Seanie Quinlan is a man from the Otherworld. Perhaps that's because he has spent so much of his life attending to those bound for the unknown pastures of death. Since his return from England in 1963, where he had worked as a builder, Seanie has been the principal gravedigger for the parish of Kilsheelan. His 'beat' consists of seven graveyards, Catholic and Protestant, along the banks of the River Suir which forms the county border between Waterford and Tipperary.
'I've been opening graves and carrying people for over thirty years now,' he tells us, tickling the belly of his pet dog, Shandy. 'I know all the burial spots and all that. I have one or two fellows helping me with the physical end of it but I mark out the spots. I'd say I've buried five hundred people by now. It works out at about sixteen funerals a year.'
One of the spin offs of looking after graveyards is that you become very good at dates. 'I don't even have to look at the parish records now,' he says with a confident shrug. For instance, he is able to state that precisely one hundred women and children drowned in the river just outside Carrick-on-Suir on Wednesday, 8 February 1799. Or he can show you the grave of an unfortunate couple by name of Shea, relatives of his mother, killed when their car plunged over a bridge destroyed a week earlier during the Troubles of December 1922. And he is pretty sharp on guessing whether such and such a family were originally Celtic, Welsh, Norman or English.
'The contention is that the Quinlans have been living here [in Kilsheelan] for at least 1100 years,' says Shaunie. Indeed, he suggests direct descent from St Patrick's best known convert, High King Laoghaire. By the time of the 1659 census, 'Quinlin' had become one of the most prolific surnames in Tipperary. But then three hundred years of emigration kicked in. Shaunie points down towards the river beneath his house. 'If you were going to America from here, you would step onto the boat just down there. A horse-drawn boat would bring you down to the old bridge in Carrick. Then you got over to the Quay and got on a bigger boat then and you went on that to Liverpool.'
If Seanie's passion is for the historical, so is his lifestyle. 'I have no television,' he says happily. 'I have no telephone and I have no nothing.' In terms of diet, one of his more obscure tastes is for nettle leaves. He grabs a handful from a nearby stalk and stuffs them into his mouth by way of an explanation. It doesn't seem to do him any harm. Indeed, he was just back from a visit to the local clinic. 'I said to the girl, "Now, you needn't answer if you like and I probably shouldn't ask you, but what way is my blood?" and she said, "Your blood is one hundred per cent perfect, completely clear."' Seanie attributes this fortuity to nettles - 'and I have a few other vegetables in the garden too'. He has two chickens for his daily eggs, though he says he had more 'but they keep getting swiped'.
Seanie's first cousin Mike Quinlan recalls visiting Kilsheelan as a teenager in the early 1970's and staying at the cottage with their grandmother. She told him the Banshee was abroad one chilly wet evening. 'A horrible howling and wailing was to be heard all over the village,' wrote Mike. 'All of the local dogs had started howling at the same time, it lasted about 20 minutes. When it stopped Grand Mother told us the Banshee had got the soul it had been sent for. The following day we found out a woman had been found dead in the river towards Carrick na Suir. She was from towards Clonmel and it was assumed she had thrown herself in the river and floated down passing Killsheelan at the same time the dogs set up the howling. As a teenager we loved stories like this as it made us shiver and convinced us that a spirit world did exist alongside our own. She would often sing to us in Gaelic which added to atmosphere'.
A week before I met him, Seanie had the task of digging graves for a pair of brothers
who passed away within a few days of each other. A set of brothers from
Ballyneale [sic] just passed away. 'They were old,' concedes Seanie,
'but it was unique for two to pass on so close to each other.' He
has his own plot carefully marked out in Kilsheeelan. 'Oh I know exactly
where I want to go,' he says, 'but whenever I will go, I don't know.'
Thanks to Nicola and Harry Everard, Micky and Clare fFrench-Davies, Caroline de Havilland and Michael Quinlan.