The Christmas Tree Lighting in the Holy Angels Plot in Glasnevin is an important milestone in the A Little Lifetime calendar and in people’s year in grief. Glasnevin Cemetery is a significant place in our history as a nation. So many people who created and shaped our country are buried there. On my way to the service, I walked past the grave of Daniel O’Connell, father of the Catholic Emancipation movement. His insistence that a place be created for Catholics and Protestants to be buried together caused Glasnevin Cemetery to be set up in the 19th century. People should be buried together – an idea that seems as natural as anything to us now began as a radical aspiration. Onward on the right I spied the simple but imposing headstone of Charles Stewart Parnell, colossus of the Home Rule movement. “No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country, ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further’,” he famously said. And not just those men, but James Larkin, trade union leader who said, “The great appear great to us, only because we are on our knees: Let us rise.” And Constance Markiewicz, politician, revolutionary, nationalist and feminist leader, who advised women to, “Dress suitably in short skirts and sitting boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver.” And many, many more. I thought how marvellous it was that your child, if you had to bury them, could rest yards away from such luminaries. There can’t be that many cemeteries where children have such status. Equally, there can’t be that many cemeteries where the great and the good of society are buried so close to so many children. Their proximity in their resting is a reminder of what a leveller our mortality is. Death comes to us all in the end. Although, in the case of our children, it came at the beginning.
The Tree Lighting Ceremony is beautiful. Some words, some music, a poem and candles. The elements of it are the essence of timeless simplicity. A solo singer accompanied by an acoustic guitar performing a delicate version of O Holy Night. Some words from Christy Kenneally about how we can be inspired and comforted by the cycle of nature. “Like trees, we are rooted in nature,” he said. Very true. Peter Hanlon reading Eavan Boland’s poem ‘Tree of Life.’
I cannot find you
in this dark hour
for dawn to make us clear to one another.
And then the light came. The tree lit up against the backdrop of the darkening December sky, lifting our spirits with its reminder that light will always return to our lives.
The atmosphere is not as solemn as the Christmas Service in St Nicholas Church in Francis Street. I suppose a church just commands a certain reverence. There was a lively informality I really enjoyed – people chatting quietly, a laugh or two, small children running around. Beside me, a dad swung a small laughing child in his arms. This liveliness sat comfortably with the sadness. In the midst of all this, one couple stood out for me. They stood together, silently and stoically, with their candles and flowers. I wondered how old their child might be, had he or she lived. I decided around thirty-two. They reminded me of that lovely expression from mindful meditation: standing with the qualities of a mountain; still, immovable and solid. Will I have such quiet dignity when I am thirty-two years down this road?
When the ceremony was over, I walked around the headstones looking for my friend’s baby who passed away in 1978. On the way, I was stopped in my tracks by the marker of a baby girl who was born the day after me. Maybe our paths might have crossed if she had lived? As I walked onward, because I was searching for a baby born in the late 1970s, I was struck again and again by the baby John Pauls. Named in honour of the Papal Visit in 1979, thousands of John Pauls born in the years that followed are now men nearing their forties. But not here in Glasnevin. Here, they remain forever the baby boys their parents named to remember a historic Papal visit and all the promise it seemed to hold for them. What it must have meant for those families to have their own John Paul, and all the promise he might bring. But it wasn’t to be.
And finally, I found my friend’s baby’s name – a Mary like myself, born in 1978. And I shed a tear for her, for her lovely mother who was always so kind to me, for my son and for all our babies. I shed a tear for what should have been. The candles left at the graves were now shining brightly in the dark. Like the other parents I made my way home, past the graves of the babies and the graves of the great and the good, out of this special place and into the cold and the dark. I made my way towards a Christmas imbued with sadness but made a little brighter by the kindness and solidarity of friends. As Daniel O’Connell said, “I will go on quietly and slowly, but I will go on firmly, and with a certainty of success.”
(This first appeared in Moments, the magazine of A Little Lifetime Foundation)