The Headstones of Ferns

Ferns, in Co Wexford, is an historic town that boasts many fine heritage attractions including an Anglo-Norman Castle, an Augustinian Abbey and other medieval ruins, high crosses and associations with the McMurroughs and the Marshalls. Not least among its delights is the Cathedral graveyard, which has one of the best collections of eighteenth century headstones I have ever seen.

Look at the headstone above and the one below. The elements used in the carving are identical except that the central image in the first is a crucifixion scene and in the second it’s an IHS in a sunburst. Note the J Byrne signature under the carving to the left above and the Pat Byrne signature below. How were J and Pat related? Does the difference demonstrate anything other than the preference of the person who commissioned the headstone? I’m tempted to see the gradual replacement of the crucifixion image with slightly less ‘popish’ symbols, but I’m probably overthinking this

In our post Memento Mori, I introduced you to Irish headstones and the practice, which really only dates back to the 18th century, of routinely placing headstones on graves. Even then, only those who had the means to pay for a carved headstone were memorialised in this way – most still lay in graves with simple field stones at their head (and sometimes feet).

In Headstones or Folk Carvings? we visited Kilcoole graveyard to Co Wicklow, home to many fine headstones including one by Dennis Cullen, an acknowledged master carver. In Ferns we found many of the headstones had been carved by J Byrne (or J: Byrne, as he styled it) and although his technique does not quite have the refinement of Dennis Cullen, his carvings have a charm and energy that make them recognisable even where the headstone is not signed.

See the ‘J: Byrne’ signature just below the carvings to the right. There is no date on this headstone for William Lea (or Leacey? See the tiny superscript above the ‘Lea’). The detail on the angels is very fine and I love the little arrow in the centre of the sunburst, just below the IHS

The most common image is, of course, the IHS. Known as a Christogram, IHS is shorthand for the name of Jesus. It is often surrounded by a sunburst, or surmounted by a cross. Interestingly, the earlier and later headstones are more likely to feature the IHS as their main element.

Two early headstone, from 1758 and 1773, starting with Here Lieth. Mogue is a local name, for Saint Mogue of Ferns, whose well lies across the road. Note that the final Y of Mercy doesn’t quite fit on the line so a superscript is used

Many of the most interesting headstones date from the 1790s and where they have a signature it is that of J Byrne. There must have been a vogue for crucifixion scenes at the time, because they appear here and there throughout the graveyard and date to this period.

The J: Byrne signature is almost obscured by lichen. This is a typical J Byrne carving, with a crucifixion scene: Jesus on the cross, Mary and possibly John on either side, all three with halos. Sun and moon round out the carving

Jesus is on the cross at the centre of the tableau, with Mary on one side and John on the other. Occasionally other figures appear – Roman soldiers, a man on horseback, angels.

The dress, as is common with carvings of this period, reflects eighteenth century styles – observe the soldier in the frock coat in the Moses Breen scene (above) and the angel in the seamed jacket on John Kehoe’s stone (below).

There are a couple of headstone with horses in the crucifixion scene, but it’s unusual

The most frequent other symbols are the sun and moon, often with faces. The sun/moon symbols can be the main elements or can be wedged into available spaces on either side of crucifixion scenes.

The lettering styles vary, although generally they become tidier over time. Occasionally, the lines incised to keep the carver straight can be discerned. Words that don’t fit are either carried over, or a tiny superscript finishes them so they can stay on the same line.

The lightly incised ‘stay between the lines’ can be seen in Mogue Doyle’s headstone from 1775

This 1792 headstone is for Catherine Murphy. But it is also for her husband. However, none of the husband’s details appear. I can understand that he would have been added to the headstone at the time of her death, for efficiency perhaps, with his dates to be added later – but the fact that his name is missing gives rise to all kinds of speculation!

One mysterious element of several of the gravestones in Ferns is that at some point in the past someone has drilled holes in some of the headstones (see the two examples, below). If anyone can tell us the significance of this, we would be grateful to know it.

We highly recommend a visit to Ferns. Give yourself a day to take in all that’s there, but don’t forget to have a good wander around the old graveyard. Morning is best, as the light goes behind the headstones in the afternoon.

I love the primitive quality of this 1780 stone for Mary O”Danioley – Jesus on the cross with the soldier piercing his side with a spear

7 thoughts

  1. Pickaxes used by iconoclasts . Can be seen in pre 1800 headstones within a 7 mile radius of Camolin in Mixed burial grounds.If you took other photos you wil see that the Crocifix was the target.The headstone with the horse is a Denis Cullen headstone

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    • Thanks, John. I had to look up ‘iconoclasts’. I know what the word means, but hadn’t realised it was an actual movement in 18/19th century Ireland. Do you know where I can find out more? Not much on the internet.

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      • Finola I have done a bit of digging but I have nothing concrete except the area it occurred in which after 1798 was an area with a strong Orange Order presence which they could have belonged to and so could act with impunity. This destruction happened shortly after the Rising but as far as I can ascertain it was not political as headstones belonging to well known rebel families were not smashed but the decoration only was damaged. The Cof I churchyard at Inch which is just outside this area contains Passion scene headstones right up to the backdoor of the church and they are undamaged.

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  2. I’ve always enjoyed looking at headstones as well. These are in remarkable condition which is of course dependant on the material used. We used to live in Leicester and the local Swithland Slate is so tough that Georgian stones look as if they are brand new.
    My thought on the holes is that if you wished to raise the stone into the air temporarily, then the holes would allow that via a rope and pulley. But why ??

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