Gravespotting

grave

After the strenuous Christmas festivities, I decided to have a cultural day before heading back to the Big Smog. My plan was simple – to visit the Jewish Cemetery of Limerick. I had heard about this place’s existence. I knew that it was located close to the University of Limerick. The precise location was a mystery to me. During my ill spent university days, I had never sought it out. Now, almost quarter of a century later it was time.

When it comes to Jewish people, my hometown has a shameful past. In the 1871 census the Jewish population of Limerick had doubled from the previous 1861 census. It now comprised of two people. Over the following thirty years the population expanded as some Jewish folk from Lithuania fleeing persecution came to Limerick. By 1900 the population was almost 200 people. Then in 1904 some catholic bishop declared that they were unwelcome in Limerick as they were doing the devil’s work. Their businesses were boycotted, and their properties vandalised. The boycott may have lasted only a few years, but by 1930 the Jewish population had reduced. After World War 2 the Jewish population of Ireland (approximately 5000 people) left Ireland in large numbers for Israel. They’d not suffered in Ireland as they had on the mainland during the horrors of World War 2, but I guess they wanted a home with their own people. The Jewish Graveyard in Limerick fell into dereliction. Until 1990 when Limerick Civic Trust restored the cemetery.

Located in a walled, grassy area on a laneway off the Dublin Road, opposite the Hurlers’ Bar, it is now surrounded by houses. Like all graveyards it is peaceful. Home to only 12 graves it is the smallest graveyard I have ever visited. Most of the graves looked old, with inscriptions in both Hebrew and English. Three of the graves were from the 21st century. This made me happy – not for the fact that people had died of course, but more for the fact that there is still a Jewish community in Limerick, even f it is tiny.

I’d noticed that like many graveyards, this one was a popular spot for teenagers to go drinking. Graveyards tend to be peaceful and off-putting to adults at night – hence attractive to the youth. Empty beer bottles and cans littered the entrance. So, like a good atheist, I pulled out my supermarket bag and did a clean-up. As was only right and proper.

When I woke this morning, I decided that it was time to visit Ballycannan Cemetery in County Clare. This is where half my father’s ashes are buried (the other half are flying over the Atlantic). It will be the sixteenth anniversary of his death in a fortnight, so I thought I’d pay a visit. It was an hour’s walk from my mother’s house. The weather was inclement. I was soaked to the skin by the time I arrived. As it has been many years since I’ve been to the grave, it took me some time to find his headstone. I noticed the graves of some people I knew while on my search. Finally, I found it and spent fifteen minutes tidying it up. As I had to walk on thick grass to reach it, my cloth trainers were soaked through.

I left Ballycannan with my feet squelching beneath me. I was en route to my final destination – St. Brigid’s Cemetery – also known as the Paupers’ Graveyard or the ‘Yellow Hole’. My research indicated that this was a mass Famine cemetery where almost 6000 people had been buried in unmarked mass graves during the Famine years and after. Located at Watch House Cross, close to what was then the Limerick Workhouse (now St. Camillus’ Hospital) it was nicknamed the ‘Yellow Hole’ as the earth was yellow as each new round of corpses was placed on the previous one – apparently this a chemical reaction between the bog land and the decomposing bodies.

Limerick Civic Trust maintain this graveyard also. Apparently, there are no individual headstones for the paupers, who are instead memorialised with a large, single crucifix and a plaque.

Sadly, I couldn’t find it. It is known as Limerick’s forgotten graveyard – partly I suppose since there are no signs to tell you where it is. I didn’t spend too long on my search as the mulching sound from my sodden trainers indicated that it was time to head home, to prepare for my return to Dublin.

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