They Rest Facing the Sun
Visiting a cemetery to see the grave stones of one’s ancestors, reading their names, dates and relationships inscribed on the head stones can be a humbling experience, especially when one can trace the family back over two centuries. But occasionally time, and particularly neglect can rob people of such contemplative experiences.
This is the story of a cemetery at Harbour Main that dates back to 1776, and the active efforts of one man to restore and reclaim something historic as a legacy to his community. Known as the Irish Cemetery it was the burial ground for people from the communities of Holyrood, Salmon Cove (Avondale), Cat’s Cove (Conception Harbour), Harbour Main and Chapel’s Cove.
Until 1999, when Richard Kennedy took it upon himself to restore the graveyard, stones marking names such as Woodford, Ezekiel, Kennedy, Costigan, Luce, Furey and Doyle were camouflaged by nature’s wild growth. "When I started this, you couldn’t get through here," he told me . "The trees were right over my head, you couldn’t see anything."
Ever since he was a child, Kennedy had known about the cemetery which pre-dates any parish in the town by about 25 years. What he couldn’t understand though was why nobody had paid any attention to it in the past century. The site had been so badly neglected that trees and wild brush growing to a height of up to two meters had taken over the area, covering up any signs that the ancestors of many residents in the community were buried there.
He was reluctant to point to the Kennedy plot, lest there be a misunderstanding about his motives in restoring the cemetery. "I didn’t do it for this," he emphasized. "I didn’t even know this was the original family until I found Johnny the Blunt’s will. Then I realized this was Johnny the Blunt, my great -grandfather."
In a certain light on a sunny morning, the inscriptions could be seen very clearly.
"Here lies the body of James Kennedy who departed this life in 1776, aged 60 years"
Although the grave of James (his great-great-great grandfather) is the first one known of his ancestors, Dr Kennedy had no idea where the former was born. Next to the headstone of James were those of his two sons, John and Patrick. Patrick’s son, Johnny the Blunt, was Richard’s great-grandfather. In those days, many people had nicknames based on a quality of character or appearance to distinguish them from one another.
Close by was the Woodford family plot where, next to that of William Woodford’s, I saw the unusual two piece headstone of James Woodford who was buried in 1853. The Woodfords, like the Kennedys, were among the earliest residents of the area.
"Everywhere you see a stone is a burial place," pointed Kennedy. " When I put up the large (wooden) cross this year (at the entrance) by the picket fence, we brought up a beautiful tibia and fibula. I was amazed at how well it was preserved- you know, really, almost as good as the ones they gave us to study in the first year of medicine." A retired pediatric surgeon in his late seventies, Dr Kennedy was the right person to come upon such a find.
The majority of the headstones at the cemetery were not ornate or expensive, because many of the people were so poor at that time that they couldn’t afford anything else. Often the burial spots were simply marked with a rock. Frequently the markers are Newfoundland slate on which the names were chiseled. On some of the Victorian stones, such as the O’Keefe stone, the name of the stone carver is also visible, perpetuating not only the memory of the early inhabitants of the Catholic communities at the head of Conception Bay, but also constituting a source of great interest to scholars studying the history of stone carvers of the nineteenth century.
The late Dr. Cyril Byrne, Chair of Irish Studies programme at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, was one such scholar. He had ancestors who hail from Holyrood and Conception Harbour. Over a decade ago he photographed the then-visible stones and transcribed the words on them in the context of a larger project in Harbour Main. Unfortunately those names and dates are now lost to erosion.
The first uncovered headstone, judging by its quality and the design carved on it, may have come from Ireland. It is inscribed with the name of Costigan, a native of Kilcash of County Tipperary, Ireland, who was buried in 1844 at age 54. The names of his daughters, Johanna who died at age 25, and Mary Ann who died at 22, appear on the same stone.
Dr Kennedy in blue and white shirt
More of the remaining inscriptions could be read on a sunny day because the stones all faced the east. Letters or dates which couldn’t be seen before stood out in clear relief when the angle of the light was right. For example, the previously unreadable inscription on one of the stones:
Here lieth the body of Matthew Hawco, died 7th of August 1813 age 15 years
was clearly legible in the mid-morning sun. Noticeably a lot of people died very young then, as living was anything but easy in those times.
"I’m sure there are inscriptions on all of them, but you can’t read some of them anymore. See, this is local rock," I remember Dr Kennedy pointing a brittle slate with the tip of his walking cane.
The stones were flaking or breaking away; and the inscriptions were getting lost as a result. Kennedy wanted to maintain what could be preserved so that local residents who have been searching for information about their ancestors could come to the graveyard and find out more. But keeping old headstones and grave markers in any kind of decent condition seems to be an uphill battle in the often harsh Newfoundland climate.
The major task of restoration had started with cutting down all trees and wild shrubbery which had uprooted and displaced many of the headstones. At first people in the community were slow to help, as nobody was even aware of the existence of a cemetery on the land. Once Dr Kennedy started the work, many residents pitched in by painting fences and doing whatever they could. Following the advice of Wade Greeley of the Newfoundland Museum Dr. Kennedy and his helpers were numbering the stones, using India ink and other approved materials.
I could see the labor of love that went into marking the burial lots with wooden crosses, and placing the overturned headstones back into their proper position in their right places. The greatest challenge ahead lay in protecting the old headstones and the brittle slate grave markers from the ravages of time.
I don't even know if Dr Kennedy is still living. Yet my brief acquaintance with him is etched befittingly in a brief part of my life away from home. His words echo in my ears as if I am hearing them today, "The reason this was chosen as a cemetery site is that this must have been the centre of the community in the 1700's, because Keating’s Stage, where Sunday Mass was held in 1775, is just up from the cemetery. Because saying mass was illegal at the time. The participants in the mass were punished and sent back to Ireland.”
An ironic yet significant event that followed the recovery of this cemetery was the Mass that was held in late July that year for the first time in many decades on the grounds. Father Fred Terry, the celebrant of the Mass also had ancestors buried there. The event brought forth stories about the ancestors of some Harbour Maine residents. One of these was told by Hubert Furey who was in attendance. Hubert’s great-great-grandfather George Furey, who was buried in the cemetery, was shot and killed, and many others were wounded during an election riot in the area in 1861.
What I saw were many stones - eroding very badly; and on the slate stones, the markings were flaking off. There was really no way of conserving them short of removing the stones from the graves and setting them in a stone wall with a protective covering, as was done in one historic cemetery in Nova Scotia. But such a concept defeats the idea of erecting a grave stone in memory of a departed one.
Richard Kennedy had completed his massive plan of restoring a piece of history to the community of Harbour Main. But time is always the enemy. Unless serious and significant steps were taken soon, his efforts of the last six years would have been in vain.
© 2010 Füsun Atalay ~ DictionMatters ~ All Rights Reserved
All photographs are from the author's personal collections.
This is an adaptation from the original piece published in the Provincial History section of The Telegram, St John's, Newfoundland, in August 2005. Copyright belongs to the author.