Among the serious articles in the current edition of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society*, renowned for its hard facts and forensic research, is a surprising story as tender as its subject. It concerns two people, one a child of 17 months, the other a sculptor, who, up to now, have been unknown. Who are they?
There is no record of these people in parish or civil records. Yet a beautifully chiselled headstone (carved by ‘P Whyte Sculptor’) stands alone in a children’s burial ground on Island Eddy, one of the low, straggling series of inter-linked islets, and lagoons on the inner reaches of Galway Bay, in the parish of Ballindereen, near Kinvara. The decorated stone, clearly the work of a skilled craftsman, was ‘erected in memory of Eliza Murphy, who died April 8 1827, aged 17 months’.
There are a number of unusual signs about the grave. Traditionally Irish children’s burial grounds, or reiligíns, were primarily used for burying unbaptised or stillborn children, who were not permitted burial in consecrated ground. They are a common feature of the countryside**. The family, or the mother alone, marked the plot where her child was buried with a stone (sometimes a quartz), usually with no inscription. The site was known to her and her family only, and was a hallowed place for that family. Little Eliza’s grave is smothered by the wild herb comfrey (believed to protect against illness), commonly found on children’s burial grounds, but it is the only marked gravestone on the site.
Last year four people, Paul Gosling, Sabine Springer, Joe Murphy and the poet Moya Cannon, each visited the site and together have tried to put Eliza and P Whyte into the historical record for the first time. The site and stone was analysed and described by Paul, Sabine made a rubbing of the inscription and decoration, while Joe Murphy researched the story.
No one has lived on Island Eddy since the early 1980s, and no one has any direct information on Eliza or how she was buried where she lies. But folklore gives us a number of clues. Christy Flannery of Ballindereen, now deceased, told the following story: “There was a graveyard on the island, I remember seeing it, I didn’t walk it that much. There is one headstone on it to a child, and it was supposed to be some child who took ill on a passing boat, and they pulled into the island, and she died. The graveyard was mostly for burying children.”
Kieran Shields of Mulroog heard from the islanders that Eliza Murphy was washed ashore from a ship-wreck but her father survived the tragedy, and chose to have her buried in the island graveyard.
The memories of Katie Martyn (nee Birmingham) of Mulroog are interesting. Katie was born on Island Eddy in 1927*** and lived on the island. She never heard the islanders talk of Eliza. She agreed that there were many stories of bodies being washed ashore and buried on the island. She often heard the older people telling of the body a man, who was washed ashore, being buried in the reiligín. Katie suggests that the parents of a child who died at sea in the surrounding bay may have chosen to have their loved one buried on the island, rather than delay burial until returning home. She recalls how children were buried in reiligíns in mainland Ballindereen in her youth, even though the parents had the option of interring them in the family graveyard in Drumacoo.
Katie’s infant sister Winifred was buried in the reiligín on Island Eddy. She died in 1926, and was only three weeks old. Her parents selected a small unmarked stone plaque at the head of her grave as was customary on the island. One of Katie’s most poignant childhood memories was accompanying her mother at the funeral procession of Michael Keane, the infant son of Mathy and Rita Keane (nee Conlon), an island family. She recalls the baby’s father at the head of the procession holding the white coffin in his hands, followed by all the islanders as it made its way behind the village, past ‘Garraí Caisleáin’ to the reiligín.
‘Small store of words’
There is probably an indication to little Eliza’s fate in the above stories. But perhaps the most moving attempt at rehabilitating her back into the record books comes in the poem by Galway poet Moya Cannon, who also visited the grave.
‘What will survive of us is love.’
Seventeen-month-old Eliza Murphy died
in eighteen twenty-seven
and was buried in April,
in a field south of a garden.
Perhaps spring gales prevented them
from rowing her body
across the sound to Drumacoo
to bury her in blessed ground.
We do not know what brought on her death-
fever, famine or whooping cough.
We do not know whether her hair was black.
or whether her eyes were brown.
We do not know who raised
the carved stone to her memory-
perhaps an older sibling, who, later,
sent money from America,
or whether, at low spring tide, she had ever
been carried across the sandbar to the mainland,
past regiments of squirting razor-fish
and sponges like staring moon-cabbages.
Neither can we be sure that she lived
in the row of cottages north of the garden
or that she was born in one of the rooms
now brimming with sycamores.
We cannot be certain that she learned
to balance on her feet before illness came
or was able to toddle about on the cobbles.
We cannot know her small store of words.
We know only that she sleeps
where the otter and the fox pad through the long grass
and that she died in April,
* The Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, Volume 69 2010, is published this winter. The society, founded March 21 1900, is a venerable and much respected institution. It has published 60 volumes of its journal, the first 55 of which are available on CD-ROM. Inquiries to the treasurer Delo Collier, 087-8317687.
** Sometimes you come across a reiligín on the fringes of an abandoned graveyard near an ancient ruined church, and often the burial ground is found not too far from a cluster of abandoned houses. There is evidence that in Penal times, and famines, before the building of many RC chapels and graveyards, the distances from isolated villages and farms to consecrated ground were on occasions too far, or too difficult for normal use. The site was also used for adult burials in the past.
***Island Eddy is getting a lot of attention lately. I have seen a recent study by Helen Fahy who says that in 1841 125 people lived on the island.