Memento Mori

Fanlobbus

It’s Halloween – what better time to take a wander round an old graveyard! Fortunately, we’re well endowed with them in Ireland, in varying states of preservation and decay.

Old graveyard, near Dunmanway

Except for the wealthy, who could afford to erect tombs and decorate churches with effigies of themselves and carved wall plaques, most people who died in Ireland up to the 1700s lie in unmarked graves. However, in the 18th century the practice of erecting carved headstones become commonplace for those who could pay for it. Styles of headstone carving evolved over time. Local craftsmen used the symbols in vogue, interpreting them according to their own ideas and their level of skill. The result can best be described as folk art.

Bridget Sweeney Kilmallock

Bridget Sweeney’s grave in Kilmallock Co Limerick is memorialised with a great example of a nineteenth century carved headstone

One recurring theme is the passion, or crucifixion of Christ, and a headstone we saw recently in Kilmallock, Co Limerick, is an excellent example of the crucifixion and other symbols.

Bridget Sweeney Closer

Top: Not only a crucifixion image,  but various other symbols feature on the headstone, such as a chalice (eucharist) and a rooster (awakening or time). Below: close up of the two angels: left is Michael blowing his trumpet and bearing a set of scales (reflecting his role of weighing souls at the gates of heaven); right is another angel bearing a book (in which might be recorded a person’s good and bad deeds) and keys (to the gates of heaven?)

Denis Sheehan, Kilmallock

Another crucifixion headstone, also in Kilmallock: harder to make out, but full of interesting elements

You may have noticed the letters IHS on Bridget Sweeney’s grave. Ubiquitous on old gravestones, on its own, accompanied by a simple cross, or as part of a more elaborate decoration, IHS stood for the name of Jesus. For a full explanation, see this post from the always excellent Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.

Thomas Donahoe Clonfert

Another favourite symbol was a head with wings, usually representing the soul on its flight to heaven, but perhaps also an angel. 

Alice Bolster, Kilmallock

A particularly fetching angel/soul on the grave of Alice Bolster, Kilmallock

St Michael, blowing his trumpet to welcome that soul to heaven, was a favourite motif. We found one behind a bank of ivy in the old Aughadown graveyard near us, down by the Ilen River.

Aughadown

AughadownCan you make out Michael, blowing his trumpet? The enemies of all headstones are ivy and lichen and this one has been overtaken by both

Symbols of mortality decorate some of the earliest Irish headstone – skull and crossbones, hourglasses, books and bells, skeletons, even rotting corpses – all represent the finite nature of life on earth. Memento Mori literally means Remember, you must die. These images were supposed to encourage us, apparently, to lead better lives by reflecting both on the futility of relying on earthly delights and on the reward awaiting us in heaven. Mortality symbols generally date to the 1700s.

Cloondara, Co Longford, no inscription

Top: this slab is in the churchyard at Cloondara Co Longford and has no inscription. The two images below it are from a grave in Castlelands, near Kinsale. These two images are courtesy of our friend Amanda Clarke: she was told by a man doing maintenance work that this was the grave of Anne Bonny the pirate – hence the skull and crossbones!

Sun, moon and star images represent the glories of creation and we’ve seen many instances of sunbursts, often enclosing the IHS lettering. Here’s a nice example, below, from Kilmallock, which also has winged heads and beautiful lettering.

William Jones Kilmallock

Lettering styles varied widely, as did the carver’s ability to spell and to ensure he had left himself enough room. Anyone wanting to invent new fonts (yes, that’s a thing) could well study old headstones and admire the incredible variety of lettering. Carving some of the more elaborately rounded scripts must have been a job for only the most highly skilled.

Dan Linnehan, Cullen, Co Cork

We often see instances where letters and words have to be added above or below the line, where the carver ran out of room

The Lamb of God is another common image – although it can be hard to recognise a lamb in the often lumpen carving at the top of a headstone.

Headstone, Cullen

At an old graveyard in Cullen, Co Cork, there are several stones that appear to be in a local style with a head on either side of the top of the stone

We can’t resist old graveyards – we seldom pass an opportunity for a stroll and an explore. Sometimes we find interesting headstones, sometimes we just soak in the atmosphere, sometimes we worry about the neglect that allows them to slowly disappear into a jumble of brambles and nettles.

Four Children gravestone, Bandon

It’s hard to make out what’s on this old headstone in the churchyard at St Peter’s C of I church in Bandon. The words include a reference to ‘his four children’ so I am tempted to think these four heads representing those little souls.

Here’s some good new – there is an Irish organisation, Historic Graves, that is doing outstanding work in saving our historic graveyards from that fate. In their own words:

The Historic Graves project is a community focused grassroots heritage project. Local community groups are trained in low-cost high-tech field survey of historic graveyards and recording of their own oral histories. They build a multi-media online record of the historic graves in their own areas and unite to form a national resource.

Lissagriffin

Kilmoe churchyard, in LIssagriffin on the MIzen Peninsula, has benefited from a Historic Graves survey

I used information from the Historic Graves survey in my posts about the Stouke Graveyard (Priests and Poets Part 1 and Part 2) and I hope to learn more about their methods and objectives in the future.

Another Historic Graves project was Castlelands, near Kinsale. These photographs are by Amanda Clarke, used with thanks

One thing we have seen is that once a graveyard has been surveyed it’s important to keep it well maintained. The Cloyne graveyard was surveyed in 2013 and many fine old headstones were found and recorded. We visited in May 2014 and loved our walk through the flower-strewn pathways and the newly-revealed headstones. However, earlier this month when we dropped in it had started to resemble a jungle again. 

Cloyne Graveyard

I will leave you with a couple of my personal favourites from graveyard visits – not elaborate, not particularly old, but saying so much. The first is from Castlehaven graveyard in West Cork, the second from Kilbarry, near Dunmanway.

Castlehaven Bridge McCarthy

Crowley Castle St

7 thoughts

  1. Fascinating stuff Finola. I have plenty of ancestors buried in Kilbarry. The Historic Graves people do great work – it must be frustrating and rewarding in equal measure. Until you mentioned it I had never considered the matter of the people who died in earlier centuries. I guess their remains lie in the environs of the old churches, albeit unmarked.

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  2. I’d like an angel like Alice Bolster’s on my headstone!! This is a fascinating area isn’t it – we certainly don’t get the beautiful lettering like on the 18C graves nay more, or the interesting symbolism.

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