Saturday morning two of my neighbors died in a car accident, John Gallagher aged 55 and his son Sean aged 24. They were coming back from the Derry City Airport after leaving Sean’s girlfriend to her flight back home to England. The facts of the accident, as far as they are known,are well reported in the newspapers so there is no need to go on about it here.
What I actually want to talk about is how our little town handles tragedy. By Saturday afternoon you could feel it in the air, just by walking around town even if you spoke to
no one, you would know that something was very different. Of course you don’t walk around and talk to no one, people that you normally exchange no more than “hello” with are talking about how sad it is , how awful it is for her, no need to say what “it” is or who “her” is because everybody knows, we speak in a kind of small town shorthand.
The removal is Sunday evening at 6:00, and people start to congregate on the street near the Gallagher house. The cortege arrives at about 7:00 and hundreds of people come from every direction. They just materialize, soon nearly the whole town is standing around outside the house in complete silence, it is hard to imagine that many people showing their respect by their presence alone, nothing needs to be said.
If you were to film this and show it without explanation to an audience from a city where people choose not to know their neighbors, where privacy is valued above community, they would think it was creepy, they wouldn’t know what to make of this silent gathering, but to someone who knows this town, this is just the way things are done. Prior to the removal, an estimated one thousand people had called in to the morgue to lend their support to the family. All day on Monday a steady stream of callers to the family home, came in and filed upstairs to where the two bodies were laid in state. The family kept constant watch in the room and callers came in and viewed the bodies and offered their sympathy and filed out.
Members of the extended family and closest friends stay on downstairs and endless pots of tea are produced, trays of sandwiches are passed around. The sandwiches by the way were provided by the local shop and the neighbors, neither the sandwiches nor payment was asked for, the food just turns up. Drinking at Irish wakes? I assume it must go on but I have never seen it, it is not a feature of wakes in Donegal. The visitors will keep coming until the hour from which the family has asked that the house is to be private. Then the door will be shut and no one else will come.
This beautiful ritual is probably dying out. How much longer it will continue is anyones guess. In some parts of the country it is already gone but in Donegal it is still just the way things are done.
I wish I knew how to document this wake, I could not think of photographing it. Turning up with a camera would be unthinkable because I was not there as an observer, I was there as a participant. I am a member of this community, I am not a local I have only been here eight and a half years. I will never live long enough not to be an outsider, a blow-in but the welcome that I have received here is something that I will always treasure. By the way John Gallagher is not a local either, he was born and raised on Arranmore Island, he came her 25 years ago. Is half your life long enough to become a local? It doesn’t matter, this is just the way things are done here.