By Mike Faricy
This past January I was visiting Teresa in Dublin, when we received the call her mother had passed away. The following morning found us heading West under sunny skies towards County Sligo. We arrived at the nursing home in the town of Boyle, let in through a side entrance, genuine condolences given by staff lining up in the hallway to meet us. Elizabeth Mullaney, Lizzy, age 85 was tucked neatly in her bed, a crucifix and holy candle next to her. We were offered coffee, ‘with something in it,’ or tea. My lone coffee arrived, nicely fortified, accompanied by four teas on a tray, each with a side of hot brandy. Tommy, the local undertaker, joined us in minutes, an old family friend. He would have Lizzy ‘out to the home place’ at 4:00 that afternoon. We left Boyle, heading to Ballyfarnan for supplies.
Ballyfarnan is the next village over from Boyle, it 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. Lizzy’s daughter’s Mary and Teresa introduced themselves to Mr. Killourn, using their father’s name, “We’re Paddy Jo Mullaney’s daughters, our mother’s just passed away.”
Mr. Killourn, after a blessing and the necessary questions brought out four cardboard boxes. “Here,” says he, “take what you need, bring back what you don’t use, we’ll settle up latter.”
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 in the even smaller village of Geevagh, it’s the typical Irish farm, typical at least for my Teresa’s family, now in their late-forties. It’s thirty muddy acres of nothing but hard work. It struck home how wealthy, beyond their wildest dreams, 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 labor from sunup until an hour after sundown. The Mullaneys got electricity and running water on the farm in 1965. They were the first in the village because their father, Paddy Jo, was a self taught electrician. Paddy Jo spent the next forty years wiring and rewiring every cousin and neighbor in the village.
The home itself had been in the family for generations. Two stories of thick, damp, dressed stone walls and not a square corner in the place. As a little boy in the 1920s, Paddy Jo was questioned by the Black and Tans in the kitchen. The weapon they were looking for rested in the rafters of the open ceiling 18 inches above their heads. Paddy put the ceiling boards in himself when he brought his bride, Lizzy, home to live with his Mother in 1954.
The home sits empty now, the children all middle-aged and moved away to launch their own broods into the world. It was cold, damp, musty and needed a thorough cleaning. Sean, the brother-in-law, put me on the business end of a broom and started me in the kitchen. We would be receiving guests by 6:00 that evening. 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. True to his word Tommy the undertaker brought Lizzy out at 4:00.
I had only seen a hearse like Tommy’s on TV, when Princess Di was buried. 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 and getting her in the parlor was like moving a large couch. We had to bring her in the small front entry, halfway up the staircase, lift 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 off and leaning 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 great grandparents in their nineties. They came to pay their respects to a woman who had been a member of their little 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.
The cemetery was a small walled affair out in the country. We met at Paddy Jo’s grave. Cousins Leo, Seamus and Podraig were waiting with the equipment, a sledgehammer, pick ax and two shovels. The plot, with centered headstone was surrounded by a dressed stone curbing. Crushed marble stones usually covered the two sites but these 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 opposite Paddy’s side. It took five men four hours of non-stop labor to dig the grave, Seamus serving as working foreman. This was not the rich, black, Minnesota soil with which I was familiar. This was thick, heavy clay, filled with rocks, 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 word for it.
While down in the hole shoveling I’d be treated to conversations in Irish, what we call Gaelic, I could pick out one word, American, followed by laughter. I knew the tone, I’ve told some of those same jokes in English. At one point a rainbow appeared, running into the hillside above us, I was six and a half feet down, digging a grave in Ireland with a rainbow overhead, I can think of a couple of grave plots probably spinning back in Minnesota.
When finished, our dimensions were accurate, square, true from top to bottom. You could have paneled the sides, the bottom was level, smooth. 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 Lizzy 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 lightly 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. Not just out the door. The farmhouses are set back two hundred yards from the lane here. These people had walked in the rain and mud to the paved country lane and waited for us to pass. They made the sign of the cross, removed their hats, grandparents, parents and children.
The church service was a short benediction, no mass this night. Lizzy’s children sat in the front pew, alone, unaccompanied by spouses or children. After the service the congregation, standing room only in a village of 500, filed past and shook the hands of her four middle-aged children. Then back to the home place for a more festive get together while Lizzy remained, lying in state, in the locked church.
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 in which we had so labored 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 middle aged nephews who had enjoyed her kitchen countless times.
Lizzy 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 Mullaney’s funeral. I pray for all of them that it will not change.