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A Wee Irish Community

by Jennifer Garner

October 8,2009

The clouds part as we approach the runway and the sun sparkles over the rolling green hills of Ireland. When I land, I am greeted with a warm welcome and directions to the “wee taxi” after being told to hold on to my “wee ticket”. I am on my way to the community of Lurgan, outside Belfast, for the funeral of a friend’s mother. In spite of it being a sad reason to be there, I had a glimpse of what life is like in a small Northern Irish community.

Following the Irish Catholic tradition, the casket had been in the house for three days and was still in the living room on the day of the funeral. The family had taken turns sitting up all night praying around the body. Family members, friends and neighbors filled the house around the clock, eating and drinking and sharing stories of Moira McAliden’s life. Her four sons stayed up talking together until 2:30 a.m. on the last night.

On the morning of the funeral, the family solemnly walked behind the casket from the house up to the main road while a group of neighbors stood on the sidewalks in reverent silence. At the church, more people stood outside to greet us as we entered the packed chapel. The faithful chanted the well-worn words of Mass, and we prayed for the repose of the dearly departed soul in one mournful voice. The haunting verses of “Ave Maria” followed us out the door. Tears flowed as the four sons carried their mother from church for the last time.

In the parking lot, older people unable to walk to the cemetery spoke to the family and offered their condolences. Former teachers and shopkeepers came up to the four sons and related stories of what Moira had done for them. A nurse for 31 years, she had touched the lives of many families in Lurgan. As the sleek black car slowly wound its way to the cemetery, people stopped and bowed their heads or removed their hats in respect for the dead.

The car wound its way down a country road to the cemetery adjacent to an ancient stone church no longer in use by God’s flock. The stone slabs were covered with the names of McAlidens going back hundreds of years, a great many of which were unreadable, wiped smooth by the weathering winds of time. The black jackets and skirts fluttering in the breeze, the silent tears and the priest by the open grave created a scene that had an eerie timeless quality. I thought about all the graves that had for centuries been dug in these green hills for those who died of sickness, famine and childbirth.

Riding back into town with a few of the neighbors, the warmth of the sun made me sleepy and I felt myself nodding off to the lilting sounds of their voices speaking a language, though English in name, I could barely follow. They were discussing Moira’s family and where her people had come from. The driver knew her family too, once the name of her father, the butcher, was mentioned. We parked at the Village Hall, where they had all recently gathered for Cousin Mark’s wedding reception.

At lunch, more cousins than I could imagine piled in for the buffet, and endless pints of Guinness were poured. The widower sat with his buddies and they comforted him in the silent manner men do. The Chicago cousins spoke of opening Irish pubs in the Windy City and the English cousins discussed Manchester United football.

As we walked back to the house that night, we passed the memorial to the Lurgan boys who fell in the Great War and the lights came on in the neighbors’ houses.  My friend Gavin told me who lived in each one, which hedges they had dared each other to jump, the stone lion they had stolen each New Year’s Eve, and I could hear the emotion in his voice. “I had forgotten what it feels like to be part of a community,” he said, “where people know you and really care about you.” A wee lesson we all too soon forget in our too busy, self-absorbed, technology-filled world.

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