Leading the way to Gratitude

Just as I was savouring the last minutes of peace and quiet, my phone rang. It was Mia, our youngest, suggesting that I collect them from school as she needed to go to the Orthodontist.

“We don’t have an appointment today Mia”, I said.

“No but I need to go. I broke my brace eating my apple at lunchtime and now there is a sharp bit sticking out”.

Great, I thought, there goes the afternoon. I was already in a Monday mood which had been added to by the continuing gloom and doom in the news about Bond Markets and other things I do not understand. But I picked up the phone and without any difficulty got an emergency appointment for Mia.

At this point let me say that I cannot compliment the Orthodontic Unit at Loughlinstown enough. Run by the HSE (state health service) they have provided Mia was a superb, efficient and caring service in the search for her elusive front tooth which is still residing somewhere up near her nose. However it has been located and a gold chain attached which is in turn attached to a brace. It is tightened at regular intervals and is slowly pulling the tooth down into its position in the front of her mouth.

So we are regular visitors to the unit which is located behind St Colmcille’s Hospital. Like other hospitals in Ireland, Loughlinstown was originally a Workhouse, opened in 1841 for the poor and destitute of the area. The famine arrived a few years later and so the building was flooded with the starving and the dying. Both my younger girls are fascinated by the story of The Famine and each time we attend the hospital we talk about all those who must have suffered so terribly during the 1840’s and wonder what it must have been like for the unfortunates who arrived to this place.

The Orthodontic unit, being at the back of the hospital complex is surrounded by what looks like waste ground, overgrown and uncared for. Yesterday as we left, we noticed a worn pathway through the long grass and Mia suggested we check it out and see where it went. So we stolled away from the buildings and towards some trees.

Beyond the line of trees we stepped into a clearing. The foliage shaded the light and dappled shadows played on the ground which was covered in a carpet of beechnut shells. As we softly crunched our way into this church like space, we noticed, in one sunlit corner of the site, a large gravestone. It was marking the ‘Holy Angels’ plot* – where tiny babies were buried. As we stood and read the stone, our eyes were drawn to a small white cross a couple of feet away. It marked the grave of baby Natasha Sherwood who died in 1978 and poignantly ‘missed by her mum and dad and brothers’. Mia and I stood for a few minutes in silence. Sherwood is my husband’s name and so is also Mia’s and Roisin’s surname. My husband is English and it is a rare enough name in Ireland. This baby Sherwood seemed very real to us both. The fact that she was clearly a longed for daughter and sister, struck us as hugely sad. “She would be 32 now mom,” Mia said. As her words floated around this place I thought back to her own birth exactly ten years ago. Mia was premature and very sick for the first few weeks of her life. In her first 48 hours of life, we feared we would lose her. I have a small insight into how traumatic this other baby Sherwood’s death must have been.

The energy of this sacred place was beautiful. The only sound was the breeze rustling the tops of the ancient trees that stood guard all around us. As we continued to explore we came across another large stone memorial under the shade of overhanging trees. The inscription says it all. It read:

“The noble ones of other times sleep here,
Quiet be their voice.
They would not be disturbed.
Pain and hunger gone,
They feel not winter’s cold.
The Shepard has them now
Safe within his fold.”

St Colmcille’s Hospital. 1841 – 1991. 150 Anniversary

We had indeed found our famine graveyard. Here is this peaceful copse of trees on high ground behind the hospital. Sheltered by trees and in mother nature’s embrace, lie many hundreds of Irish people, who just over 150 years ago, died from hunger and disease.

As we left this beautiful place, we felt not sad, but very grateful that history has placed us here in Ireland at this time. Recession? We are wealthy beyond the dreams of our forefathers. Sometimes we forget to be grateful. And sometimes our children show us how or where to find such gratitude.

*Many hospitals in Ireland have a Holy Angels plot were in the past stillborn and new babies who were not baptised were buried routinely in an unmarked plot.

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Writing and Talking.... on the radio, on the telly and in the papers. Debut book out in Spring 2022

21 thoughts on “Leading the way to Gratitude”

  1. Lovely post. Very poignant. I remember one family holiday in Mayo and we went to a couple of sites – one was a village abandoned in the famine and the skeletons of tiny cottages were almost haunting, and the other was a lough (near Louisburgh I think?) where hundreds of people had drowned after being turned away by the local landlord who they had asked for food and drink.

    It really is too easy to forget how lucky we are now. Thanks for this Barbara.

  2. I shivered reading this post. It strikes me how many times in life I've begrudgingly done some errand or had a change of plans that were about me (writing) when I find myself moved in a way I wouldn't have if I went on with the original plan.

    We write, but life is our inspiration. What a poignant moment you shared with your daughter, and then realized how lucky you were. Sounds like a perfect way to spend the day.

  3. Lovely piece Barbara, I always think the 'holy angels' plots are such sad places.
    Mia led you to a moment of reflection, always to be grateful for in this mad world.

  4. Interruptions can be blessings, this was a lovely post, though I hate that some children weren't allowed to be buried on “sacred” ground…its very sad. And not too distant in the past.

  5. Barbara, what a lovely piece. It is good to remind ourselves as to what is important. When I bring people on a tour of the Art Gallery I always show them two Irish paintings one by Osborne “in a Dublin Park, Light and Shade”1895 an another painting by Moynan “Military Manoeuvres”1891 where the children in each painting do not have any shoes! – I always tell everybody that we might think we are badly off at the moment …not true…times have been worse. With all the negative media at the moment we have to keep reminding ourselves to be positive.
    Cathy R

  6. That is a truly inspirational piece of writing. Absolutely beautiful. You caught the atmosphere of the place so well. And the memorial was so lovely. I thought it was wonderful.

  7. Thanks Jan and Rebecca for your kind comments.

    Theresa – thank you too. “We write but life is our inspiration” – perfect and along with gratitude I forget this too sometimes. I wonder why chained to my kitchen table I cannot find inspiration. And of course inspiration means 'in spirit' which is very apt for our experience yesterday. Thanks for your comment.

    Thanks too Brigid, Jayne and Niamh.

    Cathy – I must go on one of your tours with Mia – she is the only one in the house who expresses an interest in Art. We did go in over the summer – but sure I havent a clue what I am looking at!

    And ma – thanks!! x

  8. What a beautiful, touching and emotional post. It has brought tears to my eyes.

    We so often fail to appreciate what we have. It is reading something like this that can help us to be grateful.


  9. Barbara

    This is a beautiful post; warm, inspired and inspiring. You are so right to remind us all to be grateful for what – and who – we have in our lives, rather than what we (think) we lack. Your health and the health of those around you, a roof over your head, a safe place to sleep and enough food in the cupboards to see you through tomorrow are so much more than so many have. We have much to be thankful for.


  10. What a beautiful and thought provoking post. We really do need to just stop and be grateful for what we have. That inscription would take your breath away. Thank you.

  11. Such beautiful sensitive writing Barbara, I was there with you in that graveyard.

    We are indeed fortunate and things like this help us to appreciate that fact.

  12. I too got the shivers reading this post. I think that the 'signs' we get, like the baby's name being Sherwood, are really important as they grab your attention and perhaps draw you into looking further, which is exactly what happened for you. It really is a reminder of how good we have it now, really but that we need to be vigilant in keeping things on track for the future children of Ireland.

    I think this is a very important story and I will share it with everyone I can.

    Maya x

  13. I always stop at the Angels Plot in the graveyard of our Parish Church as I walk along to my mother's grave. It too makes me grateful for my four blessings. Grateful I did not suffer the pain of such loss.

    Wonderful post Barbara. Are you looking into the Sherwood family of this baby girl? Might they be long distance cousins?

  14. Barbara,

    Well done , great piece and would certainly inspire me to take a second look when I am in Loughlinstown next.

    We really do forget how much we have sometime and get caught up in what we haven't.

    For publication along the line??

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