Westport’s Rocky cemetery remembered

De Facto

HARDSHIP AND TOIL Built in 1842, opened in 1845 and closed in 1921, Westport Workhouse once overlooked the town. The site is now occupied by housing.

Marking the 175th anniversary of the consecration of a poignant graveyard and cillín

De Facto
Liamy MacNally

This day 175 years ago, August 23, 1847, The Rocky cemetery was consecrated as a resting place for victims of An Gorta Mór – The Great Famine – who died in Westport Workhouse. Today, a plaque honouring all those buried there, has been erected on the site. The number of dead is unknown, most of whom died by famine-related fever.
The Rocky (some locals call it The Rockies), surrounded by the Carrabawn Road, the Leenane Road and the Old Railway Line Walk, is not only the tomb of our Famine dead but also a cillín, the eternal womb for our stillborn and unbaptised children, many of them buried in living memory.
Fr Tony King, John Coffey and a group of local people erected a granite cross on the top of The Rocky on June 1, 1993, to honour all the dead lying there.
Following a town council ‘improvement incursion’ on to the site around 2012, a local group was set up to work alongside the council and ensure The Rocky was maintained in a fitting and respectful manner. The cemetery was blessed and rededicated by An tAthair Micheál Mac Gréil, SJ, during Covie Week on July 26, 2015. It followed the public remembrances of stories associated with the nearby Westport Workhouse and Hospital and The Rocky cemetery, which is a closed cemetery rather than being disused, former, or old. Its consecrated ground is a living, sacred space.
A post-Covid, reactivated committee, working with Noelle Angley of Mayo County Council, local councillors (Peter Flynn, Brendan Mulroy, Christy Hyland and John O’Malley), stonemason Paddy Murray, Pádraic Bourke (quarry), The Mayo News, and Colin and Niall Halpin (monumental sculptors), has ensured the erection of a plaque honouring all those buried in The Rocky. The wording, including Irish (the spoken language of the people of the time, according to An tAthair Micheál Mac Gréil, SJ), states:
“Westport Workhouse Cemetery – I ndilchuimhne ár muintire a fuair bás go truamhéalach le bochtanas, ocras agus galar le linn an Ghorta Mhóir agus ina dhiaidh. Pray for the souls of our people buried here in unmarked graves in Westport Workhouse Cemetery, consecrated on 23 August 1847. It was also used as a cillín, a burial ground for unbaptised children, up to the 20th century. Go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a n-anamacha.”
The erection of the plaque on the greenway is phase one of plans, which also include a graveyard stile, a flagstone path to the cross, and graveyard remedial work and maintenance (without the use of heavy machinery). A nearby information board will also be erected. This will include the history of Westport Workhouse and Hospital, Fever Sheds, auxiliary workhouses in the Salt Pans and Livingstone’s, The Westport Union (including surrounding area), the quarry area, the Rope Walk, the Queen of the May tradition with flowers on the graves, and the ‘candlelight processions’ of burials of unbaptised babies within living memory in an area of The Rocky known as The Garden. It will also highlight emigration due to famines, during the 1800s.
Over the years, many local people have urged the public commemoration of those buried in The Rocky. The erection of the plaque is a small step in honouring our Famine dead and embracing our unbaptised children into the heart of our community. It is a tribute to their existence, memory and being. Some of them might be unnamed but not one is forgotten. Many died in poverty, but now they all live in the riches of memory. We have a place where we can gather and remember.  
‘Silent Tears’ is a lovely poem about our own people buried in The Rocky by Paddy Guthrie:

High above The Rocky
A wind caoins for the dead
To a memory for the nameless
For whom silent tears were shed.

The needy and the hungry
Those paupers of the poor
The unbaptised unfortunate child
Who crept through heaven’s door.

That wind is rarely silent
While rain falls down like tears
Upon the cross that marks The Rockies
Above the sum of all our fears.

So for the brothers and the sisters
Who have passed along the way
We beseech the travelling stranger
For their souls an Ave say

That they might not lie forgotten
Beneath the rocky clay
A dark unpleasant memory
From a dark unpleasant day.