In Ringsend, a Pall-Bearer Carries on a Local Tradition

If someone in the Ringsend area dies, Eoin Dunne will knock on their door and offer the service of carrying the coffin over the bridge.

“We wouldn’t feel intimidated even knocking on a stranger’s door,” Dunne says.

Mostly, people seem relieved when Dunne arrives at a wake to organise the coffin being carried over, he says.

“With death, you are stunned. Everyone is stunned so it is great for things to happen like that,” he says.

Some days, Dunne, along with friends and family, would organise for the tradition to be carried out as many as three times.

The tradition of carrying coffins over the Ringsend Bridge – from the side closer to town, to St Patrick’s Church on the Ringsend side – goes back beyond the memories of some of Ringsend’s oldest denizens.

Jimmy Purdy, who lives in Edenmore now, but lived in Ringsend as a child in the 1930s, remembers it happening back then. “Everything would stop and cars pull over to the left.”

This would allow for the pall-bearers from the community to carry the coffin of a Ringsender over the bridge, and the deceased would be brought home one last time.

“It shows respect. It shows the community coming together and supporting the people whose family member has died,” says Purdy.

“It goes back to the myths of time. I don’t think even the people who do it understand why it was done,” says Fr Ivan Tonge of St Patrick’s Church.

Fr Tonge guesses that the tradition may have started before the Ringsend Bridge was built.

“The bridge used to be wiped out so often by flooding that they maybe had to physically bring the body back” to Ringsend from funeral homes closer to the city centre, says Fr Tonge.

Says Purdy: “It’s a great tradition to have, almost in Dublin city centre itself.”

While this custom has been going on for decades, the people that carry the tradition on today are unsure of how long it will last.

Dunne says he passes the church sometimes now, and sees that it is not being done with some funerals.

On the day of a funeral, traffic stops for 10 minutes to allow for the coffin to be carried over the bridge, says Dunne.

At the far end, helpers would press both pedestrian lights, and stand out in front of the cars in traffic, he says.

Photo by Donal Corrigan

They would then select people from the funeral to step out and carry the coffin. More people would be selected to take over and carry the coffin further across the bridge.

Mr Reed was one of these community figures that played a central role in the tradition back in the 1940s, says Purdy.

Dunne says he remembers Mr Reed too. He knew him as “Chunk” Reed. Reed worked as a docker in the area.

“He did have a leading role in activities on the docks, in funerals and if Rovers were playing a cup final in Dalymount people would march down and he would be at the top,” says Purdy.

“That man led every funeral into St Patrick’s Church and he was a Protestant,” says Purdy.

Then, there was Dunne’s uncle, Gidda Murphy also known as “Horse” Murphy.

“It was always Gidda. He would be there hail, rain or snow, he would always be in front,” says Dunne.

Folks like Murphy and Reed would pair people together to carry the coffin and co-ordinate the walk towards the church.

Dunne and his brother fill this role today. It’s important to have somebody that knows how to coordinate the carrying of the coffin, says Dunne.

He compares it to people watching him throw a javelin – which he throws pretty well, he says.

“People feel the weight of it and say ‘Jaysus, that’s light. Can I throw it?’ When they throw, it only goes a couple of feet and then it wobbles,” says Dunne.

“They would see me, they would see my brother, they would see Gidda, and they would know that it is in control,” he says.

“Usually we accommodate anything,” says Dunne.

There was a Ringsender, Danny Reilly, who passed away last year. Although he lived in Tallaght, Reilly’s family had him driven from Tallaght to Ringsend.

When they arrived at Ringsend, they took the coffin out and carried him over the bridge. He was then put back in the hearse and returned to Tallaght.

“And that was an honour for his family,” Dunne says.

Dunne says another time there was a steward that worked in Lansdowne Road, now the Aviva Stadium, all his life.

He had left a special request for his funeral.

“He wanted to request when you get to the bridge, can you stop and do an about-turn to Lansdowne Stadium and bow,” says Dunne.

“We’d do anything to help anyone in that time of need,” Dunne says.

Humour is important for Dunne, he says.

One of the heaviest coffins they carried was for a man that collected scrap metal. “One of the lads was saying, ‘I think he has all the bleeding copper in it,’” says Dunne.

Another time they stopped a hearse at the bottom of the bridge with three limousines of mourners behind.

They began the routine of organising each other and taking the coffin from the hearse.

“Lads, lads stop,” the driver said, “this funeral is going to fucking Bray.”

Dunne laughs about it now, in his sitting room.

“We’d always make each other laugh because you are doing a morbid thing, but let’s make it good in a nice way,” says Dunne.

Photo by Donal Corrigan

Being involved in the tradition hasn’t changed how he feels about death, says Dunne.

He still wishes to wind people up at his own funeral, he says. “I’ve always said to put my phone in my coffin and get one of my mates to ring me at the funeral.”

Even at funerals outside of Ringsend, he keeps up the role. Like last year, at the funeral of a fellow docker last year in Shankill.

“Listen when that coffin comes, we’ll carry him,” Dunne says he told two fellow dockers at the funeral.

Other people at the funeral were apprehensive. They were unsure if it is still done anymore, he says.

When the coffin arrived, they organised the docker on their shoulders and walked into the church.

“You should have seen the faces, people were amazed,” says Dunne.

Dunne, in his 50s, is the youngest person in the area to carry the tradition on, he says.

It’s not so much that he enjoys doing it, he says, but that it feels important for that tradition to continue.

“When I first carried it, I was honoured. So I kept it on so I could be with Gidda and my older brother,” he says.

When Dunne passes, there will be a guard honour of green and blue oars, he says. That’s a tradition for people who rowed in the local rowing teams in Ringsend.

For people who want to take up the mantle, to step into the tradition of Ringsend pall-bearing, Dunne says to come down to the next funeral.

“It’s great to see the young lads doing it, it puts you in touch with people, it gives you a heart,” says Dunne.

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Donal Corrigan: Donal Corrigan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. He covers transport, and the southside. To get in contact with him, you can email him on [email protected]

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