Last Sunday I joined thousands of other people, young and old, in the now traditional pilgrimage to the city cemetery for the annual ‘Blessing of the Graves’ ceremony. Such is its popularity, only the oldest and the most infirm are granted access by car. The rest – those who are able – must make the journey by foot, or at best by parking as close to the graveyard as congestion will allow.
It is invariably a solemn affair, on which we remember those who have passed away. Many of those who gather are veterans of the occasion, arriving early to avoid the rush and bringing umbrellas for the summer showers and foldable seats for the long stand. For newer faces this can be a painful baptism, at which the grief of loss is still fresh and raw.
Some present will have lost elderly parents who lived long and full lives; others mourn children, snatched from them in infancy or as the result of youthful tragedy. Remarkably amid such a throng – beneath the hymns wafting from the loud speakers and the incantations of the rosary – each of us remembers our own loved ones and feels an acute and individual sense of loss.
By the fifth glorious mystery, ‘The Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth,’ my back was giving me trouble (too much walking or, more likely, too much weight).
As soon as the service ended, I beat a hasty retreat through the Creggan gate, up the steep brae towards St Mary’s, and onto the flat of Broadway.
I was feeling sorry for myself – as usual - dreading the rest of the walk home in the gentle mizzle, lumbar region still giving me gyp and oblivious to everyone around me.
Until the real world intruded. I was jolted out of my self-pitying reverie and found myself in the wake of a man pushing a boy in a wheelchair. What that youngster would have given to have been able to walk home like I could.
Many of us become wrapped up in our own concerns. Sometimes our problems aren’t real problems at all, at least not in the grand scheme of things. Often we’re unaware of what’s happening in the world around us, even quite close to home.
The front page of Tuesday’s Journal shocked me. It informed us that two local parents had been jailed on charges of cruelty by neglect after their two daughters had been found neglected and locked in a room at their home.
The infants - both aged under three – had been naked and covered in excrement when they were discovered by police officers who’d called at their home to execute a summons.
The report was profoundly disturbing. The room in which the children were locked smelt of urine and faeces, and when a police officer examined the stained mattress “a cloud of bluebottles” came out of it.
Such squalor is almost unimaginable – anywhere - and it is unthinkable that it could happen in Derry. But it does.
What could drive any human being, especially a parent, to treat youngsters with such apparent monstrousness? Judge Desmond Marrinan – who is much better acquainted with the details of the case than we are - accepted the genuine remorse of both parents. The neglect began, we read, when the girls’ father developed alcohol problems and their pregnant mother became depressed.
Who are we to judge? How would we have behaved if our world had crumbled around us? Better, I would hope. But who knows?
The result of this whole, sorry mess is a family destroyed: a father and mother serving prison sentences and two infants awaiting adoption proceedings.
These will be processed separately, because, in the judge’s words, the children are now “severely aggressive towards each other”.
I find myself sympathising with the Social Services professionals who are left to pick up the pieces in this case, and who routinely deal with the horror of child neglect.
I am grateful, too, towards the PSNI officers who – in the course of their work – exposed this sorry episode and rescued these children from their misery.
One hopes that the rest of these girls’ lives will be better than their blighted infancies, but one wonders too how many other children are leading such squalid existences behind curtains in our neighbourhoods?
How many other parents and guardians are rendered senseless by drink or drugs, or incapacitated by depression, and what harm are they inflicting?
Problems? Don’t talk to me about problems.