Sons of soil and toil who dig deep to pay their last respects

In his weekly column, TREVOR LAFFAN talks about the tradition of local people coming together to dig a grave when someone in their community dies
Sons of soil and toil who dig deep to pay their last respects

LAID TO REST: The digging of graves remains popular in parts of West Cork, Clare, and Limerick

I BUMPED into an ex-colleague of mine recently and it was good to see him again after being out of touch for a few years.

Paul Ahern is his name and he is a Clare man who has managed to put down his roots in Kanturk.

Many years ago, while we were working together, Paul told me that he needed a day off because he had to go and dig a grave in Clare.

I thought that maybe he had fallen and banged his head so I offered him a seat. I reminded him that he was already gainfully employed by the Department of Justice and that he was not a grave digger. But he insisted on going anyway.

He told me that it was customary in his part of the world for the local people to get together to dig a grave when someone in their community died.

Family, friends and neighbours would take it in turns to dig a piece of the grave and then, after doing their bit, they would take a sip out of a bottle of whiskey that would be placed at the head of the plot.

He told me that anybody can take a turn at the digging and that on one occasion, he saw the local postman getting involved. Postman Pat was cycling by when he saw what was going on, he threw his bike against the wall and picked up a shovel. He did some digging, had his sip of whiskey and then headed off on his rounds again.

I have never forgotten that story and when I reminded him about it, he told me that he had a little follow up tale.

Not so long ago, he went to Doon in Co. Limerick to do the same thing for another relative. He told me that 14 people had been lined up to dig the grave and when they were finished the digging, the plan was that they were going to adjourn to a local pub for soup and sandwiches.

When more than 40 people turned up in the graveyard, there were some frantic calls made to the pub to increase the order for the grub. They were going to need more sandwiches.

But it showed that this tradition is still alive and kicking in some parts of the country.

But it’s not just a matter of turning up and scattering earth everywhere either like a demented mole. There is a structure in place and a procedure to be followed.

For instance, you are not allowed to bring your own shovel, the oldest member of the family must be the first person to start the dig, and the grave must be dug on the same day as the removal.

I had never heard of this practice before but it seems that it is common in certain parts of Clare, West Cork and County Limerick.

But a few years ago, there was an attempt made to outlaw this tradition by Cork County Council. It’s the kind of story that makes you think you are hallucinating and Sean O’Riordan reported on the events in the Irish Examiner at the time

The county and town councils in Cork had passed by-laws which required all gravediggers to undergo mandatory training. The plan was that once they had completed the training course they would be included in a list of approved gravediggers.

A council spokesman had said that gravedigging was a dangerous activity and it should not be undertaken by unapproved persons. He said the by-laws were adopted in line with Health and Safety Authority guidelines.

The council said, “Gravediggers in small communities who dig three or less graves a year will be considered for a 50% reimbursement on the costs of mandatory training.”

The qualification cost €125 for a Safe Pass course, a further €125 for a manual handling course, and gravediggers also had to complete a €210 grave-digging and risk-assessment course, including first aid training.

The regulations required grave-diggers to have appropriate immunisation and equipment, including ear defenders, mobile phones and underground cable detection tools.

Now, you might think that that was a little over the top, but when you take into consideration the risks that are involved in gravedigging, then you might see the point in all this.

Gravediggers could get some earth in their hair or maybe a blister on their hand if they weren’t used to manual labour, or maybe even a hangover if they had too much of the whiskey. So, it’s a risky business.

I’m not sure how this training was going to work exactly, but I have an image of a very large sod being housed in CIT or UCC and a fully approved hole-digging trainer employed to give courses on proper digging.

I can’t imagine it lasting too long though because after lecture one, I’m struggling to find a topic for a follow- up talk.

It would be a handy number for the lecturer though.

Step one; take the shovel in both hands and stick it in the ground.

Step two; remove the shovel with the dirt attached and throw the dirt away.

Repeat steps one and two until you end up with a large hole.

Thankfully, we were spared all that because, following a plethora of complaints, the local authority held further discussions with the Health and Safety Authority and it was decided that health and safety legislation did not apply.

However, the county council said that people would, in future, dig graves “at their own risk”.

Thankfully, Cork County Council finally relented after someone sprinkled them liberally with ‘common sense dust’.

This is a fantastic tradition, it adds a personal touch to a sad occasion, and no doubt brings some comfort to the mourners.

Long may it continue.


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