Extract from ‘Antigone in Galway – Anne Enright on the Dishonoured Dead’


Published in the London Review of Books

17 December 2015


Reproduced for ‘1916 Home 2016’ with permission from the Author and the LRB


In September, the Irish government held a state funeral for the exhumed remains of Thomas Kent, a rebel and a patriot who was executed in 1916 and buried in the yard of what is now Cork Prison, at the rear of Collins Barracks, once the Victoria Barracks. His coffin was first removed to the garrison church, where thousands of people – including Dr John Buckley, the bishop of Cork and Ross – filed past to pay their respects. The funeral echoed the reinterment of Roger Casement – thrown in a lime pit in Pentonville Prison in 1916 and repatriated in 1965 – when Eamon de Valera got out of his sickbed to attend and a million people lined the route. Thomas Kent was buried in the family plot at Castlelyons and the taoiseach, Enda Kenny, gave the graveside oration. ‘Today,’ he said, ‘we take him from the political Potter’s Field to lay him with all honour among “his own”.’ Although the land in which he had lain is now, technically speaking, Irish, the prison yard still held the taint of Britishness, the memory of his dishonour.

‘Potter’s Field’ is not a term much used in Ireland, though we have many traditional burial plots for strangers. These are marked ‘Cillíní’ on Ordnance Survey maps. Sometimes translated as ‘children’s graveyard’, the sites contain the graves of unbaptised infants, but also of women who died in childbirth, ‘changeling’ children, suicides, executed criminals and the insane (infanticides were typically disposed of without burial). Some are situated on sacred sites and in ancestral burial grounds that existed before the shift to the churchyard in early medieval Ireland. These earlier graves served a territorial function: they are found near the boundaries of ancient kingdoms, and by the water’s edge. Cillíní are often situated between one place and another, at the limits of things. After the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s, allowed burial rites for the unbaptised, the Cillíní, along with the idea of limbo, fell out of use. […] It was a great difficulty to have someone close to you, buried apart. Irish graveyards are, above all, family places. ‘Would you like to be buried with my people?’ is not a marriage proposal you might hear in another country, even as a joke.

Emigration split families, and this may have made the need to gather together stronger for those who remained, even after death. In a country of the dispossessed, it is also tempting to see the grave plot as a treasured piece of land. But the drama of the Irish graveyard was not about ownership, and only partly about honour (in the Traveller community, to step on a grave is still an indelible insult).


When Enda Kenny praised the nieces who’d lobbied for the reinterment of Thomas Kent – ‘These three women have tended the flame of his memory’ – he was speaking from the heart of the Irish rhetorical tradition. Under the censorship of British rule, the graveside was a rare opportunity for political speech, and it was a woman’s role not just to mourn and love, but also to remember the revolutionary martyr. The job of remembering was also a work of silence: ‘O breathe not his name!’ was the song by Thomas Moore, the name being that of the patriot Robert Emmet, executed after leading the 1803 rebellion, who asked that his epitaph remain unwritten until his country had taken its place among the nations of the earth. High speech and silence, this was the patriotic way, and no silence more urgent than that of the graveyard.


It is tempting to see Antigone as a play not just about the mourning female voice, or about kinship and the law, but about the political use of the body after death. […] Antigone is a woman who breaks an unjust law. […] Her appeal, when she makes it, is not to Creon but to a higher order of justice, ‘the unwritten unfaltering unshakeable ordinances of the gods’.


‘They say a grave never settles,’ Catherine Corless remarked as we walked the convent wall in Tuam, where she suspected adult remains might lie. I looked at the ground and I could believe it; the shadow of vegetation that grew more lush formed an oblong, seven feet by five. This was beyond the little plot where locals say babies from the town’s Mother and Baby Home were buried. A small grotto in the corner is tended by the residents of the housing estate that was built on the site in the early 1970s. Corless was doing a local history project and, intrigued by the unmarked burial plot, went to the Bon Secours sisters to ask for records. These had been passed on to the county council in Galway they said. The county council told her they were passed on to the Health Board, the Health Board said it only had ‘individual records’, which she would not be allowed to see. She then went to the Births, Marriages and Deaths Registration office in Galway to get, at her own expense, the death certificates of 796 babies and children who died in the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961. The location of their bodies is unrecorded. They have not yet been found.

In 1975 local boys had told of seeing the small bones of children in some kind of tank, under a broken concrete top. […] After the words ‘septic tank’ appeared in the world’s press Corless found herself besieged by journalists. She was misquoted, then called a liar for things she hadn’t said. With all that shame flying around, it needed a place to stick and clearly it was her fault, whatever it was – sewage tanks, babies, all that dead history, Ireland’s reputation abroad.


It did not take many women to run the Mother and Baby Home – four or five nuns, Corless said, for up to a hundred pregnant and nursing women, and their children, who might be taken away for adoption at any time. They had nowhere else to go, clearly, but they must also have been very compliant. What were they like? Fear kept them quiet, Corless said, the threat of being sent to the asylum or the laundry. ‘That,’ according to Julia, a long-term resident, ‘is how the argument was settled.’ […]When the Bon Secours nuns left Tuam for good, they exhumed the remains of their dead sisters – 12 in all – and took them with them to their new home in Knock. The controversy Corless started about the 796 missing bodies has provoked a commission of inquiry into the Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland, led by Judge Yvonne Murphy. A few weeks ago a geophysical survey was taken of the ground using penetrating radar and magnetometry. Corless is confident that the remains of an untold number of children will be found there. But if they are not found – and that is also possible – there will be much fuss and distraction from the fact that no one knows where the bodies of 796 children have gone.

The living can be disbelieved, dismissed, but the dead do not lie. We turn in death from witness to evidence, and this evidence is indelible, because it is mute. It started in 1993, when the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge sold off a portion of their land to a developer in order to cover recent losses on the stock exchange. As part of the deal, they exhumed a mass grave on the site which they said contained the bodies of 133 ‘auxiliaries’, women who worked until their deaths in the Magdalene Laundry of High Park, which closed in 1991.


It was another ten years before Mary Raftery wrote about the High Park exhumations. Raftery’s documentaries, the three-part States of Fear (1999) and Cardinal Secrets (2002), provoked two commissions of inquiry, one into abuse in Irish institutions for children, which were usually run by the religious, and one into clerical abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese. These were published in 2009, as the Ryan Report and the Murphy Report respectively. Before her death in 2012, Raftery was hailed as the most influential broadcaster of her day, but she got what we used to call ‘drag’ from RTE television on these projects, especially States of Fear; the kind of delay, indifference and non-compliance that runs through an institution when someone seeks to disturb the status quo. Sheila Ahern, who worked with her as a lone researcher, remembers being told that the story was, in media terms, ‘done already’. There was no budget, no resources, the whole thing was deemed, in audience terms, ‘a turn-off’ and Raftery was asked to ‘lighten it up a bit’. Mostly patronising, this is an attitude that only turns aggressive at the last moment; it is particularly suited to dealing with women when they are troublesome, and Mary Raftery was very troublesome. Passionate for the victims of abuse, she had a bad attitude when it came to authority: non-compliant, endlessly tenacious and full of glee.


‘The boy is dead,’ Tiresias says to Creon, ‘stop killing him.’ Instead, Creon kills Antigone. He kills his own future daughter-in-law, breaking his son’s heart. Creon is concerned with anarchy (‘obedience saves lives’) and with keeping himself superior to womankind: ‘never never never let ourselves be bested by a woman.’ He is also concerned with pollution. His son’s nature has been ‘polluted’ by being subject to a woman. The pleasure of sex that women afford is ‘an open wound in your house and your life’. Creon is speaking about all women here, but Antigone is a woman squared, being the product of an incestuous union between her father, Oedipus, and his mother, Jocasta. Their family, Ismene says, is ‘doubled tripled degraded and dirty in every direction’. The line of kinship is hopelessly tangled, so when Ismene says, ‘O sister don’t cross this line,’ she is speaking to someone in whom all boundaries are broken.


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