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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Why do the Irish like Graveyards?

Evidence that you have discovered a genuine early Christian site in Ireland will be that it is surrounded by graves. Glendalough is a good example. Its round tower and seven churches are fortunate in being tall enough to be visible over a forest of gravestones.

When I bring a group of interested Chinese students to such places they are reluctant to enter what they see as a cemetery.

For them the dead and anything to do with death are taboo. In traditional Chinese belief there are two types of souls. One, the spiritual soul, is to be shown respect and gratitude at the Spring and Autumn festivals with offerings of food and drink. The other type is the earthly spirit that stays near where they were buried, ready to being bad luck and misfortune on anyone they encounter. Be safe and avoid anything to do with them.

I thought that such beliefs would have died out in this techno-savvy age but the bright third- level Chinese students I have met showed the same nervousness as earlier generations when it comes to entering graveyards and taking the chance of encountering spirits.

The Irish, on the other hand, seem at home in cemeteries. Few burial places, old or new, are empty of visitors. People feel relaxed there. Yet, when you think of it, some do feel uneasy near graveyards at night so a belief in earthly spirits might have existed here too.

A reason for the Irish ease with cemeteries can be found in the Irish word reilig. Originally the English word ‘relic’ meant the remains or a memento of an honoured person but in Ireland the word reilig denotes a graveyard -- the place where the remains of the saints are buried and are waiting resurrection.

One of the seven churches in Glendalough, the one nearest to Kevin’s original cell, was the burial place of the local ruling family, the O’Tooles. Everyone, from king to commoner, wanted to be buried near the remains of a saint in the hope that when the final call sounded they would join the saint’s entourage and enter into their reward.

As a result, any worthwhile ancient religious site in Ireland is also a graveyard. Most of the gravestones will be so old the names will have worn off.

The role played by relics, that is, physical remnants of a saint’s body or belongings, is a separate topic. They also were important in early Christian thinking (as they still are in many religions). I saw a good example of this when I visited Clonmore, but that will have to wait for another day.

(For further news of visits to forgotten places like Clonmore see the Facebook pages of hugh macmahon in Facebook.)


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