We haven't been out poking about among old graves for ages...the winter is by far the best time to explore because the grass has died off and light is ideal for reading the inscriptions...bright sunny days are useless...squinting at dates and not being able to distinguish between a nine and a seven can be frustrating to say the least...
The Bulluan stone, in the previous extremely brief blog, is a classic example of the other ancient 'finds' we've come across...they were usually used as baptismal fonts in the days when the early churches were tiny and built mostly from wood...
Now they are simply a source of interest, but they were revered at one time for having healing powers in the water which gathers in the depression...curing warts mostly. Though I've come across a couple which, if you wash your face in the water, will drive away any freckles, or sun spots as they were once named.
Country graveyards and burial grounds generally have neat iron gates across the entrance way...beside those gates are often a set of steps made from the stones of the surrounding wall...those were built to prevent straying animals from entering ...in particular the village pigs who would unearth recent corpses to eat. The burial practice we follow of a six foot deep hole wasn't always so...it was a case...especially in times of epidemics' and famine...to dig a hole deep enough to cover the body with a layer of earth tamped down with the back of a spade.
During the many famines which Ireland has suffered from, the farm animals also went hungry as their owners died or became too weak to care for them...so they ate what was available. Even nowadays animals are not ever allowed to graze in a burial ground...sheep are used in England as natural lawn-mowers but not here in Ireland...
And having said that so firmly...the old burying place of the last kings who died in battle in the 800's or thereabouts is usually grazed by an over-friendly horse who breathes heavily down the back of your neck and pushes his nose into your pockets...
Very few burials had tombstones until the beginning of the 19th century...there are exceptions...those who could afford the cost of the stone and to employ someone to carve out names and dates...but they tend to be crudely done and frequently have letters missing in order to squeeze the epitaph and the name of the deceased into a small space. Sometimes the vital information...the actual dates...have been carved at a slope which is now completely hidden by thick matted grass or the stone has sunk over the years and the dates are forever buried under the shifting earth.
I've so often written about the burial grounds but there always seems to be something new to tell...the vaults surrounded by broken rusty iron fencing...the tiny crucifixes which were once attached to the coffin lid and have worked their way up to the surface...thick earthenware bottles and glass ones too, which once held the Whiskey drunk at the graveside...tossed aside carelessly. Some graves have a row of rounded stones or lumps of quartz that glitter in the sunlight...
Every old burial ground has a section devoted to the unbaptised and stillborn babies...they would have originally been buried outside the walls of the consecrated ground but modern thinking by a few priests have allowed them entry by simply re-building the enclosing wall further back to include their graves...they are never marked with names or dates...just a rough stone found in a nearby field marks their place.
And the famine victims...there'll always be a place for those people right at the furthest end of every old burying ground you happen to visit...marked with stones like the babies...row upon row upon row...crammed together tightly as space grew smaller to accommodate the growing numbers of the dead...
If you take a while to walk around the perimeter walls you'll find the graves of those who didn't quite fit into the scheme of things...orphans from the local orphanage who died during a scarlet fever outbreak...a couple of Black and Tans...a de-frocked priest...not actually classed as true sinners in the eyes of the Church but sinful enough to be buried well away from the decent folk and as close to the outside of the wall as could possibly be...
If you're wondering about the orphans...it was a sin not to have both your parents.
I've no interest in modern graves smothered in vivid green stones with elaborate floral displays and extravagant wording on horribly expensive marble...
I like the old and the lichen covered...I like to imagine paying a penny to hire a long black cloak from a man with a stall at the gate and picking a small posy of wildflowers to put in the grave...to think of the priest in his old worn down leather boots saying the Rosary and the people attending drinking copiously of Whiskey...perhaps the local harpist played a plaintive air while little children ran around the gravestones chasing the village dogs who'd ventured in...
Easy enough to sit quietly beside an old grave while Millie hunts for field mice and Himself gathers together the once shiny coffin handles to bury them together under some stones...easy enough to imagine those long gone days of renting funeral clothes, paying a farthing for Holy Water to sprinkle on the fresh turned grave...it is easy for me to see that elderly priest in his black robes going green with age and his bare feet crammed into boots that don't fit and let the water in...to catch a glimpse of the lads drinking and smoking clay pipes and hastily crossing themselves when the priest happens to look their way...
Time we began again to venture into the old and almost forgotten places.