“People would be walking from Ballydehob”, our friend told us, “to do the rounds at Stouke Graveyard on St John’s Eve. Everyone in the village would come”
He remembered it well as a boy (he’s now retirement age) – the whole family walking to the graveyard, a festive atmosphere with friend greeting friend, after the day’s work was done. He described how the rounds were done. The focus was the chest tomb in the centre of the graveyard. You would do a decade of the rosary as you walked around, stopping four times. You would leave coins or a small offering, and pray for some special intention. He didn’t remember the Bishop’s Head being part of it, although other accounts state it was. The Bishop’s Head is the name given the bullaun stone (below), based on a legend about a beheaded bishop.
I’ve written about Stouke before (here and here – take a look for the background to this post) – it’s a tiny graveyard full of fascinating history. Looking back at those posts from 2016 also provides a good comparison of the condition of some of the objects in the graveyard between then and now. It is obvious that the small statues, for example, are not being renewed.
The chest tomb, located in the centre and highest point of the graveyard, marks the last resting place of Fr John Barry, and both he and his brother James, also a priest, are memorialised here. They were tremendously compassionate and capable men who worked tirelessly for their parishioners during the Famine. I have read James’ depositions to the Poor Law Commission. He was articulate and devastating in his criticism of the landlord system – full of righteous anger of the truest sort.
The memory of these two brothers lived on locally and over time took on an almost saintly aura. The fact that Fr John is buried here and that the original name of the graveyard is Kilaspick Oen, or Church of Bishop John, may have led to the practice of visiting here on St John’s Eve, June 23rd, as described to me by our friend.
This year I decided to see if the tradition lived on, so I walked up to the graveyard on St John’s Eve (Thursday). I arrived at 7PM and sat in glorious solitude for a long time until I was convinced that nobody was coming. Just as I was about to give up, a car arrived and then another. Tim Cronin and Joan O’Donovan, supported by her son Michael John, had come to do the rounds, as Joan had indeed come for her whole life.
Joan had brought flowers and coins and distributed them among us. She led the prayers as we said the rosary, stopping four times, once at each side of the tomb. We also left flowers and coins at the Bishop’s Head.
The chat was mighty afterwards. I told them what I knew about Fr James and John, and Joan and Tim told me about how busy a place this was in the old days. Joan says she will keep coming as long as she is able – she suffers from a bad back and sciatica and needs two sticks to walk, especially on the uneven ground in the graveyard. She had known a lot of the families buried here and we talked about the many islanders whose final resting place is this lovely, lonely spot.
As I walked home, I wondered how much longer anyone would come to continue this tradition. It seemed sad that it had been lost so profoundly that only Joan and Tim now come, where once it had been such an important event for the whole village. We are not that country any more, and in many ways that’s a very good thing, but I can’t help mourning the loss of the old ways too.