At the back of Le Fanu Park in Ballyfermot, where two tall trees stand on the bend of Raheen Park, a sizeable mound of earth forms a time capsule, from before the houses and shops were built, when the area was still farmland.
Underneath the mound are the remains of a church and graveyard that date back hundreds of years. Even up until the 1970s, the cemetery was a part of the community – a meeting place, a park, a playground.
But then one day it was buried.
Some local residents say that this year – which marks the seventieth birthday of Ballyfermot – would be a good time to mark the site, to remember the roots of the suburb, and the dead who were buried there.
“I think there should be a plaque of some kind,” said Maureen Scott, on a recent Friday.
Her mum and neighbour were so upset when the graveyard was filled up and covered over without even a memorial, she says. “They thought it was desecration.”
A Meeting Place
When she was a child, Scott says she used to mitch off school and hang out in the graveyard.
“I used to look over the wall at my mother going down to the shops,” she says, on a recent Friday in Le Fanu Park. Joseph Kelly walks beside her with an impatient dog at the end of a lead.
In 1972, workers from Dublin Corporation – which is what the council used to be called – covered over the ruins, creating the mound. The old cemetery was lost underground.
“It was a big deal, the graveyard. It was from the 1700s,” says Scott.
It was older in fact even than that, says Cathy Scuffil, the council’s historian in residence for the area. The graveyard, and the nearby castle and church, date back to the Normans, she says.
They arrived in Ireland in the 1100s, and the church’s foundations date to the 13th century, an archeologists’ report says.
From the 1600s, it fell into decline, Scuffil says. Burials seem to have happened up to 1913 – many of them illegal – but no known records of them seem to exist.
Kelly says he used to sleep in the graveyard when he was running away from home – usually after his dad found out he had been skipping school.
It was exciting and a bit scary, he says. “We always used to frighten each other, two or three of us would sleep up there.”
The names on the tombstones were clear, and so were the dates on which they had been buried, says Scott. The graveyard was a meeting place, of sorts, she says.
“I used to do my homework up there with my friend, Pauline, who lived next door to me, and a lady up there told our mothers,” she says, gesturing to one of the row of terraced houses lining the park.
Her next-door neighbour would try to frighten them, Scott says. “She used to say that the headless coachman used to come out of it and go all the way around.”
There were walkways too, says Kelly. “We used to race each other all up and down where the graves were.”
Patrick Wall, who has also lived around there all his life, says his mother told him that his infant sister was buried in the graveyard, many years ago.
“To tell the truth, I don’t even know what she was christened,” Wall says. In those days, if you died, you just got stuck in a hole, he says.
Local historian Ken Larkin remembers the “street wars” he’d have with his friends and other groups of kids, up in the graveyard. “It was basically a playground,” he says.
Marking the Spot
It was devastating for the people of Ballyfermot when the corporation covered the graveyard over, says Scott. “They’d done it without asking anybody, or wanting to know how the public felt.”
They didn’t move the graves, says Kelly, they just covered them over.
Michael Conaghan, a teacher at the time and later a councillor, says he remembers trying to raise the issue with the corporation.
“I remember being astounded at how significant it was in the area,” Conaghan says. “I was making representations; people were coming to me, because they knew people were buried there.”
As a teacher, he would take classes there to share their local history. Older people would tell him about the burials they had been to, he says.
At the time, the site was verging on territory owned by the neighbouring county council, “and it was hard to get them [the county council and Dublin Corporation] to work together”, so what followed was a “prolonged period of neglect”, Conaghan says.
Larkin, the local historian, says the cemetery should be marked in some way. Says archaeologist Edmond O’Donovan: “If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d never know it was there.”
O’Donovan directed a test excavation of the site in 1998. It would be nice to give it some kind of above-ground presence again, like the hedges outlining the plan of Ashtown Castle, long gone, in the Phoenix Park, he says.
Burying an area in this way doesn’t damage what’s underneath, so it would be possible to dig it up again, he says. But that would be expensive.
“I don’t think today we’d bury a site, but you have to accept what happened and work from that,” O’Donovan says.
City Archaeologist Ruth Johnson says she believes the ruins were buried to protect them. It’s a way of preserving ruins in situ when they’re affected by vandalism or weathering, she says.
Dublin City Council Press Office didn’t respond to queries about whether it plans to put in a plaque or memorial to mark the site.