The edge of things

img_3775Cillíní, children’s burial grounds, gathered folklore to themselves, stories and beliefs that suggested that even if we forgot the unbaptised, the landscape would remind us of their presence. It was thought that if you walked on certain pieces of ground at night, you would lose your way. ‘An unbaptised child is in darkness’, explained folktale collector P J Gaynor in the 1940s, ‘and will continue so till the Day of Judgement, and when a person treads on the spot where that child is buried he walks into the darkness; he is surrounded by it and consequently, he goes astray’.

There are other traditions: the rash which was said to break out on your skin if you stepped on the grave of an unbaptised child; the dead baby baptised posthumously in its grave by the tears of a repentant sinner. One old story told that the souls of the unbaptised carried candles with them into limbo. At night, these flickering flames could be seen outside the walls of cemeteries, as children tried to reach their families within.

As I stand in front of the cillín at Doohoma with the sea at my back and the wingless Icarus beside me, the thought that hits like grief is, ‘What did they think, these people, as they buried their children?’ Was it really a shameful clandestine act, the tiny corpse wrapped in its shroud and left by night in the cold dark earth with no mourners, no prayers and no hope of a sure and certain resurrection? Who was there to say goodbye? My own religious belief is unfashionably Anglican and typically English, leaving me caught between doubt and hope, with none of the certainties found by friends who are atheistic or devout. But a God who could so order things that the innocent along with the lost and the troubled could be denied salvation strikes me as a heartless God indeed.

Perhaps the community action that made the new cemetery at Doohoma back in the 1920s was an act of resistance. Phelim Henry’s graveyard was created around the children’s burial ground. It deliberately embraced the generations of stillborns, the suicides and the drowned strangers within its sod walls, bringing them into consecrated ground, as though Doohoma was reclaiming its dead from limbo.

*

A couple of days after Easter we were walking on the beach. It was bright but bitterly cold. The tide was out and there were maybe a dozen others on that long strand, joggers and dog walkers. One woman stood by, looking distracted, a long blue lead dangling from her hand.

‘It’s Brandon,’ she said, as if this were explanation enough. We waited.

‘He’s so wilful. He just goes off with anyone.’

She scanned the beach, expecting the wilful Brandon to appear from nowhere. As indeed he did, a muscular yellow labrador trotting happily along beside three walkers, confident as though they belonged to him. The group was half a mile away, but they were coming in our direction and the woman relaxed, loosening her tight grip on the empty lead.

We talked as she waited for Brandon to remember his home, exchanged pleasantries about the weather, the holidays. Then, after a moment’s pause, she threw an unlooked-for phrase into the conversation.

‘Wasn’t it a terrible tragedy for Easter? Did you hear? He was a relative…’

I couldn’t follow the complicated familial relationships. That mattered less than the story she told. The day before, the family of the man in question had returned home after a visit with friends, to discover that he had hanged himself.

We made the expected noises of sadness. How awful. His poor children. I felt vaguely angry and vaguely sorry, as I always do when suicide touches my life in a distant way. Then Brandon bounded up, unconcerned and unrepentant, and the woman hauled him home at the end of the long blue lead.

Two days later we drove through the village. It was noon and the way was filled with hundreds of cars. So was the village itself. They lined both sides of the road, filling the verges and the lanes running down to the beach, stretching out into the countryside for nearly a mile. Men in sombre suits were directing traffic. The layby next to the graveyard was cordoned off.

I glanced across at Helen and she nodded. ‘That man. It’ll be the funeral.’

I knew who she meant without asking. And I thought of the mound in the corner of the cemetery, of the dead brought back from the edge of things, of those who had known too much of life and those who had known too little.

 

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