If you drive down the back roads, you might just catch a glimpse of him, leaning into a shovel, tipping up the black dirt below the shadow of a church steeple. He works the plots of small churches in towns such as Heartland and Hayward, opening the earth for the Catholics and Lutherans a good half-hour before the devil knows they're dead.

For 22 years, Tom Donnelly has dug graves in tiny towns and off rural roads, a man on-call for sickness and sudden death, burying neighbors, friends and family with tender solemnity.

He's 5 feet tall and 5 feet under, the leprechaun grave digger of southern Minnesota.

If you are Irish at any time other than today -- when all are Irish -- you know of that country's embrace of both merriment and sorrow. Donnelly, who was born in Doneghal and ran a restaurant in Dublin before moving to Minnesota with his now former wife, has seen plenty of both.

He came to the United States at age 2. His dad was in the military and they traveled a lot, landing for a while in Boston, where he met his wife. They moved back to Ireland, where his son now lives, but returned to Minnesota when his wife got lonesome. He tried college twice, but decided he'd rather work.

He took over the grave-digging job from a guy he calls "Grandpa," actually Bob O'Leary, his ex's dad.

"That's usually how it's done," said Donnelly, who weighs 85 pounds, with hair as red as a barn and a thick beard to match.

Donnelly's predecessor started with the small cemetery where he is now buried, Church of St. Mary. Today, Donnelly digs graves for 19 cemeteries, whether under a blazing August sun or in the brittle bite of February when the frost reaches down nearly 4 feet and he has to use torches to soften the earth.


On weekends during the local roller derby season, Donnelly dresses like an Irish imp as mascot of the Garda Belts. He runs through the arena with a raised shillelagh, pumping the crowd into a frenzy.

But even when he's not wearing his bowler hat and mascot outfit, Donnelly looks like a leprechaun.

At cemeteries, it's not uncommon for people to see him digging and ask, "Have you found any gold yet?"

Just the other day, people stopped him and asked if they could take a picture. "So, that's kind of fun," he said.

Contrary to the notion that all graves are 6 feet deep, Donnelly says his go down 5 feet.

"That way I can still get out of the hole," he said. "When people drive by, all they can see is my hat."

Donnelly, now 57, says it takes between two and five hours to dig an average grave, with help. "I always get somebody bigger and younger," he said. Right now, it's Jeff Carlson, who is about 6 feet 2.

"People say, 'You dig the top and he digs the bottom,'" Donnelly said. "That's about right."

Grave diggers quickly realize that different denominations and nationalities grieve in different ways. Lutherans often live up to the reputation for being stoic. The Irish Catholics are more celebratory and emotional.

"Now I'm burying Mexicans," Donnelly said. Their funerals are filled with symbolism and sometimes wails of grief.

"That's nice," he added. "I like the Mexican funerals."

During internment, he usually sits off in the distance, doing a crossword puzzle. "Then I come in later to fill in. People sometimes tell me they like it that I do it by hand. It's more personal and they like that I do a nice job. Sometimes they stay behind to throw on a shovel of dirt."

Donnelly has even had to bury family. When his father-in-law passed, they buried him with a bottle of Irish whiskey.

"When we put Mom next to him, we dug up the bottle," he said. "The top was almost gone, but the whiskey was still good and we drank it at the grave site."

Although he's not planning to go anywhere anytime soon, Donnelly is ready. St. Mary's has given him a plot, and somebody else will do the job for him that he's done for others for more than 20 years. He hopes they will put a little love into the work.

Because it's St. Patrick's Day, I'll offer you a proverb, Tom, from one Irishman to another:

May you live forever

And may the last words you hear be mine!

Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702