Tony McDonagh in Forthill Cemetery.

Date with a gravedigger

By Mary Ryan
A DATE with a gravedigger is a scary thought until you meet Tony McDonagh in Forthill Cemetery. He’s lived with death all his life — his father John was the first member of the family to take up the profession of gravedigger. There are now four generations of McDonaghs who lay claim to the title.
From Shantalla, Galway, Tony remembers his childhood back garden covered with cross-shaped moulds. These were made by his father who used to pour concrete into them. “This place is like a cemetery,” Tony’s mother Sarah/Sally (Bohan) used to say. The resultant crosses were placed by John on the graves of people who did not have a marker for one reason or another.
A couple of weeks ago, Tony repainted all those crosses white and they now stand in light relief against the multiple shades of grey in the cemetery. He did it to honour All Souls month (November) and while Covid-19 led to a cancellation of Cemetery Sunday, two Augustinian priests had just visited the cemetery when I arrived and had blessed the graves. Forthill is an Augustinian graveyard. A ten-foot high Celtic cross dating from 1860 marks the burial site of Augustinian priests and nuns.
To honour All Souls month, Tony had cleaned up the little Chapel which stands to the left inside the door. It is tiny space and while for sure it has a spiritual ambience with its altar and lighted candle in front of the Sacred Heart, it is also Tony’s office and where he eats his lunch.
Tony McDonagh was keen to point out that while death did not have the same awe in the McDonagh household that it might elsewhere, they are always cognisant of the fact that when visitors come to Forthill, they are often in various degrees of grief. Yes, as children they played around in the free spaces and most members of the family volunteer their time to keep the 16th century cemetery neat and clean. But their mantra is respect for the dead and their loved ones.
Tony remembers one incident which had a happy ending...

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