The coastal burial grounds of north Mayo perch precariously on the edge of the world, clinging to the earth as though unwilling to give up their dead. They sprawl across sandy hillsides, and hide among vast dunes. They tumble down to the sea. And they are strangely beautiful.
Take Claggan graveyard. Claggan, or St Fintany’s cemetery, fills a steeply sloping site overlooking a little inlet in the parish of Ballycroy. The twisted, wind-blasted trees, a desperate screen to prevent the hillside from sliding away, were still leafless when we found the place in early spring. But the sun glinted on the water and lit up the banks of harebells and the clusters of primroses which decorated neatly tended graves. Worn, anonymous markers, reminders of the dead and of a time when no words were needed, were scattered around. A jumble of stones was the only clue to an ancient chapel which stood here once.
Half-buried in a cairn of stones, we found a carved slab. It had no date, no plea to ‘pray for the soul of…’. Just a short poem in French, ‘A toi, á nous’, and a name, Régis Rey.
My French isn’t good. I had to wait until we got home and I could use some online translation tools before I made sense of the lines of verse. When I did, the despair, the bleak anguish hit me like a blow.
I don’t know the story behind that stone. I think perhaps I don’t want to know.
To you, to us.
What sweet memories I have
Of this beautiful place of our wanderings…
My dear, how beautiful they were, those days of hope!
Their memories will be only pain,
As long as blood runs through my veins.