‘This is Our History’: The Abbey Graveyard Project in Bantry

All over Ireland there are local history heroes working to recover the heritage represented in the numerous historic graveyards that dot the country. Few groups have taken on as daunting or as important a task as the Abbey Graveyard Project Team in Bantry.

Team members Dorann Cafaro, Teresa Moran, Geraldine Mullins, Bernard O’Leary and Seamus O’Shea

First of all, this graveyard is enormous, stretching over several acres, and secondly, the ‘old’ section has been largely untended over the centuries and so is characterised by long grass, lichen growth and tumble-down headstones. While this is understandable, as the families of those buried here have themselves passed or moved away, it makes for a very challenging environment. It also provides a startling contrast to the ‘new’ sections, where all is order and neatness, for the most part. In the image below the ‘old’ section is at the back.

The team, however, is undaunted! If anything, they seem energised by the task ahead of them. After all, as Teresa Moran said in the Zoom presentation on the projectthis is our history. 

More recent history – this is the moving and beautiful memorial to those who died in the Whiddy Island Disaster of 1979

I was privileged to spend some time with them recently, on the invitation of the project team. Besides an extraordinary level of commitment, the group has a wide variety of skills between them, something that is key to a project like this – historians, computer folk, genealogy experts, keen-eyed decipherers of faint inscriptions. 

In the background is Pat Crowley, the indefatigable researcher behind the Durrus History/West Cork History website – following up on clues and names and records in his own inimitable way.

This is a project that is being done properly – that is, using best practice as developed by Eachtra, an archaeological consulting company that provides training on this type of survey and which maintains the site Historic Graves.

An example of a recording sheet

On this website, take a look, for example at Grave 31 from the Abbey Graveyard – photographed, numbered, geo-located on the map. It’s the headstone of Cornelius Leary Senior, who died in 1797 aged 88. The script is beautifully incised – the work of a master carver. Such a headstone is a real treasure, both for the information it contains and as evidence of the craftsmanship that went into a memorial like this for those who could afford it.

In this still from the Zoom presentation, Jacinta shows how a Drone Survey, using geo-tagging technology, can assist in providing a super-accurate map of a graveyard. Drone surveys are expensive, but the Bantry Team successfully raised the funds to commission one.

Sadly, many of those buried in the Abbey Graveyard, and in similar graveyards across the country, lie under stones with no inscription. But that does not mean that that is always impossible to identify them. Amazingly, in some areas, the knowledge of who lies under what stone is held by the elders of the area, who remember the size and shape of a field stone, especially chosen for a burial plot. That’s one of the reasons this kind of project is so vital to undertake before those memories disappear forever.

Dorann Cafaro takes the recording exercise  one step further and uploads all the records into the massive international website Find a Grave. This is particularly helpful for the descendants of emigrants who are searching for family and cannot access the information any other way. So many people now are becoming expert in genealogy and this is one of the major tools that the advent of the internet has provided for them. It’s an enormous undertaking though, to upload all those records – we are all grateful for people like Dorann!

This chest tomb is the grave of Honoria O’Sullivan, sister of Daniel O’Connell

The Abbey Graveyard, as its name suggests, began as a burial ground surrounding a Franciscan Abbey, built in 1460 by Dermot O’Sullivan and demolished in 1602 by his descendant, the tragic Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, in order to prevent the Earl of Thomond from taking it over. Only a few random stone remain, now incorporated into an altar.

This area was one of the epicentres of the Famine – a period rigorously researched and chronicled by Geraldine Powell in her new book A Want of Inhabitants. Bodies from the workhouse – 3,000 in all, most of whom died of infectious diseases between 1847 and 1850 – lie buried in the Famine Pits, and were unmarked until Tim Healy caused a Celtic Cross to be erected in 1899 (below). However, as one of the team members, Bernard O’Leary reminds us, there were other horrendous period when large numbers of people died – of cholera in the 1820s, yet another mini-famine on the 1880s, and of TB, which was still killing thousands of people every year in Ireland up to the 1950s.

Paddy O’Keefe, noted Bantry historian, conducted the first survey of the graveyard in the 1950s and the project team has mined the database he created. This has been particularly useful, since it was done 70 years ago and some headstones that have since eroded were readable then.

Paddy also wrote about the early map of Bantry and Beare (see my post Elizabethan Map of a Turbulant West Cork and Elizabethan Map of a Turbulent West Cork 2: The Story) on which the Franciscan Friary is clearly shown (below).

Deciphering a headstone can be a real head-scratcher, especially if it’s badly weathered or covered in lichen. Geraldine Mullins showed me several where she had figured out the inscription – she has been developing a real eye for it. Lighting becomes important – strong slanting sunlight does wonders, or a bright torch shining from the side. One particular example only became clear under tinfoil! As with best archaeological practice, the team do not advocate the use of rubbing, chalking or cleaning with stiff brushes or chemicals, all of which can promote further deterioration of a headstone in the long run.

One of the exciting finds has been that of a headstone with an inscription in Irish – highly unusual! This might seem strange, since Irish was the language of most of the people buried in this graveyard, but it has to be viewed within the context of the colonial administration. Headstones were considered an official record, and the official language, under British rule, was English. After the foundation of the State, of course, Irish inscription became much more common. Geraldine has sent me the text and translation and I append it at the end of this post. As you can see (below) it took real study to make out this inscription!

Have a look at the Zoom Seminar on the Bantry Historical Society’s website, and browse what’s been uploaded so far to the Historic Graves website. It’s very much a work in progress. And if you have any information at all that might help the committee, do get in touch with them through the Bantry Historical Society contact page.

Headstone of Owen O’Sullivan, who died in 1822 has a carved top section featuring a crucifixion, two winged heads and an angel blowing a trumpet

Or better yet, take a wander through the graveyard itself and see what you can find.

Many thanks to Geraldine Mullins for sharing resources used in this post, and to all the committee members for so graciously spending time with me and answering questions.

Text and Translation of Irish Inscription

Gac naon do calam liocht /  

cathuil ui neill is cuimhine d/  

leifis an rann so g[e above]arrtha an /  

gaoghalge caoin le cheile an tathair /  

an mac 7 an naomh spriod /  

[g]uidheach do rai[.]h Dia trochurac /  

air anom do bhi ansa corp so /  

ata fan liag Amen 

Everyone of the noble, warlike line of Ó Néill and Conn, who will read this verse inscribed in beautiful Irish, pray to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit together, that God may be merciful to the soul that was in the body that is beneath this stone. Amen. 

12 thoughts

  1. This is SO interesting and if I lived over there I know I’d be volunteering for any job!
    My own family history is mostly unknown as they were poor folk who had no money for headstones or similar.
    I too believe that it’s vital to collect information from the past. If only I could help …..
    Keep up the fantastic work x

    Like

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