Gravedigging by hand has been in Ronnie Robertson’s family for 116 years – a fact that the Fivemiletown man is very proud of, having taken up the spade from his father and grandfather before him.

And at 81 years of age, Ronnie has no plans of hanging up his spade, still digging graves in the traditional way at the graveyard of St. John’s Church in the Parish of Fivemiletown.

“I have some interest in it, so I have. I’m down in it every day; it keeps me going,” he told this newspaper.

Outlining the family history of grave digging, Ronnie noted how he is the third generation to learn the skill.

“In 1904, my grandfather, Robert Reilly, started. He was my mother’s father. He worked at it from 1904 to 1950. Then my father, Kitchener Robertson, he worked as a gravedigger from 1951 to 1977.

“I took over in 1977, and to this day I’m still at it,” said Ronnie, explaining how his grandfather would have taught his father the skill. “And my father taught me,” he added.

Over the years, Ronnie has dug graves in and around the Fivemiletown area.

“I dug 30 years in the chapel’s ground in Fivemiletown, St. Mary’s, and the same at Aughataine Presbyterian. I was 30 years in it and Cavanaleck. I’ve given them up, now,” he said.

Ronnie also worked in the Water Service for 30 years, and for a time he was working there and also gravedigging.

“I’m retired now – I’m 81, but I’ve kept at the gravedigging,” he said.

Not only does Ronnie dig the graves, he also looks after the maintenance of the graveyard; cutting the grass, strimming the hedges and keeping the graves tidy, to name but a few of his tasks.

“I’m still looking after the graveyard yet, and I’m still digging the graves. I get a little help with them now,” he said, noting how he is at times assisted with gravedigging by George Wilson.

As he works, Ronnie is also accompanied by his faithful dog, Addie, a 14-year-old collie.

“I bring him down with me every day,” he said.

Talking about his process of digging graves by hand, Ronnie explained how he has to measure the grave out before he begins digging.

“You have to line it out. It’s all hand digging, there’s no diggers,” he said, noting how he is one of the last people to dig graves the traditional way.

“It’s a skill, and once I go, that’s it. It’s sad, isn’t it? But I’ll carry on as long as I’m fit, thank God. God is on my side,” said the 81-year-old.

Digging a grave by hand is a long process, often taking Ronnie a whole day to do.

However, he thoroughly enjoys his work, and takes great pride in doing it right.

“Only for the graveyard, I don’t know what I’d do. It keeps me going. But I have a great pride in doing it – everything must be done right,” he told The Impartial Reporter.

Reverend Precentor Kyle Hanlon, rector of St. John’s and Kiltermon in Fivemiletown Parish, praised Ronnie for his “exemplary” work in the graveyard.

He said: “We have greatly valued the work that Ronnie and his family have contributed to the parish over many, many decades as sextons and gravediggers.

“The parish is very indebted to Ronnie for the work that he has done.

“Ronnie is a very highly valued member of the congregation at St. John’s and Kiltermon, and is held in very high regard.”