Even Cromwell Spared the Graveyards

There’s a lovely old Church of Ireland church in Rathclaren, between Timoleague and Kilbrittain in West Cork, surrounded by a graveyard. Nowadays, little disturbs the tranquil space, and it’s hard to imagine that a proposal to close this graveyard for reasons of sanitation and overcrowding once created an enormous controversy that pitched Catholics against Protestants, neighbour against neighbour. My attention was caught when the marvellous West Cork History posted about this recently – a huge thank you to Pat!

The lych-gate at the entry to the church is an unusual feature in Ireland, but adds to its overall picturesque appearance

It was all reported with gusto in the Examiner and the Southern Star (which I accessed through that indispensable resource, the Irish Newspaper Archives). The facts of the matter were that Canon Powell, the Church of Ireland Rector, wished to close the graveyard to further burials, claiming that there was a putrid smell and that people came and buried their deceased family members ‘willy nilly’ with little regard for the depth of the grave or the previous occupants.  He was supported by Dr Shorten, a medical man and one of his parishioners, who conducted an inspection. 

The clock face has an indent – we were told by a local resident that there was an IRA ambush here during the War of Independence and that this is a bullet hole

Now if there’s one thing we know in Ireland it’s that there is a reverence for graves and burial places. This is not new and when word reached the Catholics who had rights of burial in the graveyard, or whose family members were buried in it, there was uproar. 

A little background – the graveyard was owned and managed by the Church of Ireland, as were many old graveyards in Ireland. When the Church of Ireland was established, after the Reformation, all church property passed into the hands of the Protestants, to be administered by the local Rector. Everyone, Protestant or Catholic, had to apply for approval for a grave to be dug. Catholics resented this hugely – these had been their churches and their sacred sites, and the memory of their loss and the outlawing of their religion was long and bitter.

The turn of the twentieth century, when the Rathclaren row erupted, was a time of growing nationalistic confidence. Speeches stoking long-held resentments were common. Having been downtrodden for centuries, many Catholics were now fervently embracing aspirations to Home Rule, flocking to Irish language classes, and reading stories of their glorious past as a Land of Saints and Scholars, as well as studying the long history of suppression and colonisation. Somehow, the threat to close Rathclaren graveyard encapsulated for them all that was wrong with the Ireland of 1899. 

The church is hundreds of years old but was reconstructed several times. The attractive red brick detail was added in the mid nineteenth century

There were claims and counter claims, all gleefully reported by the newspapers: that the graveyard was full – that there was still lots of room in it; that it was unsanitary and smelly – that the smell was coming from a drain in the Canon’s garden outside the walls; that Catholics dug up old graves with scant regard for public health – that the Canon allowed Protestant burials but denied Catholic interments.

I want to give you a flavour, using select quotes, of a huge public meeting held at the Graveyard on July 31, 1900. The Irish Examiner reported it in full under the title Indignation Meeting. The crowd enthusiastically cheered all the speakers, but ‘groaned’ loudly when Canon Powell drove by in his trap.

The Chairman, who was received with cheers, said although their forefathers met for many a serious purpose they never had to meet for such a purpose as they were assembled there that day for (hear, hear). Although their forefathers were hunted and persecuted, yet the enemy never interfered with their burying places, as they were doing now. It was for the people gathered there to say that that ancient burial ground would not be closed without an effort being made to prevent it: and it would be kept open as long as they had power in their arms to do so (loud cheers). If their forefathers lived they would never allow it to be closed; they would see their own blood run down that hill first (cheers). There were good and true men yet, and they would show by their actions in connection with this matter that there were no unworthy descendants of these sires. There was no use in one or two trying to fight this cause: all the people should stand together. He was sure they would do their part, and they would not be beaten without a hard struggle (cheers).

He could make no better comparison between the state of the graveyard than the comparison between the populous and depopulated parts of the country. Travel through the country, and part of it would be found thickly inhabited, but again there would be found parts of it deserted, turned into cattle ranches and sheep walks, parts where the people had been driven forth to make room for the sheep and the bullocks (groans for the evictor). They would find in the Ireland of the past places where the people had been banished – places in which they had drawn the milk from a fond mother’s breast, and had been bred and reared; in those places, too, could be seen the ruins of the homesteads.

In the days of the past, when the people were oppressed, and when the country was ruined and depopulated; when the people were subject to the most cruel laws and torturous persecutions that any people could be subject to. . . when the people lived continuously in the midst of gloom and tyrannical rulers, it was not known that those who interfered with the land of the living had ever interfered with the land of the dead (loud cheers). The only consolation our fathers had in those oppressed times was that they could claim one spot, at all events, just as much as the biggest man in the land, and that was the spot where their friends and ancestors were buried in the graveyards of Ireland (cheers). If we went further back, when this country was put to the sword by Cromwell, and the people were driven from the four provinces. . .When the people were driven to hell or Connaught. . .but I am sure there are few of the Irish race who were driven into Connaught now in hell but I am not going to say what became of Cromwell (cheers). At any rate, we don’t hear at all that Cromwell ever interfered with the graves of the dead in Ireland.

Though Cromwell spared the graveyards of Ireland, as did other tyrants who oppressed the people, I say here to-day that they dare not face the people possessed of life – the living Irish. 

There was much more in this vein at the meeting. Eventually there was a board of inquiry, a proposal was made to buy extra land for an extension of the graveyard and after some missteps this was eventually accomplished. In the meantime, local people carried on burying their dead in defiance of the court order not to, but the police seemed happy to drop charges if they could – see this report from as late as 1904, when the matter was finally declared resolved.

Besides the post on West Cork History, a friend has just now gifted us a set of old OS maps for this area (thank you Noel!). They are large scale and date from 1900 – and here is Rathclaren, clearly showing the church and graveyard as of that date.

However, today there is an addition to the map in the form of a new ‘cemetery’ just to the north of the church. On the Ordnance Survey and the Archaeological maps of Ireland the term ‘Graveyard is defined thus: The burial area around a church. These date from the medieval period (5th-16th centuries) onwards. However, the terms ‘Burial Ground’ and ‘Cemetery” are reserved for An area of ground, set apart for the burial of the dead, not associated with a church. In this case the word cemetery is used to denote a modern burial area which was not originally associated with the church.

Today, this peaceful and beautiful spot seems as if it could never have witnessed any kind of upheaval. Along the road stands the Trinity Holy Well (below, labelled as Tobarnatrinoda on the historic map), still cared for by the community. Both the graveyard and the cemetery are visited by those for whom the history of tumultuous resistance to ‘the oppressor’ has faded and indeed has been mostly forgotten. On the whole, that’s a good thing.

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