Antigone in Galway - Anne Enright on the dishonoured dead

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.
Some of those I visited in Connemara command a mighty view. One lies beside a path known as Máméan (the Pass of the Birds) that pilgrims still use on the way to the well of St Patrick. Individual graves are built up with large stones, for the length of the body beneath, and there are no crosses to be seen. The bodies of infants were buried by a father or an uncle, often at night. The scant ritual and the isolation of the setting is offset by the beauty that surrounds it: the place feels both abandoned and sacred. Which is not to say that the women whose babies were so buried did not resent the lack of a marker, or feel the loneliness of the spot (if, indeed, they were told where it was). 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). Irish ghost stories tell of graveyards actually rejecting those who do not belong – by which is meant Protestants. The ground itself might refuse, and yield their bodies up, or if they did stay put, the wall could jump over them in the night, to put the Protestants on the other side. Whole churchyards went wandering in order to leave them behind, and these ideas of purity and aversion persist in the undisturbed Irish earth, even into modern times.
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. And so we get the great speech by Patrick Pearse, eight months before the 1916 Rising: ‘the fools, the fools, the fools! – they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.’
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. Creon, the ruler of Thebes, dishonours the body of his nephew to serve as a warning to other potential enemies of the state. One brother, Eteocles, has been buried ‘in accordance with justice and law’, the other, Polynices, ‘is to lie unwept and unburied’ – this according to their sister Antigone, who has already decided at the play’s opening to ignore Creon’s edict and bury the corpse. And so she does. When asked to deny the crime, she says, in Anne Carson’s 2012 translation of Sophocles: ‘I did the deed I do not deny it.’ She does not seek to justify her actions within the terms of Creon’s law: she negates the law by handing it back to him, intact – ‘If you call that law.’
Antigone later says she is being punished for ‘an act of perfect piety’, but that act is also perfectly wordless in the play. The speeches she makes to her sister Ismene and to Creon are before and after the fact. She is a woman who breaks an unjust law. We can ask if she does this from inside or outside the legal or linguistic system of the play, or of the state, but it is good to bear in mind that Antigone does not bury her brother with words, but with dust.
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’. Antigone looks into her heart, you might think, and towards the heavens, while Creon looks around him to the business of government. But this system collapses before the end of the play into something more simple and self-enclosed. ‘The dead do not belong to you,’ Tiresias tells Creon, ‘nor to the gods above.’ There are moments – and death (or more properly decay) is one of them – that belong neither to sacred nor to secular law, but to themselves. Antigone has known this all along: ‘Death needs to have Death’s laws obeyed.’ Carson doesn’t use the word ‘ghost’. The idea that Polynices has some residual agency or voice creeps into other translations, but not into this one. The body remains a body – ‘rawflesh’ for dogs and birds – not a human presence. It is only when Antigone herself goes to die that she calls her brother’s name.
‘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. There was a strong response from the media when Corless said that this might be a disused septic tank that is marked on the map as lying under this spot. There was much rifling through the statistics and records; yes, the death rate among illegitimate children was up to five times that of those born within marriage, but institutions are great places for disease to spread, and what about measles? In fact, Corless was accusing no one of murder, and besides, the story was not new. There had been a brief report in a local paper two years earlier, and no one had seemed to care. It was the word ‘septic’ that did it; the association with sewage, the implication that the bodies were not just carelessly buried, or even discarded, but treated like ‘filth’. 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.
Maps, photocopies, ledgers and certificates littered the kitchen table. Over the course of an hour, two people rang Corless’s mobile, looking for female relatives who may have been in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. They might already have asked the nuns and the county council and the Health Board, but even babies born in the home do not have the statutory right to see their records, because of the secrecy clauses signed by the mothers who, willingly or not, gave them up for adoption. The information they do find may have been falsified at the time. Great desperation leads people to local historians like Corless. She told me about a man she helped, who was born in the home seventy years before. He had led a full life, with six children of his own – but one of them was disabled and he thought this was a punishment of some kind. When he found his mother’s grave, he brought flowers to it, and wept. He just wanted to meet her, he said, and tell her that it was all right.
When I asked Corless why she had brought the problem of the missing dead to light, she said: ‘It was the little ones themselves crying out to me.’ Her interest in historical research began when she tried to trace her origins after the death of her own mother. There was ‘some load there, some secret’. Her grandmother had entered a second relationship with a Protestant man, her mother was fostered out and never went back home. Corless managed to trace an aunt and when she made contact, decades after these events, the woman said: ‘We have nothing here for you now.’
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.’
Dr Coughlan was GP for the Galway Magdalene Laundry from 1981 to 1984. ‘The Residents were a delightful and happy group of ladies,’ he says, ‘each lady presented as a unique individual, with a unique personality, well able to ask relevant questions and to express her opinion and, above all, ready and willing to gossip, to tease and be teased and to joke.’
And perhaps it is true. Irish women are often nice.
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.
There were ten of these laundries in Ireland. They are styled, by the nuns who ran them, as refuges for marginalised women where they endured, along with their keepers, an enclosed, monastic life of work and prayer. The women were described as ‘penitents’, and the act of washing was seen as symbolic. The laundries were run as active concerns, washing dirty linen for hotels, hospitals and the army, and they undercut their rivals in the trade by the fact that their penitential workforce was not paid. So the laundries might also be styled as labour camps, or prison camps, where women were sent, without trial, for a crime that was hard to name. In 1958, 70 per cent of the women in the Magdalene Laundry in Galway were unmarried mothers. Asked how long they would be there, the mother superior answered: ‘Some stay for life.’
To the apparent surprise of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, 22 extra bodies were found in the opened grave at High Park. The nuns didn’t appear to know the names of several of the women buried there, listing them by their religious names as Magdalene of St Cecilia or Magdalene of Lourdes, and more than one third of the 155 deaths had never been certified. It was clear the nuns were not used to dealing with outside authorities. Costs were high; they allegedly haggled with the undertaker to ask if he could get three bodies to a coffin. In the end, the remains were cremated, in contravention of Catholic custom, and everyone who heard the news then or read the reports knew, in the silence of their hearts, exactly what was going on, and what had been going on, and what all this meant.
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