Ireland & UK mapMy wife and I were in Dublin when we received the call her mother, Lizzy Mullaney , had passed away.  The following morning found us heading West under sunny skies towards Ballyfarnan, County Sligo.

 Mike FaricyThe town boasts a small Garda station, and a monument to a local blind flute player, Josey McDermott.  Attached to Killourn’s pub is a grocery and it was here we stocked up for the coming days.  We left with three boxes of groceries and a case of liquor on a handshake deal.  We had also alerted the community to the details of Lizzy’s passing by telling the owner of the grocery store and pub.  People would begin to deliver their condolences that evening.  Off towards the home place we went.

The ‘home place’ lies just outside the even smaller village of Geevagh, it’s the typical Irish farm in this region, thirty acres of nothing but hard work.  It struck home how wealthy my famine forefathers were, homesteading 160 acres of rich Minnesota farmland.  This isn’t the postcard Irish farm, this is the real deal.  Even as a city kid, it looked to me like nothing but hard labor from sun up until an hour after sundown.

The home sits empty now, the children all moved away to launch their own lives.  It was cold, damp, musty and needed a thorough cleaning.  Hot water for cleaning came compliments of an oil heater, similar to those found at older lake cabins, temperamental, eccentric and finally, after an hour or two of unprintable language, lit.  We had hot water for cleaning and washing dishes by 2:00.  Turf fires blazing in the fireplaces began to take the chill out of the four rooms in the house.  Tommy the undertaker brought Lizzy out at 4:00.

I had only seen a hearse like Tommy’s on TV.  It had a tall glass case in the rear, where the coffin rested, glass on all four sides.  Lizzy was in a simple oak coffin, the old fashioned shape, broader at the shoulders then narrowing down towards the feet. Getting her in the parlor was like moving a large couch.  We brought her in the small front entry, halfway up the staircase, lifted her over the banister to get the proper angle before making the turn into the parlor.  She lay in front of the window, overlooking her garden, the long lid of the coffin stood against the wall.  She would remain in the parlor for the next thirty-six hours,  never alone.  Tommy conducted a short decade of the rosary and the guests began arriving.  They just arrived, no one seemed to leave.  All ages from babies on hips to grandparents in their nineties.  They came to pay their respects to a woman who had been a member of their corner of the world for eighty five years.  Lizzy helped deliver babies, make dresses, stitched up children and was famous for her sponge cakes.  Like her own children all the guests touched her, placed their hands over hers, kissed her, made the sign of the cross on her forehead.  They were familiar with her, she was one of them and they were genuinely sad.  They sat in the parlor with her until two in the morning telling stories.  This wasn’t the liquor soaked wake of the movies.  Maybe the occasional hot whiskey, but more often tea.  Once everyone departed Sean and I took turns sitting with Lizzy, tending the turf fires, until breakfast.  On Monday it began all over again, running back to Killourn’s for more supplies and a promise to settle up when we’d finished.  At 11:00 Monday morning,  Sean and I set off to dig the grave.

cemetaryThe cemetery is a small walled affair on a hillside.  We met at the family grave site.  Cousins Leo, Seamus and Podraig were waiting with a sledgehammer, pick ax and two shovels.  The plot, with centered headstone, was surrounded by a dressed stone curbing.  Crushed marble stones that usually covered the site had been removed, revealing a concrete pad.  Seamus had the dimensions, 82” long, 43” wide and eight feet deep.  He double checked his notes, and started with the sledgehammer on the concrete.  It took five men four hours of non-stop labor to dig the grave, Seamus served as working foreman.  This was not rich, black, Minnesota soil with which I was familiar.  This was thick, heavy clay, filled with large rocks.  We worked in three shifts, one shoveling out the grave, two taking that clay and piling it neatly next to the hole, two resting.  You can take ‘grave digger’ off my list of things I want to be when I grow up.  It’s hard work, no other printable term for it.  While down in the grave shoveling I was treated to conversations in Irish. I understood one word, American, followed by laughter.  I knew the tone, I’ve told some of those same jokes in English.

Meanwhile, the wake continued all day, callers arriving at 11:00 that morning.  On into the night, more stories, gallons of tea, turf fires continually stoked, and finally taking turns sitting in the parlor with Lizzy until the next morning.

Guest’s arrived throughout the next day until evening when we would bring her to lay in state overnight in the church.  At 7:00 that Tuesday night Tommy arrived with the hearse.  We said the rosary, at breakneck speed, everyone filed past Lizzy and kissed her goodbye.  We carried her out to the hearse, reversing our earlier route, into the small entry, angle back, up and over the banister, halfway up the staircase and then out the front door.  It was dark, raining, and the tiny farm yard was filled with a hundred people, they would drive with us the three miles to Saint Joseph’s, in Geevagh.

Once the coffin was loaded into the hearse, Tommy illuminated the coffin.  We drove slowly towards the church, a procession of thirty or forty vehicles.  Along the route families had come out to pay their respects.  The farmhouses are set back two hundred yards from the lane here.  These people waited in the rain and mud until we passed.  They made the sign of the cross, removed their hats, grandparents, parents and children.bagpipe

We carried the coffin into the church. The coffin was raised to shoulder height, arm on the shoulder of the man next to you, Lizzy’s coffin resting on our arms.  The church service was a short benediction, no mass this night.  Lizzy’s children sat in the front pew, alone, unaccompanied by spouse’s or children.  After the service the congregation, standing room only in a village of 500, filed past and shook the hands of her four adult children.  Then back to the home place for a more festive get together while Lizzy remained, lying in state in the church.

When we arrived back at the home place everyone parked in the pasture in front of the house, cars sinking in the mud. My wife stood on the doorframe not wanting to get her shoes muddy.  I walked around the car, slung her over my shoulder, slapped her on her butt and carried her to the front door.  I deposited her at the door step next to three fifteen-year-old cousins.  For the next day and a half every time I turned round one of those little girls was staring at me dreamy eyed.

I was now two things, the American, but more importantly, one of the grave diggers and introduced as such, accorded an amount of respect.  The final guest left at 3:00 that morning.  We woke in time for a breakfast of rashers, brown bread, fresh eggs from Donagher’s farm next door, tea and my lone coffee.  The funeral Mass was lovely, deeply personal, a loving homily and tribute from an extremely close knit community.

The graveside service was similar in words to ours.  A black shroud placed over Lizzy’s coffin before it was lowered on ropes into the perfectly dug grave where we had labored just two days earlier.  At the end of the service, on the way out of the cemetery Leo and Seamus were pulling on overalls and green wellies, shovel over their shoulders, it was left to them to fill in Lizzy’s grave.  A last labor of love from two nephews who had enjoyed her kitchen countless times.

Ireland countryOn our way back toDublin, we settled up with Mr. Killourn, Ballyfarnan grocer and publican. He produced a hand written lists of the items we’d taken, checked each item and then added a figure off the top of his head. Every four or five items he’d lick the point of the pencil.  He totaled the items, treated us all to a hot whiskey, one more condolence and we were on our way

Lizzy Mullaney will remain in the hearts and minds of at least the next two generations.  Hence forward time will be marked in Geevagh in terms of before or after Lizzy’s funeral.  I pray for all of them that it will not change.