RTE Radio this evening ran John McKenna’s 1995 documentary ‘Children at the Bottom of our Garden’. More a profound piece of drama than a documentary, it was prompted by McKenna’s discovery when his mother was dying that her stillborn children had been buried in the family garden.
The scenes described are those of unimaginable pain: husbands making burial shrouds from bedsheets, coffins being fashioned from wood from the shed; no dark suit and white collar coming down the road; no lying in a church or chapel; no prayers, no hymns, no mourners; nothing more than the glint of a spade in the early morning.
The words recounted young men in suits, returning from dances as the daylight came, being passed by grieving men on bicycles, spades tied to the crossbars like rifles, small packages tied to the back, heading to the yards of ruined churches, or the sites of ancient raths; for, barred from consecrated ground, where else might they bury their children?
The RTE website comments:
This is a documentary about 1950′s Ireland and the Catholic Church’s tenets on the burial of the unbaptised.
It is an unwitting piece of sectarianism on the part of the writer, this was not only Roman Catholic practice, Protestants were treated in a similar manner.
Mary went into premature labour in her little country cottage, tucked deep within the hills of Co Antrim. Her little baby was stillborn, before the ambulance arrived from the local town. Weak and still haemorrhaging, she was made to walk out to the waiting vehicle. Her husband was left to gather up the only child they would ever have. He and Mary buried their baby among the flowers of their well tended garden; there were no prayers, no ceremony, no clergyman, no offer of pastoral support. Nothing. The pain remained with her and her husband for the rest of their days, how could it not have done? The child for which they had hoped, the child that was so precious, treated as if it had never had existence, as if it was nothing. There were no words that could apologize for the pain caused to the couple, no possibility of an expiation of the hurt.
Nor did the attitudes cease in the 1950s. Ordained in the 1980s, when at least a burial ceremony was permitted, I was told I was not to record in the burial register the forenames of babies who had died unbaptised: they were to be noted as simply ‘Baby’ and whatever the surname was. Had we really moved very far from the days when packages were tied to bicycles?
Had I been a woman living in Ireland in the past fifty years, I would long ago have turned my back on the church.