Open-Air Galleries: Eighteenth-Century Folk Art at Bahana Whaley

In his book Here Lyeth: The 18th-century headstones of Wicklow, the archaeologist Christiaan Corlett says 

There are. . . more examples of 18th-century art and sculpture in our graveyards today than in any gallery or archive. They do not belong to formal schools of art. Instead, they represent an important and fascinating tradition that can best be termed folk art. 

Christiaan develops his theme thus:

Like other forms of art, these headstones were privately commissioned. However, unlike many other forms of 18th-century Irish art, these sculptures were intended for display in a public space. Nowhere else are there so many examples of public art from 18th-century Ireland. Yet, no other forms of 18th-century Irish art have been so poorly documented and so grossly ignored and undervalued. 

Setting out to redress this situation, Chris has documented many of the headstones in old graveyards across Wicklow. While primarily focussed on the carvings and inscriptions as examples of folk art, he points out that the graveyards are also open-air archives of historical documents, not on paper, but on stone preserving genealogical information as well as reflecting some of the social issues of the period.

Recently, we decided to visit one of the many graveyards Chris has documented in his book, and on Chris’s recommendation we chose Bahana Whaley. It’s associated with the ruins of Whaley Abbey, which was once the seat of the notorious Whaleys, mentioned in Robert’s post about the Hell Fire Club. Today, this is a green and mossy site, as befitting a place whose name means abounding in birch trees. It was a fine soft spring day and the graveyards was as silent as the -er- tomb but speaking volumes about the people who lived and died in this place  – a true open-air archive and gallery.

There are several fine example in Bahana Whaley of the group that Chris calls The Purple Slate Headstones. The most numerous type in Wicklow, they tend to use Roman capitals for their inscriptions, with dots used for word-spacing, and confine any ornament to sunbursts and garlands. A typical example of the decoration if not the script was carved for William Gregory in 1778 (above).

Another group well represented at Bahana Whaley are the Aughrim Granite Headstones, all produced from the same workshop. Because granite is hard and coarse-grained, it does not lend itself to finely detailed carving, but it’s long-lasting and solid so has weathered well. The ubiquitous IHS, a ‘christogram’ that stands for the name of Jesus, dominates the top panel of the headstone, with the inscription below in a frame. Often, within the IHS, there is a cross running through the centre of the H, with expanded finials and heart below it.

We saw one instance where the IHS symbol had been replaced with an hourglass – a reminder that time runs out on us all eventually, as it did for James Doyle in 1764.

In another granite headstone the symbol used was the skull and crossbones. This harks back to the cadaver tombs of the 16th and earlier centuries, where skeletons were carved, sometimes with worms eating their intestines, as a powerful memento mori that all of us, rich or poor, come to this in the end. It is not, as a gravedigger once told us, a sign that a pirate is buried in that grave. The Arthur under this set of skull and crossbones was probably a well-to-do and pious farmer.

Often in Wicklow graveyards, the IHS is surrounded with Instruments of the Passion. These are the tools that were used to torture Jesus, to nail him to the cross and take him down and to gamble over his clothes. You can find a full list here. In Hugh Toole’s 1765 headstone (above) you can see, reading from left to right, hammer, dice, ladder, spear, nails and pincers (used to extract the nails).

Patrick Byrne’s headstone is almost identical, while the one below has fewer Instruments, including one which might be a flail.

One of the foremost carvers of his day was Denis Cullen. He lived in Monaseed, Co Wexford, and carved on greenstone. He specialised in depictions of the crucifixion. Chris has studied his headstones from earlier to later and says his skill noticeably improved over time. It helps, of course, that he signed his work. We stumbled across Cullen’s work in Kilcoole about five years ago and were very taken with it then. 

The crucifixion occupies the top portion of the headstone. The inscription, more ornate than that used in either the Purple Slate or Aughrim Granite headstones, is in the unframed portion below. But Cullen’s real achievement was his figurative crucifixion scenes. 

One of his earlier examples can be seen at Bahana Whaley, carved for Mary Magrah who died in 1765 (above). Although very worn, you can see that it was carved in relief. His scenes are invariably carved in relief, whereas his script is incised.

Edward Byrne’s headstone (he died in 1778) is better preserved (above and below) and also more detailed. It shows a crucifixion scene with a mounted soldier on one side and a church on the other.

Christ hangs upon the cross, his only covering a loincloth. A soldier with the spear (partially obliterated) is to his right, while to his left is a ladder in very low relief, and a soldier on horseback. The horse is a high-stepping creature with a proud head and tail held high. On his back is a man in a frock coat and (I think) a tri-corn hat. Chris says about the horseman, 

He is not a biblical figure and, without any obvious parallels, appears to have been invented by Cullen himself. The horseman is always shown in 18th-century military or yeomanry costume and is placed on the right hand of the cross (i.e. on Christ’s left). The horse itself is always depicted as if on parade, and the tail is sometimes cropped.

When John Graham died in 1784 his family commissioned a similar headstone from Cullen (below). In this one, instead of a church, two more soldiers stand, holding pikes. There are no remaining instruments of the passion, apart from the spear held by the soldier to his right, and a faint ladder running diagonally behind the crucifix. 

There is no attempt in Cullen’s crucifixion scenes at an interpretation of what dress may have been like in biblical times – no Roman centurions, for example. This makes them important examples of eighteenth-century figure carvings.

I can’t resist one final example from Bahana Whaley (above). It’s actually nineteenth century, dating from 1808 and is by a carver named David Doyle. Although the central figure is the crucified Christ, he is portrayed in high relief between two classical columns, with an angel to his left and and moon to his right – the moon is my lead photograph in this post. The carvings show a real advance in quality and sophistication as we progress into the nineteenth century.

I have only shown a sample of what we found at Bahana Whaley. It will pay re-visiting, as will the many graveyards documented in Chris’s marvellous book. There are few graveyards like this in Cork, so it is special for us that we get to wander in these atmospheric open-air galleries with Chris Corlett’s research to guide us. If you want to do the same, you can order the book from County Wicklow Heritage.

10 thoughts

  1. The work on so many of the gravestones is quite extraordinary. I wondered, as I read, which stone has proven best to weather the years/centuries. Some carvings and inscriptions are perfectly clear and crisp after the passage of so many years.

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  2. Fascinating account of the engravings on the Grave stones. Unique artistic culture .18thc ancestors of mine , Buckleys in Whitechapel, Mid Cork had floral inscriptions on their gravestones.

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  3. Thank you Finola for that fascinating piece. So very sad that it seems so neglected. You two are enriching everyone’s knowledge about another area now. Well done both of you.

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  4. Fantastic photos Finola, and I think we might have visited a few of those graveyards with you, I remember poring over that marvellous book. The headstone of Edward Byrne in particular is amazing, so much detail and energy, and the final early 19C example is wonderful – that moon!

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    • Yes – we had a good poke around several, although not this one. Next time! We could while away a whole day between this one and a couple of others from Chris’s book.

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