega, two in Polranny and two in Dooniver. All were either buried in unmarked graves on the sea shore or else in a local cillín (a graveyard for unbaptised children).
Now, they are appealing to people in Achill who might have knowledge of more graves around the island’s coast to get in contact.
“We’ve researched as much as we can from our relatives,” said Aeryn Gibbs.
“If we don’t find out about the remaining graves now, the knowledge of them will be lost forever,” said Laoise Conway.
John Sweeney explains the next project could involve compiling a register of graves of war dead who washed up around the Mayo coast. He has been working closely with Michael Feeney of Mayo Peace Park.
“Before memories fade, we have to find the information. We’re at a stage now where the last generation of people who would have been alive during World War II and would know about people who washed up off Achill and, indeed, all of Mayo, are still around. We’d be delighted to be involved in such a project.
“This year is the 75th anniversary of the D Day landings so it would be nice to mark Achill’s connection with the war in some meaningful way,” said Sweeney.
Anyone with any information can contact John Sweeney on 086 3842229.