“Burial Ground,” from Bloodroot
Winner of the Joseph Gahagan Prize at the 2016 Milwaukee Irish Fest

Burial Ground

Grave sites or cilliní for unbaptized infants not allowed burial in consecrated ground are found throughout Ireland; some were in use until the 1990s.
They still call, those unlived lives
of the unbaptized, stillborn, unshriven
before death and buried in unhallowed ground,
no headstones to mark their graves.
Always after dusk the hospital van
arrived at Belfast’s Milltown cemetery
with its load of dead infants
who were slung, unsung and coffinless,
by a sour-faced grave-digger
into an open hole.
A few still bore their caul.
Elsewhere, in the country, it was the fathers’
job to bury them, at night, after
the chores, the fodder forked
over half-doors, the lamps swung
through muddy yards, the steaming pails
milked from the cows in their stalls.
Men numb or grim or weary bore them
out beyond the last houses, to where
snipe creak and the sheep bleat,
to a patch like this on the other side
of a wall, where a track leads up the hill
and a stream comes down. They would
take their spades and pierce
the sod beneath the clumps of rushes,
furze bushes, bramble, nettles,
a hunch of wind-warped thorn.
It had to be done before the dawn.
Sometimes they laid them lovingly,
limned in pebbles of white quartz.
But no one’s to know: to the eye
of the passerby there’s just rough,
lumpy ground, tussocks of wet grass.
Babies lingered in limbo—in eternal
darkness, but no actual pain,
like floating in a currach on the outgoing
tide at night, minus your oars,
through cloud-burst, peat-drench, soak,
snow, drizzle, and the louring clouds;
the mist, some days, descending over all.