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Prayer between the bogs

The wetlands that 1,500 years ago surrounded Donagh graveyard were fragile, and have gone

Hunched into the summit of a steep drumlin close to Glaslough village is Donagh old graveyard. Like many old ecclesiastical sites called Donagh, which means church, it is believed to be of Patrician foundation. Less than 15 miles from Armagh, where St Patrick was based between 440 and 490 AD, this lofty site in the county of Monaghan was referred to as the “church between the bogs” in the Annals of the Four Masters and is located between the Mountain Water River and Glaslough Lake. The trick to locating the old burial ground is to keep an eye out for the incongruous verdant yew trees that surround it among the workaday agriculture green, and then follow your nose.

It is peaceful. Once you have slotted back the latch on the groaning wrought-iron gate and entered the graveyard, there is a palpable feeling of isolation and serenity. The headstones are hosts to multifarious vividly coloured and textured lichens, solidifying the carved words and hand-inscribed cursive letters with splashes of bright hues. In autumn, the fallen leaves create a camouflage with the deep litter piled around nature’s painted stones.

The earliest headstone, bearing the date 1666 inscribed like a row of upside-down commas, is close to the base of a high cross that is always full with water husbanded for local cures. Other cross bases dot the site and speak of its former importance. The wheeled cross that does remain standing has a large discoid head with non-pierced segments so that it is is still one solid piece. It is decorated with a sunburst reminiscent of a sundial with a centred crucifixation scene.

Before the site was fossilised as a burial ground, there was a church here. All that remains now is a small rectangular unroofed ruin built with large masonry blocks, probably reconstructed many times over the years. Nature is claiming it back and it has become part tree.

Carved onto the edges of the eighteenth century headstones at the old graveyard, are rows of solemn praying figures, stacked one on top of the next and clothed in pleated skirts, with neat joined hands, downcast eyes and submissive humble expressions. They continue curved around the shoulders of the headstones, constantly offering prayers for the souls of the deceased and reminding visitors to pray for their salvation. The faces and backs of the stones are also decorated, at the base with happy looking Adam and Eve figures standing in the orans position either side of the tree of life. Standing with arms outstretched, this is the oldest known position for prayer and generally used for thanksgiving and blessings. Close to the top of the stones are winged heads or cherubs, symbolising the soul or spirit ascending to heaven.

Deeply cut in relief on the back faces of the stones are macabre skulls and crossed bones, coffins, bells and hour glasses. These carved symbols of mortality remind the visitor that everyone is mortal, earthly time will run out, and the bell will toll.

All this weighty symbolism succeeds St Patrick by a thousand years, when Donagh sat on a height between the bogs. Like most of the wetlands in Ireland, these have mostly disappeared in the vicinity save for in a few damp corners and rushy fields, where Patrick’s friend Brigid seems to be holding on. Just.

The bulrush or reedmace common in Ireland in swamps and marshes comes into its own at this time of year, particularly in oblique early-morning light when its flower-heads stand like mini-sculptures dipped in sugar. Its scientific name Typha latifolia categorises it as a member of the aquatic reed family but its Irish name Coigeal na mBan Sí or ‘Fairywoman’s Spindle’ seems apt, to me at least. The glottal, glarry ground spoken of by Seamus Heaney in his interviews with Dennis O’Driscoll in the book ‘Stepping Stones’, is Ireland’s fertile soggy bottom. Wetlands, ponds and small woods are recognised as “stepping stones” in the landscape that are beloved of fauna and flora. These are often outside of the bigger protected sites but perform a very important supporting role.

The European Habitats Directive emphasises the importance of stepping stones for conserving biodiversity, specifically referring to their role in maintaining a coherent ecological network or green infrastructure. Wetlands, often with their heads above water and their roots below, are particularly vital and generous to many ecological systems. They are rain gardens, water filters, composters, sediment traps, nutrient cyclers, flood buffers, carbon sinks and homes for an amazing range of habitats, plants and animals. Most of the threatened plants in Ireland are wetland dwellers, not the adaptive Fairywoman’s Spindle or St Brigid’s rushes but rarer sensitive specialist species. Losing plants from a site means a loss of diversity or species richness. As a rule, the more the species the merrier, for a loss of species will eventually lead to a reduction in ecological function. Nature is no monologue.

St Brigid famously cross connects to the common rushes of Ireland. Her feast day on the 1st February – Imbolc, the start of the Irish spring – spills into World Wetlands Day on the 2nd. This is the international campaign day organised by the Ramsar Convention, which seeks to ensure the maintenance of the ecological character of wetlands, their wise use and an ecosystem approach to their management, as well as the designation of particular large wetlands as International Ramsar Sites. In Ireland, there are forty-five such sites but Ramsar is good fodder for all wetlands, big or small.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Inversnaid seems the wisest plea:

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness ? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet ;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet

Shirley Clerkin