Like so many of the burial grounds in Erris, the graveyard at Doohoma looks out to sea. The square two-acre plot lies on a quiet hillside a mile out of the village, close to the strand, walled and gated and neatly kept. Tarmac paths encircle the perimeter. There are stone benches provided by local firms of stone masons as comfort and advertisement – ‘donated by Nephin Headstones’, ‘donated by Connolly Memorials’ – and a little shrine to Our Lady, who stands aloof and flanked by two painted angels. At some point one of the angels has lost his wings. They lie, perfectly intact, at the Virgin’s feet while their flightless owner stands with eyes downcast, a repentant Icarus, a player in a failed Annunciation.
The people of Doohoma fought hard and long for their own graveyard. For centuries the nearest cemetery was at Kiltane, ten miles away. Often enough when bad weather and worse roads prevented a funeral party from taking a corpse on its last journey, it had to be kept in a house for days on end. Years of campaigning for a local burial ground by Phelim Henry, owner of Henry’s Hotel in Doohoma, came to a head one night in November 1926 at a public meeting in Belmullet. Tasked with reviewing the provision of cemeteries in Erris, not only did the County Health Board turn down Henry’s repeated request for a graveyard at Doohoma, but a Mr McGeehin stood up to say that if there was to be a new burial ground in the district, Geesala rather than Doohoma was the best place for it; he would donate the site himself.
Doohoma wasn’t going to give away to Geesala, which was a good five miles away. Phelim Henry told McGeehin that his site was ‘a shaking bog in which you couldn’t bury a dog’. He told the Board of Health that there was spirit left in the people of Doohoma, and they would take matters into their own hands. And he went home and called out the men of the district. At dawn two days later, 300 men answered his call: they had an Irish acre fenced with sod walls and drained before the sun disappeared on the Western horizon. The next day Henry waited on the Bishop of Killala and secured his promise to come and consecrate the graveyard.
Eight months later, in the presence of a thousand people gathered on the hillside outside the village, the Bishop paid public tribute to Doohoma’s efforts. He consecrated the ground, urged that the people ‘should not open graves in an irregular manner, which would hereafter lead to endless confusion’ and awarded a fifty-day indulgence to everyone present. Then he climbed back into his motor car and drove away along the strand.
Cattle now graze the surrounding fields while the graves, grown to four hundred or so, are tended with love and respect, the Henrys and their neighbours cared for in death. Doohoma looks after its own. The sod wall has been replaced by a sturdy concrete fence, to deter the dead from wandering.
The only odd note in this tale of civic pride is a rough grass-covered mound, ten yards across and maybe two yards high, which stands in one corner of the cemetery. In stark contrast to the neat rows of marble tombstones with their jars of flowers and raked gravel beds, this hillock is unkempt, neglected. Rocks and stones lie scattered over its surface without pattern or obvious meaning.
But they do have meaning, poignant even in that already poignant spot. On the side of the mound an ornate heart-shaped piece of grey marble bears a message:
Blessed are the Children
Is One with Heaven
Surrounded now by the ranks of righteous dead, the mound predates the cemetery and the Bishop’s consecration by decades, maybe centuries. Long before Phelim Henry issued his call to the men of the townland to build their new graveyard between sunrise and sunset, the hours of darkness saw God knows how many sad processions along the strand to this place that stood alone by the sea, unconsecrated and unblessed.
For this was originally a cillín, a children’s burial ground, where the stillborn and the unbaptised were laid to rest along with suicides and drowned strangers – a sad association of those who had known nothing and those who had known too much of life.