Death’s Garden: Toasting a Ghost in Northern Ireland

James Read's grave in Ireland. Photo by Anne Born.

James Read’s grave in Ireland. Photo by Anne Born.

by Anne Born

Have you ever gone on a quest? Have you looked for your own Holy Grail? Sometimes it’s tracking down the third book in a series or another copy of a book you loaned out but never got back. Maybe it’s a search for the perfect Piña Colada or Sangria. My quest began when I started looking for my great-great-grandfather, James Read. He died in 1871. I began a quest to find his grave.

I found the family name in a 19th-century city directory online, the rough equivalent of an old phone book. What came next was an avalanche of data on this man and his career as a newspaperman, postmaster, merchant, and printer in the town of Larne. His wife became postmistress after he died.

So I got on a plane for Ireland, made an appointment to meet with the town librarian, and pre-ordered up archival paper copies of his newspaper. I took a bus to the Larne library, where his newspapers were waiting for me. This library had a complete set of his paper, either on paper or on film. I was ecstatic, but my quest was only beginning.

I sat down to browse through the papers. Read had featured poetry and excerpts from novels alongside news about the world, about travel, and about the fairy folk who were wreaking havoc on local horse barns and the neighbors’ crops. All the while, a man sat across from me, reading old papers from Ballymena. I smiled at him when I sat down, but we hadn’t said anything.

The librarian came over to check on me and said, “You know, you might want to speak with the local historian while you are here. That’s him right there.”

I extended my hand and said, “Is it really you? I’ve read your book. I’m from New York and I am the great-great-granddaughter of your postmaster.”

James Read's newspaper. Photo by Anne Born.

James Read’s newspaper. Photo by Anne Born.

He stopped what he was doing and took my hand. “James Read’s family? Let me take you outside and show you your great-great-grandfather’s post office.”

With that, we took off. We walked down the hill into town and he showed me the older buildings, saying, “That’s a building your family would have known,” or “That’s a building that was here when he was.” He brought me into the current newspaper office and introduced me as if I were a celebrity, saying, “This is his great-great-granddaughter. She’s a writer. You might want to do a story on her visiting us.”

We went back up to the library and I asked him the most important question: where would I find James Read’s grave?

“Well,” he said, “there are two cemeteries here. He’s going to be in one or the other; you will just have to look.”

I thanked him and he left to run some errands. I stopped into the local bookstore to buy copies of his other books and then I took off in search of James Read’s grave.

I tried the closer of the two cemeteries first, the one in front of the church by the river. It was well-kept. People had collected all the fallen headstones and set them up, one next to the other, to form a kind of spirit fence around the yard. It made reading them very easy, but they were dislocated from their graves. I worried that even if I found his name, I would never know which was his grave.

After about 45 minutes, I had scanned most of the headstones. I felt deep down that I was just in the wrong place, like I was being pulled away, so I took some last photographs and walked up the hill to the edge of town where the second cemetery sat alongside the highway. It was significantly larger than the first. I was convinced I would never find him, even if this was where he was buried. But this was a quest after all and a quest is rarely easy.

I stepped through the gate and surveyed McGarel Cemetery. It was really large. I found out later it was divided into two sections, the Catholics in one and the Protestants in the other. My quest looked hopeless. Suddenly I remembered something my mother used to tell me: When it looks hopeless, try prayer. I was in a cemetery, after all, and saying a prayer in a cemetery wasn’t all that extreme an activity. I prayed to his patron saint, Saint James, just to let me find my James so I could pay my respects. I was connecting with my family and it was important to me.

I was running out of daylight, but I felt sure I was in the right place. I decided to take the point of view of the game piece on a Ouija Board and let the spirits or souls in the cemetery pull or push me until I found what I had come looking for.

Up one row of headstones along the left side of the grounds and then, back down the other, reading stone after stone, I kept being pulled to the central path. I was all alone with just the sound of some cars behind me on their way into town. Then I closed my eyes, imagined finding the grave, and started to walk up to the right, near the opposite edge of the grounds and along the fence.

And there he was. I stood in front of a tall, vine-encrusted stone monument that proclaimed the death of the town postmaster. It was surrounded by a low rail fence and littered with a sad half-dozen beer cans from the previous night’s haunted revelry. I swept the cans away and climbed over the fence to touch the stone and to read the inscription.

The inscription told me James was born in Ballymena. James’ son Robert is buried there too. I felt terrible I didn’t think to bring flowers, but I can’t say that I ever seriously believed I could find him. Yet there he was. There we were. I think we had really just found each other.

I celebrated that evening with a lovely chilled champagne back at my hotel. I was staying at a certifiably haunted castle just a bit further up the road in Ballygally and I thought it would be the perfect thing: to toast the ghost of my ancestor. I toasted St. James too, of course, for leading me to him.


401113_352887774743767_1246657870_nAnne Born: Pilgrim, writer, photographer, mom. Look for her books A Marshmallow on the Bus: A Collection of Stories Written on the MTA (June 2014) and Prayer Beads on the Train: Another Collection of Stories Written on the MTA (March 2015) at the NY Transit Museum Store, Word Up Community Bookstore, CreateSpace, Q.E.D. Astoria, and Amazon.

Check out her new radio show on Our Salon Radio: Born in the Bronx.

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About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.

6 responses to “Death’s Garden: Toasting a Ghost in Northern Ireland

  1. Pingback: Death’s Garden: Toasting a Ghost in Northern Ireland | The Backpack Press

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