Remembering Westport cillín and workhouse dead

De Facto

PLACE OF REMEMBRANCE An tAthair Micheál Mac Gréil, SJ, led the prayers in Irish, in a still from Dr Oliver White Snr’s video footage of the blessing at The Rocky’s plaque.

Family and friends of at least 12 unbaptised babies in The Rocky cemetery attend blessing

De Facto
Liamy MacNally

“It was a sacred moment and needs to be remembered.” That was one person’s comment at the planting of flowers and blessing of the plaque at The Rocky Cemetery on the Old Railway Line Walk on September 25. The plaque, on the town side of the Leenane Road bridge, was erected on August 23, on the 175th anniversary of the consecration of the cemetery in 1847.
Used as a burial ground for those who died in Westport’s Workhouse, mainly from famine related fever, it was also used as a cillín, a burial ground for unbaptised babies, up to the 1970s.
Among the people who attended the flower planting and blessing were siblings, relations and friends of at least 12 such babies.
There were tears as memories emerged of mothers left grieving in kitchens as fathers (and brothers) carried the remains of stillborn infants wrapped in shoeboxes up to The Rocky. There was no room for them at the inn of our consecrated graveyards in nearby Aughavale, Kilmeena or Aughagower, or the many other graveyards where ancestors lay in peace.
Catholic Church rules at the time forbade such burials. Unbaptised babies were not welcomed in such graveyards. Regardless, many are still buried there. For some, fear of disrespecting Church laws played a part. For many, at least The Rocky was already a consecrated graveyard, albeit not in regular use, and the area known as The Garden, was known to some locals as a welcome resting place for such souls.
Thankfully, the Catholic Church made reparation in later years with the erection of an Altóir na bPáistí (Children’s Altar) in many consecrated graveyards and other areas in various parishes. The Church has also opened registers to record the deaths of miscarried and stillbirth  babies who died in the womb before coming to full-term. These registers are kept alongside the parish baptism registers. These kindly acts have been a great comfort to grieving families, especially parents.
Fr Tony King, John Coffey, Brian Harte and others erected a granite cross on the top of The Rocky in 1993.
At the recent ceremony, daffodil bulbs were planted with gusto. Holes, twice the depth of the bulb size, were dug out, the bulbs were placed inside and covered over with soil and prayers of thanksgiving. On some level, it was like a welcoming ceremony, as those who seemed to be forgotten, were given a place of honour in our hearts and our town.
An tAthair Micheál Mac Gréil, SJ, led the prayers in Irish. Most of those buried in The Rocky would have used Irish as their first language. “We believe that God is everywhere. We believe our dead are with God. God is here, so are our dead. We are not alone. We are in great company.” Holy Water was sprinkled on the plaque and site, prayers were offered, with Fr Charlie McDonnell concluding with a decade of the Rosary. How wonderful that such Church leaders took the time and effort to be there.
Genie Keating read Paddy Guthrie’s poem ‘Silent Tears’ (“High above The Rocky / A wind caoins for the dead…”), Cllr Brendan Mulroy read a poem by Tim Cunningham, ‘Cillín’, inspired by the recent erection of the plaque, (“…where earth wraps young and old in the same mantle”).
Musical troubadour John Hoban, whose ancestors hail from Carrabawn, sang and played ‘Caoineadh na dTrí Mhuire’ (“An é sin an Maicín a d’iompair mé trí ráithe?”) – a respectful song beautifully sung. Charlie Keating sang ‘Black ’47 – The Covies Lament’, a song written by his brother Brian (“In Black 47 my wife went to heaven, my young lad was taken as well…”).
Proceedings on the day were filmed for posterity and available on Dr Oliver Snr Whyte’s YouTube channel, while Brian Keating’s video Westport Workhouse Cemetery can also be watched on YouTube.).
It was a proud day and a lonesome day but always a worthwhile day. A link to our past has been acknowledged and strengthened. Eventually, a stone will be placed in the area to engrave the names of loved ones for those who wish to do so. The past might have had its share of pain but we can always reclaim love.