My father leans on his shovel in his son’s grave.
He is standing in the small plot in a corner of Glasnevin Cemetery on the Finglass Road
in north Dublin.
He’s been recruited to help the gravedigger.
He won’t be my father for another thirty four months, and he hasn’t been anyone’s father
since the baby died a day earlier. But I can picture him there, tall, and slim, his dark hair
sprinkled with a bit of gray though he is just thirty seven. He must look like a Dubliner in
his plaid shirt and khaki trousers on that warm July afternoon, especially with the bicycle
clip on his trousers for he has cycled across Dublin from the nursing home where my
mother is recovering from the delivery and loss of her first born son. He didn’t know the
route to the cemetery so he followed a hearse that was leaving the hospital. He has to be
resourceful, since everyone else is so matter of fact about the death of little Joseph
Jerome Oliver Judge.
“Ah, you’ve no need to worry about that,” the nurse tells him when he asks about the
arrangements to bury his son. She seems surprised he’s even interested. “He’ll be sent
out for burial,” she adds, as if he should know this.
Then she softens. Perhaps she realizes the lack of fuss over an infant who died so
soon after birth may seem harsh to this good Catholic American fellow.
“The baby has received all the sacraments,” she assures him. “He’s already a saint.”
Finally she tells him they bury the babies at Glasnevin, below the graves of adults
scheduled for burial later. They travel together, infants and adults, on that final trip from
place of death to final resting place.
At Glasnevin’s gate Dad finds a fellow with a shovel and tells him why he’s there. Well,
hasn’t he run into the gravedigger himself? The fellow takes him in hand and they wait
patiently until another hearse comes along. This one bears a large casket and several
little wooden boxes. The gravedigger picks up the small box with J-u-d-g-e stenciled on
the side and hands it to Dad, who tucks it under his arm, and then they’re off, heading
towards a far corner of the cemetery. The gravedigger has a bad leg, but limps along at
a brisk pace as he provides non-stop commentary on the many dignitaries who made
Glasnevin their final resting place. He points out Daniel O'Connell's grave, and those of
Michael Collins and Padraig Pearse, and gives a thorough historical tour until they finally
reach an area without headstones, where a large pit had been dug.
The fellow tells Dad to climb down into the hole, then hands the box in after him and
instructs him to cover it with dirt. My father pauses to look around at the sides of other
caskets he can see in the wall of the pit. He has never conducted a burial, although he
did perform several other sacraments back in the jungles of Ecuador during his bachelor
businessman days when he helped Father Frank settle in to that new assignment. He is
careful not to touch the other caskets as he shovels dirt to cover his son's wooden box.
Perhaps he wishes Father Frank was there to help in this simple ritual, but he is still far
away in Ecuador, and his family and childhood friends are back in his Boston hometown.
So baby Joseph is quietly consigned to his small, anonymous plot, a few steps away from
the heroes of the 1916 Easter Uprising. Dad finishes his task and then pauses to make
the sign of the cross and say a prayer for his boy, born in the same country where his
own father, Thomas Patrick Judge, first greeted the world seventy years earlier.
The gravedigger, pleased at the help given him by this new draftee, suggests they clear
the dust from their throats with a few pints. They adjourn to a nearby pub for the rest of
the afternoon, where he regales Dad with tales of the graves he has dug and the people
who went into them.
~ ~ ~
Back at the nursing home my mother takes out the pad of light blue writing paper from
her carefully packed suitcase. Expectant mothers in Ireland don’t go the hospital to
deliver a baby unless there are complications, so she is still resting in the large bright
room at Saint Brendan’s Nursing Home where she can look out into the garden at the
fuscia bush in full bloom. She had plenty of time to think of everything she would need
during the time of her confinement since the baby was two weeks overdue when she
went into labor that Saturday evening at the flat on Waterloo Road. Dad carried the
suitcase in the basket of his bicycle and she walked along beside.
Two days after Joseph’s death she writes to her brother-in-law and his wife and
describes the complications they encountered.
July 25, 1951, the feast of St. James
Dear Shirley and Leo:
Our son is in heaven – don’t be sad, because we are joyful in the knowledge that our
first child is with God.
We were under quite a severe strain for 34 1/2 hours, particularly Jerome who was
traveling back and forth on his bike from home to nursing home to hospital. It might have
gone on for weeks. God, in His mercy, decreed otherwise.
All during pregnancy, and even labor, the baby’s heart was fine and strong. However,
from the moment he was born it didn’t function properly. At 3:30, when little Joey came
into the world, Dr. Spain forgot about me, put him in an oxygen tent and watched over
him Jerome phoned about 5:00 and came right over. I came to about 4:10 and could
hear all the buzzing because the nursing home is small.
At 6:00 Dr. Spain called a pediatrician who came immediately, and recommended that
the baby be transferred to the National Maternity Hospital where he could be checked
completely. Dr. Spain had baptized him conditionally at birth, and after he was taken to
the big hospital he was given the complete baptism, and also confirmed. That was a
great relief for us, no matter what the outcome would be. Jerome was there at the time,
so he acted as proxy Godfather.
The baby was very good on Sunday afternoon, but then varied. Had a very bad night,
rallied again, had two relapses in the morning, and, finally, died about 2:00 pm on
The letter continues for another 10 pages. My aunt Shirley gives it to me fifty years later
and I am awed by the faith that can make her believe the loss of a child is a joyful thing. I
am also impressed that she can write about such an emotional experience in her neat,
Palmer method handwriting, and keep it all in a straight line.
The Irish registrar issues a death certificate that lists the deceased's age as thirty seven
hours, his condition that of a bachelor, and the cause of death from cardiac lesions. The
U.S. Embassy issues a death certificate that records his age as thirty four hours and his
occupation that of a baby.
My mother hopes they would record that the hours of his life were thirty three, since that
was the number of years Jesus Christ lived on earth.
My grandmother, back in Boston, writes to her daughter to reassure her. The baby must
have had a very bad heart trouble to die so quickly, she tells her. If he had lived, his
heart would have caused him terrible medical problems throughout his life. Ella Hanna is
a practical woman, but not unsympathetic to what her daughter is going through. Thirty
years earlier, her first-born child, Buddy, died of lobular pneumonia at age two, just after
Eleanor was born.
You’ll have more children she told her daughter. You’ll have many more blessings.
My parents come from good Catholic stock. They didn’t lick that off the ground, as the
Irish would say.
“God will provide,” has always been my mother’s firm belief. Her favorite professor at
Boston College used to kid her about it but she stuck to her guns. During the wedding
ceremony she pointed to her soon-to-be-husband and whispered to Fr. Leonard, “See,
God did provide.”
They didn’t know how many children God would provide, but when they found out she
was pregnant the previous fall, she and Jerome developed a two-part Master Plan for the
Naming of Children. Part One of the plan involved naming each child after the saint on
whose feast day he or she was born. They would consult their missal to determine which
saint would be honored with a namesake. Part Two of the plan grew out of Eleanor’s
devotion to the Blessed Virgin and involved adding a variation of Mary to each daughter’
The first baby’s arrival on the feast of St. Mary Magdalene did not provide them with an
obvious naming opportunity, and once he went into cardiac distress they wanted him
baptized as soon as possible. So they named him after Joseph, the father of Jesus,
Jerome, after his own father, and Oliver after his uncle Oliver Judge and his great
grandfather Olivier Racine.
Eleanor’s suitcase also contains a box of birth notices, so while she recovers from the
labor and delivery she began to fill them in, announcing the birth and all the other
sacraments the baby has received.
One of the announcements arrives at the home of Larry Maloney, a businessman
Jerome had met a few months earlier during his dissertation research on the Irish labor
movement. Larry opens the envelope and reads the right hand side of the card:
The Lord of life
has visited Jerome Joseph and Eleanor Frances Judge
with a child
Joseph Jerome Oliver
Born a child of Adam on July 22, 1951 – Feast of St. Mary Magdalene
Reborn of water and the Holy Ghost and child of God
on July 22, 1951 – Feast of St Mary Magdalene
He has sent children upon the earth to bless His holy name
Larry passes it along to his wife.
"Do you remember that young American I was telling you about?" he asks. "Well, he
and his wife have had their baby."
Mary sees two more lines written on the left side of the card:
Confirmed on the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene
Entered into Heaven on July 23, 1951 – Feast of St. Apollinaris.
"Larry, they've lost the baby," she tells him in shock.
Larry decides they should pay a call as soon as Eleanor returns from the hospital. Mary
can't imagine that the Judges will be quite ready for callers, so soon after having lost
their first baby. But of all their callers, the Maloneys are perhaps the ones who can best
understand such a loss, for their only child, a seven-year old boy had drowned in a
nearby canal three years earlier. Mary, who is meeting them for the first time, is
surprised by their upbeat nature.
“We have a saint in the family,” Jerome tells her as he greets them at the door.
As Mary sits in the living room drinking tea she notices a small woven basket lying in a
corner, filled with baby blankets.
“One of our friends bought it for us in Italy,” Eleanor explains. “We’ll keep it for the next
They call it the Moses basket, thinking it resembled the one made of bulrushes in which
a tiny Jewish infant had floated down the river to the Pharaoh’s palace. Before it wears
out ten years later, Joseph Judge’s Moses basket will transport six of his nine brothers
and sisters halfway round the world and back.