Cork grave digger talks about his fascinating life and moonlighting as an  actor

Cork grave digger talks about his fascinating life and moonlighting as an  actor
Stephen O’Connor is a grave digger at St. Catherine’s Cemetery, Kilcully, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

WHISKEY, guitars, waistcoats and cigarettes are among the items that deceased people have been laid to rest with to make burials more personal.

Stephen O’Connor from Blarney Street - who moonlights as an actor and played a role in the Young Offenders movie - has seen it all while working at St Catherine’s cemetery in Kilcully.

The caring gravedigger described the unique burial traditions families have opted for.

“There are so many different traditions,” he said. “We have been asked to wash our hands in milk and walk around the coffin three times, Sometimes you’ll see instruments being thrown into a grave. These include everything from mouth organs to guitars and tin whistles. Beer has even been poured over the coffin during prayers. One family invited us to eat bread and drink wine around the grave. They told us that we were part of the event and insisted that we join them.”

No working day is ever the same for Stephen.

Stephen O’Connor is a grave digger at St. Catherine’s Cemetery, Kilcully, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Stephen O’Connor is a grave digger at St. Catherine’s Cemetery, Kilcully, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

“I’ve seen people buried with cigarettes, bottles of whiskey, waistcoats - anything at all really. Men have taken their shirts off and all thrown them on the coffin as a sort of parting gift for the deceased. Some have thrown in their shoes forgetting that they need to walk home that day.”

One particular memory remains etched in Stephen’s mind.

“A woman asked where her ex-husband was buried. We showed her to the grave and took a step back to give her some privacy. We felt she needed a few moments alone to grieve.”

Stephen could never have anticipated what was coming next.

“She took off the green door covering the grave before picking up a large stone and hopping it off the coffin.

“There you are, you’re gone”, she shouted, “When she left we all just stood there in shock. Nobody could believe what had just happened.”

Stephen acknowledged that no two people grieve in the same way. He described how many struggle to return to normality for many months.

“One man sat by his mother’s grave for hours each day. On Sundays he would sit and read the papers there. You get visitors at midnight and 1am who are missing their mother or father. Everyone works through their grief differently and it’s important to remember that.”

Burying children and young people is the most difficult part of the job, according to Stephen.

“We are working during bank holidays, Christmas Eve and St Stephen’s Day. People don’t normally stop to think about where dead people go during their working day. This is a job that makes you think about your mortality.

“I’ve been 14 years digging graves. It’s a job you either take to or you don’t. I see it as more than a job. You are in the mist of people’s grief and doing the best you can to go unnoticed. There are certain jobs that require a personal touch. For example, you can’t open a grave for a baby with a machine.

“Burying children is the hardest for all of us so we can’t imagine what it must be like for their families. In some ways, you are like a social worker. People will talk to you about what happened. They feel a release from talking to strangers. A number have said that they feel better after talking.”

The work has led Stephen to value every life, no matter how small.

Stephen O’Connor is a grave digger at St. Catherine’s Cemetery, Kilcully, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Stephen O’Connor is a grave digger at St. Catherine’s Cemetery, Kilcully, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

“The minute I see a rabbit or a mouse in an open grave is when my soft heart kicks in. I’ll have to go down and get them because I can’t stand the thought of them being buried. I don’t like to see any creature die.”

Workers have been experiencing a testing time since the graveyard was seriously vandalised at the beginning of this year. Many relatives of those buried in the cemetery were left devastated after headstones were destroyed and the grave was left in a disturbing state.

“For us, it was an awful time. There were no answers. The situation was crazy and left all of us flabbergasted. No matter how you feel about a person when they are alive they should be left to rest in peace.”

While it was clear this attack had been carried out by people, Stephen said that other incidents had innocent explanations.

“When there is something missing from a grave you think the worst. People wouldn’t believe that much of what goes missing from graves gets taken by the crows. They’ll take the plastic vases you see sitting on graves or anything shiny for them to use for their nests.”

The Blarney Street local recalled one other misunderstanding that left him and his colleagues amused.

“A couple of the lads were sheltering themselves from the rain using one of the green doors designed to cover open graves. When they lifted it up it appeared like a hand was coming out of the grave. An elderly woman, who happened to be passing at that moment, ended up getting the biggest shock of her life. She was convinced it was somebody trying to get out.”

Stephen’s unique role often sets him apart when auditioning for films and theatre productions.

“I’ve have done so many jobs in my life-deep sea fishing, working with the army. For a short time, I even worked as an Echo boy.

When you go to auditions they’ll often ask you about how much life experience you have. I enjoy the bit of a shock when they ask me what I do for a living. If you say you are an electrician or a plumber it opens up a conversation. However, when you say you are a gravedigger there is nowhere to really go from there. It’s hard to know what to ask next.”

Stephen is glad to have made it as a part-time actor after years of waiting to pursue his dream.

“I was in a play when I small which the late famous Cork actor Michael Twomey saw. He asked me afterwards if I had plans to continue acting. When I told him I was unsure he said “I hope you do.”

Nonetheless, it wasn’t until much later in life that Stephen finally took the plunge.

“I can remember going to the Fás office and seeing pamphlets explaining about different occupations. There was a pamphlet for almost every occupation, including an actor. Each time I went I would pick up the actor pamphlet. Looking back, I suppose it made me feel like I was doing something about it. There was always that little voice in my head saying that acting was for people who went to college. Now, I realise that some of the best actors in the world come from working-class backgrounds”

The Cork man is glad his efforts paid off. “I went from the grave to the silver screen but sadly I have to go back to the grave again,” he laughed. “The two jobs are worlds apart.”

Stephen said he felt that experiencing loss at such a young age made him more equipped to deal with his job in the cemetery.

“My own mother died of TB when I was seven,” he said.

Sadly, death has been a reoccurring theme in Stephen’s life. At just 12 years old he and his siblings found themselves orphaned in tragic circumstances.

“It was me who found him,” Stephen said of his late father. “My friends were playing outside with a stuffed fox they had found. I rushed upstairs to my dad’s bedroom to show him.”

Stephen was devastated to find his dad had passed away suddenly.

“What he thought was indigestion from some homemade bread that evening turned out to a heart attack,” he said. “It hit me like a bolt of lightning.”

Stephen recalled how he had to start work as a messenger boy the next day.

“I was labeling bottles at the time when, all of a sudden, I started crying. My boss said “don’t be upset.” He was a very nice man. That was when I told him “my father died last night.”

In 2001 Stephen was dealt another blow after losing his brother to TB at just 41.

Despite these hardships, he is determined to make the most of his life. One of his overriding hopes is to make his family - wife Valerie and son Richard - proud. He has experienced much success on the short film which included a starring role in Cork filmmaker Brian Styne’s film 1914 Street. More recently, he starred in a music video for the band Hurricane Highway.

“They say there are a lot of roles for older men now. I’m not sure if it’s the same for women even though it should be. My hope is to continue it for as long as I can.”

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