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‘I put normal rough white pebbles on the grave and the birds never touched them. They only wanted the shiny ones’
Former Alliance Party MLA Kieran McCarthy has revealed how he turned detective in search of thieves stealing decorative stones from his daughter’s grave.
The 79-year-old contacted this paper after reading about the dive-bombing seagulls terrorising passengers and train conductor Danny Small near Belfast’s Central Station in last week’s Sunday World.
Danny was left with a nasty gash on the top of his head after he was attacked by a protective female seagull who wanted to keep the passing public away from her young chick.
But it seems it’s not just train conductors, Alfred Hitchcock and Fr Jack Hackett who have been affected by badly behaved birds!
For it turned out – at least so Kieran thinks – to have been cunning crows who were behind the devious disappearances from his daughter’s grave at St Joseph’s Church, Kircubbin, Co Down.
“My daughter Joanne died in 2019 aged just 49,” says Kieran, who flew the politics nest in 2016 after deciding not to fight another election, having served the Strangford constituency since 1998.
“She was profoundly disabled and died suddenly after an epilepsy attack, but she was a lovely, pleasant girl. She needed 24-hour care, but she gave us no problems.
“Anyway, when she passed away three years ago we got a new grave with a new gravestone and we asked for a mix of white and green pebbles to cover the top of the single grave.
“The undertaker did everything including supplying the pebbles and we were very pleased about their appearance. They were not the normal stones; they were oval shaped with a smooth, shiny surface but looked really well – almost like glass – clean and bright.
“Six months on we noticed the white stones were getting thinner on the grave and we started to spread them out to give an even appearance.
“It was just down one side of the grave so we couldn’t understand what was happening. We thought surely no one was stealing off a grave.
“The problem continued, and we were making inquiries until every last one of the white pebbles were gone and then the green ones started to disappear too.
“I had to throw a large rock over the remaining green stones until we figured out what to do."
Kieran reveals how he became “fascinated” with the whodunnit mystery and even hid behind trees in a bid to expose the pebble pincher.
The father of four had been instrumental in peace talks in the lead-up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 where he sat in talks with republicans and loyalists including recently charged Winkie Irvine.
So having dealt with more than a few hawks in his time, he reckoned catching some sticky-beaked crows wouldn’t be much hassle.
But it didn’t turn out like that.
“I couldn’t figure out why they were only stealing stones from our grave while leaving the other stones which were not shiny alone,” says Kieran.
“Then another grave nearby which had the same shiny pebbles as ours started having the same problem. It was the talk of the parish.
“I started hiding in the trees to see if I could catch them in the act. I waited over an hour and I could see the crows flying above me but they were crafty and wouldn’t go near the stones – I think because I was there and they knew something was up.
“I lifted some of the shiny stones and set them in another part of the graveyard and when I returned, they had been lifted too!
“I put normal rough white pebbles on the grave and the birds never touched them. They only wanted the shiny ones.
“Then one day I went for a walk round the grave with a friend and at the bottom of a large tree we found four of the stones and the penny dropped.
“We have still never caught anyone or any bird in the act but we are just guessing they were taking them up to their nests for some reason.”
And Kieran had to take evasive action to put a stop to the feathery filchers.
“While we have no other evidence we have concluded the crows or jackdaws cleared our grave of all the stones,” he says.
“Our neighbour gave in and replaced their stones with the normal grey stones but we got a new supply of our original white and green pebbles and invested in a covering of toughened glass and simply laid it on top of the stones and we have had no bother since.”
And Kieran spoke movingly about his late daughter Joanne and how the pandemic had exacerbated the family’s grief.
“Joanne was totally dependent on the family, carers and her special school staff for everything,” says Kieran.
“She was non-verbal so if she wanted something, she grabbed your hand and pointed it to what she wanted. She really was a very special person, she had good vision and hearing and she was very lovable.
“On the day she passed away she was in good form in her day centre, but she took an epileptic seizure unexpectedly and was rushed to hospital.
“The doctors and nurses did everything to bring her out of it, but without success and we lost her.
“Of course, we were all devastated and still are to this day. We miss her sorely and the missing stones of her grave gave added more misery.
“Then in the early 2020s the powers that be decreed that nobody was allowed even into graveyards or cemeteries. We had to remain some distance away and that was further hurt to not even stand beside her grave.
“We followed the rules while they lasted only to be confronted by the mystery of the disappearing stones.”
In 2019 a mourner in Larne reported how almost £300 worth of polished black stones disappeared from his mother’s grave in Craigyhill. The shiny stones, which had been placed on graves there, were said to have been found almost a mile away.
And in Glenavy a few years ago another mourner explained how a grave for a loved-one had been completely cleaned out of stones.
Theories as to why birds steal stones from graves range from birds believing they were eggs, male crows stealing the stones to woo their partners during nest-building season, and females being attracted to nests with a bit of colour in them.