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Cormac MacConnell - The West's Awake
Cardboard Coffins Save a Town
October 15, 2008
The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
DERRYFADA is a long, gaunted townland, windswept and triangular, on the coast. It is about 10 miles long.
There are 35 households in it nowadays, but for many years of the forties and fifties there were only three occupied homes. In the slanting evening suns, especially at this time of year, you can see the sharply outlined lazy beds that grew the potatoes for the hundreds of families that dwelt here two centuries ago.
You can also see the stone gables of the small cottages that some of them lived in, standing now like blanched tombstones to a lost race. The potato Famine hit them especially hard when it came. It savaged Derryfada totally.
Those who did not die of hunger or disease either at home or in the Workhouse in the town fled away on the coffin ships to America. There are still terrible stories in the folklore of unburied bodies being found in Derryfada’s boggy drains at the height of it.
They were a proud people, like so many of their ilk, and many died, it is said, rather than take the road of shame to the Workhouse. That’s an old, old sad story that is meshed around many of the townlands like Derryfada all along the length of the west coast. We don’t talk about it much.
I know Derryfada well down the decades, visited it often for one reason or another, usually a professional reason chasing stories. The pain of its past, until about 20 years ago, was palpable. The surviving four or five families had become almost as gaunted as their geography.
The women on the small farms were as lean as greyhounds. The men had long, deep lines on their faces. Often their big hands wore the “hacks” or sores that attended heavy work in all weathers with spades and forks and shovels.
Maybe for some genetic reason from the past the families were small; three or four children was a small family back then. The children did not seem to laugh and play as much as the townie children down below. They had their chores to do, of course, but maybe there was a deeper reason than that.
It was a joyless townland, haunted by its history. The base of the triangular townland rested on a bleak stony beach. The pointy end was right in the town and the Derryfada men, on the rare occasions when they drank in town, like after a funeral, always drank in the pub called Doonan’s in their own townland and close to the chapel.
It was a spartan house. It had neither music nor singsongs. The Derryfada men were not musical. When they drank they drank from the top shelf — the whiskeys — and they got moody and melancholy but they would never fight. The fight was kinda gone out of them.
Thank God those days are over now because of the cardboard coffins!
You see, what happened about 20 years ago was that a local county councilor in the town, a schoolteacher, was a go-ahead type with ambitions to become a TD (a member of Parliament). He worked the grass roots vote like nobody ever did before in these parts and, being intelligent and shrewd, he knew where all the political levers were.
It was through his efforts that the Industrial Development Authority above in Dublin erected what they called an advance factory up in Derryfada. They did that a lot in those days. They built empty factories and then used tax breaks to attract foreign companies to establish businesses within.
Especially in the rural areas the factories had a high mortality rate. The visiting entrepreneurs often fled after they had extracted the maximum grants from the government.
But Derryfada struck gold. Two German brothers took over the factory and began to manufacture cardboard coffins at just the right time. The world was becoming green and environmentally aware, and the cost of buying the traditional oak and walnut coffins had gone through the roof.
Inside its first year’s trading the cardboard coffins from Derryfada were being exported all over Europe. The fact they were recommended by all the green parties of Europe, including Ireland, helped enormously. And so did the stories hacks like myself kept writing!
Today there is a workforce of more than 100 men and women in good employment in the cardboard coffin factory, and it is their new homes and new lifestyle that has resurrected the old townland. It’s a pleasure to drive through it now.
The cardboard coffins, incidentally, are not real cardboard. They are made of some kind of compressed material featuring a cardboard component.
Stained and varnished and dressed with the usual silvery handles, they look just like the real McCoy but cost only a fraction of their price. The local quip is that the Dutch and the Germans are dying in their droves just to get into them! Doonan’s pub now has a restaurant attached, the townland is throbbing with life and laughter, and is it not strange that Derryfada, that once could not afford to bury its own, is now burying the half of Europe!
Quietly, though, I have to say that old habits die hard. The locals are delighted to be turning out the cardboard coffins, but I had a word with a wise old undertaker last week.
He told me with some relish that his sales of the traditional oak and pine caskets have not fallen significantly at all for deaths in the parish. He sells very few cardboard coffins in any given year!
And he told me that an old resident of the town, coming close to his end, ordered him on pain of death not to allow the sons and daughters to put him in a cardboard coffin when his time came.
The oldster regurgitated the remark that used be made about cut-price death habits, “Don’t put me inside one of those cheap yokes...wouldn’t my arse be out through it in a week!”
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