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Volunteers helping with the clean up of the historic Kilcrumper Graveyard near Fermoy earlier this month.
Volunteers helping with the clean up of the historic Kilcrumper Graveyard near Fermoy earlier this month.

We’re exchanging keening for cleaning at ancient cemetery

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THIRTY years or more ago, if there was no hurling or football match to go to, I’d say to our children “We’ll go for a spin after dinner”.

Many’s the fine Sunday we went off for a drive in the car — as the Chuck Berry song says ‘With no particular place to go’.

The children soon got fed up with my Sat Nav-less sense of direction. “We’re not going with you any more — we always end up in some auld castle, or ruined church or graveyard” was their usual excuse!

They were right of course because no matter where you go in Ireland you’re sure to find such relics and reminders of the past. I can thank one man for my interest in these old piles of ancient and medieval stones. That man was Tom Scanlan.

When I was a teenager, Tom was a regular nocturnal visitor to our home. Born in 1917, he was a farmer, historian, mechanic, inventor, antiquarian, pilot and mystic. He shared a lot of interests with my own father, they grew up together and went to school together. Both were ahead of their time, for example they generated water-powered electricity long before the ESB ‘brought the power’ to this area of rural Ireland.

In the 1970s, Tom took me to view nearly every corner of our parish. History abounds here and Tom knew of the location of wells and paths and old burial and church sites. Many were ivy-covered and long forgotten, save in the folk memory of a few.

He took me to the grave of a namesake of my own in Clonmult cemetery in the heart of East Cork. That John Arnold was a Waterford- born schoolteacher and is buried close to the great hurler and horseman Jamesy Kelleher.

From Tom, I developed a great sense of place and interest in things historical and tales of times of yore, when conversation and company ruled supreme.

I can’t recall when first I visited Kilcrumper cemetery, just outside of Fermoy town. It could have been at a funeral but more than likely ’twas with Tom as he took me on a ‘tour’ of the burial place of so many.

By the wall of the old ruined church is said to be the burying place of the highwayman Willie Brennan — ‘Brennan on The Moor’. Some say he was captured and hanged in Clonmel, others say he died during an attempted robbery. The date of his death is thought to have been between 1806 and 1812.

In 1984, I gave an ‘oration’ in Kilcrumper at the burial of Ned Daly of Rathcormac. During my researches on local GAA history, Ned had been extremely helpful. A hoarder by nature, he had kept a huge number of press cuttings dating back to 1928, the year the club was founded. He played hurling and football with the club and was a referee also. When it came to sport he was really ecumenical — he followed soccer, rugby, boxing and athletics. When Ned was playing hurling in the 1930s, if a player went down injured anywhere on the field the referee would have to stop the play. He was famous for ‘getting injured’ at crucial times in a game — especially if the opposing team looked like scoring!

Kilcrumper is the name of the cemetery on the ‘old’ Cork Dublin road and also gives it’s name to the Civil Parish which contains 3,249 statute acres of land. There are some beautiful old townland names — still in use — in the parish, like Ballyvoskillakeen, Knockanebohilly and Gortore.

In The History of Reynard the Fox, a mother grieves for her dead son Owneen — “the gorsoons now may hurl in the mountains but the strong arm of my Owneen is not there, did ye not hear the cry of the banshee crossing the lonely Kilcrumper?”

Later in the same tract, she tells us “There’s a tree in Kilcrumper that hangs over the lonely, in its branches the dark bird of night keens all night long — once I went as the moon shone upon the bed of my Owneen.”

Indeed, Kilcrumper, like other cemeteries, can be lonely a place but they are places of peace also.

To read headstone inscriptions is a fascinating hobby in itself. Over the years the epitaphs have changed. We have all heard of the stone that bears the inscription;

Here lieth my wife,

She is at peace

And so am I,

But no-one has yet told me where it stands!

In olden times, there was a tendency for flowery language: “he lived beloved and died lamented and his memory will never fade as the decades diminish his days departed” — often you knew who he was, how pious and zealous he was, but where he came from was omitted!

Nowadays, headstones are more functional in regards giving all the relevant information about the deceased.

Last Saturday week, the eve of the All Ireland Hurling Final, I was on the road to Dublin early. As I passed by Kilcrumper cemetery a large crowd had gathered. Many had shovels and spades. They were gathered not to bury someone. No, in actual fact they were there on a kind of ‘resurrection’ task.

Kilcrumper, according to the antiquarian Canon Power, can be translated as the Cill or Church of an ancient Gaelic ‘Saint’, Cruimtherfraech, of whom little is known. The grounds around the ancient church site have been used for burials for many centuries. In the ‘Old’ section of the cemetery there are probably hundreds, nay thousands, buried with no headstone or marker stone. There is also a newer burial ground and down the road a little further is ‘New Kilcrumper Cemetery’.

Over the years and decades and centuries, the Old Cemetery has become neglected. In recent times, the fact no-one was doing ongoing maintenance work in this hallowed spot has given rise locally both to anger and sadness. They say talk is cheap and action ‘speaks louder than words’ and instead of simply saying ‘someone should do it’, a committee has been formed to roll up sleeves and get the work done.

On September 2, close on three score volunteers turned up to begin the task; as I was on my way to Dublin to spend the day watching 7-a-side hurling, they worked. It is a mammoth task but once the start has been made it will seem easier.

Nature is wonderful but it can be devastating also. Ivy bends and twists, moss and nettles and weeds grow incessantly and so quickly a place of rest and calm can become a virtual jungle. The cleaning of headstones is fraught with danger as using the wrong cleaning agent can actually destroy ancient stones.

Richard Henchion, the doyen of ‘headstone inscription readers’ in Cork, has devoted a lifetime to doing the oft painstaking work of recording barely legible inscriptions. He told me many years ago that so many people with the best of intentions had used acid-based cleaners on the face of headstones. The acid never stops working and quickly the delicately cut engravings are no more.

No fear of that happening in Kilcrumper. Just cleaning the place and making it accessible is the aim. It is a peaceful place where birdsong has replaced the ancient caoining.

John Wesley, the English cleric who founded the Methodist religion, visited Ireland several times. In his journal for May 31, 1750, he noted that he “rode to Rathcormac, there being a great burying in the afternoon”. He went on to state that after the burial he heard what he described as the Irish howl. It was not a song, as I supposed, but a dismal inarticulate yell, set up at the grave, by four shrill-voiced women hired for that purpose, not one shed a tear, for that was not in the bargain. This coming Saturday morning, the meitheal will gather once more at Kilcrumper — not for caoining but for cleaning.