You’ll have to look carefully at the photo above. It’s inside the ruined church which stands in St Mary’s graveyard, Colla Road, Schull.
Here’s the church – a view taken a day or two ago, in a spell of clear, cold weather. It has a fascinating history, which you can read here. Go in through the old main entrance, and immediately look to the wall on your right. Scratched into the plaster there is the ship image. But it’s not the only one.
There are more ship images visible on this porch wall; the first – shown in the header – is the most clearly defined. Here are more detailed views of others (I have counted five in total), including further examples on the opposite wall. There may once have been more.
Of course, we would like to know the story of these carvings: who made them? When? And why? As to the ‘when’ we have to sift through the history of the building, although what is known is somewhat fragmentary. One record states that what we see today was built in 1720, but there must have been something there before that, as there is an ogival window in the north-eastern part of the building which is thought to be fifteenth century, and some further architectural features which suggest an even earlier construction:
The north porch – where the ship scribings are – is likely to date from the early eighteenth century, so the ships could not be any older than this. They could have been drawn any time, perhaps, over three hundred years – but are most likely to have been from the earlier part of that period. It has even been suggested that they could have been made by the craftsmen who rendered the walls. Interestingly, ‘graffiti’ which shows ships in churches is not uncommon: there are further instances in Ireland, Britain, and other parts of the Christianised world. The following were traced from St Spas church, Nessebar, Bulgaria. They are possibly the closest examples I have found so far that resemble our main Schull scribing. Interestingly, only one is shown in ‘full sail’. Most examples of this type of graffiti show the vessels without sails, or with the sails furled. Our Schull example is undoubtedly under full sail – and this makes it rare. I attach a further image below the Bulgarian scribings: I have tried to enhance the contrast of the photograph.
What about ‘Who Made Them’? We don’t have an answer to that. We must remember that the Schull examples are a very small part of a very widespread phenomenon and, as I mentioned, there have been suggestions that the ships were a deliberate part of the construction process of the churches: they might have been drawn by the plasterers themselves. Masons left behind their own ‘marks’ on stone walls, ever since medieval times. A British project was started in 2010 to survey all types of ‘informal’ marking on stone and plaster found specifically in Norfolk.
These stone inscribed Masons’ marks are from the Norfolk survey. Below – from the same source – two images of ship graffiti from Cley-on-Sea, Norfolk:
Where do we go from here in our little review of this strange find in Schull? Well, it’s worth noting that these are not the only ‘ships in churches’ image that we find in the corpus of European-wide church architecture. I often remember going into churches and noticing model replicas of ships hanging from the ceiling! I don’t remember seeing such a thing in Ireland, but certainly in Britain and Scandinavia. Here is one from Denmark:
Strangely, I have never looked for an explanation of these. When you start reading about them, it is suggested that they are always in churches which are associated with the sea and with maritime communities, and the church models are seen as prophylactic votive offerings: representing and honouring the ships that the community sail in will prevent them from coming to harm. That begins to make sense, as does the idea that the plaster ship graffiti is also, perhaps, a preventative measure against disaster or ill-fortune.
That theory could be presented as a strong likelihood for finding ship graffiti in churches – but there’s a problem. There are as many examples of ship graffiti in churches which are located far inland as there are on or close by the coast. If you would like my own opinion on this whole quandary, take a look at the photo of Schull church, above. It is built on a mound, perhaps natural but maybe not, with its east wall facing outwards like a ship’s prow. Could there be a far wider symbolism in all this when it comes to the nature of a church building? Is it a stone representation of a vessel, captained by priest or parson, and crewed by the faithful of the community? A final thought on this: when you go into the main body of a church, you enter the Nave. Definition of a nave:
. . . The name of the main public area of the church, the nave, was derived directly from the Latin word navis, meaning ‘ship’ or ‘vessel’, and references dating back to the very earliest days of the Christian church direct that a church should be built ‘long . . . so it will be like a ship’ . . .
MATTHEW CHAMPION – MEDIEVAL SHIP GRAFFITI IN ENGLISH CHURCHES, 2015
I’ll explain at the outset that Caheragh is (more or less) pronounced ‘corer’ (as in coring apples)! It’s a parish in West Cork that we have visited before. Have a look at my article on the Ilen River, here. This locality is brimming over with history and we go exploring as often as possible: there is always more to find. And – with wide views and cloud scapes in all directions from the high ground – it’s an uplifting place, especially when blessed with the August sun.
Here’s a vista to the north-east, from the top of the mound beside the graveyard that might just be a ring-fort, or possibly the site of a monastic centre dating from medieval times – more on that later. In the middle distance is the Ilen River with its wooded banks, heading out towards Castle Donovan and – eventually – to its source on Mullaghmesha (or, perhaps, Nowen Hill – we have yet to determine exactly where it rises. This post from the Sweet Ilen series covers the area). And that Donovan castle itself graces the cover of the latest Skibbereen Historical Journal (Volume 18, 2022), which you can get in bookshops locally, or online here. You will find a summary of some of my research on the Ilen River in this journal, together with many other fascinating and erudite articles.
But, going back to that sunlit vista, you’ll notice Tadhg’s Little Oak Tree is indicated. I can’t resist quoting the story of this feature that appears as a ‘Redundant Record’ in the Historic Environment Viewer:
. . . On E bank of River Ilen. Site of tree, ‘Darriheen Teige’ or ‘Daraichin Teige’ (Tadhg’s little oak tree), where Tadhg O’Donovan, chieftain of Clan Cahill, was slain c 1560 by rival group of O’Donovan’s (O’Donoghue 1986, 55). Nearby is Poll a’ Daraichin (pool of the little oak) . . .
Archaeology.ie Historic Environment Viewer – Record CO132-066
Well, it seems strange that the ‘site of a tree’ is a recorded monument. In fact, if the oak was still flourishing (we couldn’t find it), it would probably be just one of only a few trees included in Ireland’s vast record of archaeological monuments!
For today’s post I am indebted to our historian friend Pat Crowley, who directed us to a clip from The Southern Star newspaper dated January 12, 1929. It was a letter written to the newspaper by Captain Francis O’Neill, retired Chief of Police in Chicago and well-known prolific collector of traditional Irish music. O’Neill (1848-1936) was raised in his family home at Tralibane, in the parish of Caheragh. He has been mentioned in this journal, and I was fascinated to read his letter, which became a protracted discussion on the parish, the old graveyard, historic sites and archaeology in the area.
All this came about because Francis had returned from Chicago to West Cork in 1906 – after a long absence – ostensibly to visit the burial place of his parents, and to order a suitable monument to mark their graves (above).
. . . On my return to Ireland July 1906, after an absence of 41 years, I visited the bleak Caheragh graveyard, in which the remains of my parents, and O’Neill ancestors, were buried. There being nothing visible in the environment to indicate its origin as a cemetery, personal curiosity, abetted by that of the Downings of Tralibane – cousins of McCarthy Downing, MP – led to investigation . . . The result, somewhat disconnected and fragmentary, is herewith submitted for publication . . .
Southern Star 12.01.1929
The O’Neill burial plot at Caheragh. Francis ordered the large cross to mark the graves of his parents. The inscription reads:
Erected By Captain Daniel Francis O’Neill Chicago USA To the Memory of his Parents John O’Neill of Tralibane Died Nov 1867 Aged 66 Years And Catherine O’Mahoney (Cianach) Died 1900 Aged 88 Years Requiescant In Pace Amen
Quoting again from Francis O’Neill’s letter to the Southern Star:
. . . All available authorities in my library have been consulted, and I find that references to the parish of Caheragh are both meagre and obscure… The earliest mention of this parish which has come to my notice, is in the report of Dive Downes, Episcopal Bishop of Cork and Ross, who made a trip on horseback to all parishes in his diocese in the years 1699 – 1702. Following is the entry: –“Caheragh Church, about two miles distant from Drommaleage Church to the SW lies close to the Island River (he means Ilen). On the west side of the river are 35.5 lowlands in this parish, of which 20 lie on the west side of the river, and 6.5 lie on the east side of the said river . . . There are about 12 Protestant families in this parish. ’Tis thought there are forty Papists for one Protestant in this parish . . . Will Gureheen, a very old man, is priest of this parish. . . The church is ruinous. The north side is down . . .”
Southern Star 12.01.1929
A vista to the west, from the top of the mound beside the graveyard. The present-day village of Caheragh is distant beyond the green pasture (a long way from this ‘Old Graveyard’ – why…?), identifiable through the spire of the 1963 Holy Family Church. O’Neill continues, now quoting from Samuel Lewis “A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland” published in London in 1837:
“Near Lisangle are the ruins of a strong castle, once the residence of McCarthy, King of Cork. The ruins of the old church also remain, which the people here call the ‘Abbey of Cahir” . . . The absence of ruins at Caheragh, which, by the way, seems to have never attracted the attention of historians or antiquaries, is easily accounted for. The stones, conveniently at hand, were utilised in the building of the walls which encompassed the graveyard . . .
Southern Star 12.01.1929
Above – the western boundary wall of Caheragh Old Graveyard. The small road continues over the Ilen River: the bridge here was built by the Congested Districts Board for Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century, to replace a ford, the stone flag bed of which can still be seen.
. . . The Irish word Cathair, spelled and pronounced in English Caher or Cahir, meant a circular stone fort, and therefore Caheragh, under any form of spelling, signifies the field of the stone fort. But where is the fort? one naturally asks. Remembering the descriptive nature of the Irish place names on my short call at Caheragh in 1906, I looked for something to justify the name and found it. In order to gain a vantage point, to view the country round about, I struggled through the thicket of furze to the top of the hill east of the road and, unexpectedly, to my great delight, found the outlines of the stone foundations of the Cahir, mostly covered with soil and grass, but quite distinct on the flat top. Again was the correctness of Irish topographical names vindicated . . .
Letter from Capt Francis O’Neill, Southern Star 12.01.1929
This feature (the two pictures above) is the hilltop referred to by O’Neill, where he claims to have found the ruins of the ‘Cahir’. Today it is recorded on the National Monuments Record as a ‘ringfort’ or ‘rath’:
Class: Ringfort – rath
Description: In pasture, atop hillock broken by rock outcrop. Circular area (36.5m N-S; 37.5m E-W) enclosed by earthen bank (max H 3.8m). Break in bank to NNW (Wth 5m); and WSW (Wth 4m), where triangular feature adjoins inner bank face. Possible souterrain (CO132-017002-) in SW quadrant
Archaeology.IE National Monuments Record
Top: flat-topped mound with circular summit, very much in line with the expectation of a ringfort structure. Centre: stone embankment seen from the top of the ‘fort’. Lower: a defined ‘entrance’ through the ‘fort embankment’ on the summit of the mound. This could be ancient or modern: cattle use the fields in which this feature is located, and some of the topography could be shaped by this usage over centuries.
. . . The builders of Abbeys and Monasteries were wise in their day in the choice of locations for their establishment, and one essential desideratum was near to a plentiful supply of water, such as the banks of lakes and rivers, or adjoining never-failing springs. In this instance the River Ilen met all requirements, and taking everything into consideration, I am led to the conclusion that the graveyard at Caheragh was the site of the “Abbey of Cahir” mentioned by Lewis in the Topographical Dictionary of Ireland . . .
Letter from Capt Francis O’Neill, Southern Star 12.01.1929
Above: evidence of built structures on the summit of the ‘ringfort’ mound at Caheragh. A significant circular foundation is clearly outlined. Perhaps, after all, there is some substance in the Captain’s musings on what occupied this site in earlier times? This account is from The county and city of Cork remembrancer; or, Annals of the county and city of Cork by Francis H Tuckey, Savage and Son, 1837:
. . . 1317 December 28, Geoffrey Fitz John de Cogan is presented by the King (by mandate to the Bishop of Cork), to the church of the Blessed Mary de Catheragh, in the King’s gift, by reason of his wardship of the lands and heir of John de Cogan . . . ‘Blessed Mary de Caheragh’ was a monastic site, said to be ‘situated on the hilltop commanding the view above the graveyard at Caheragh’ (possibly on the site of the ringfort). It was no doubt founded here because of the proximity of the watercourse . . .
So there – for your consideration – is the suggestion that the hill above Caheragh’s Old Graveyard (which may, in earlier times, have been a ringfort with a souterrain) was the monastic settlement Blessed Mary de Caheragh in medieval times. That’s quite a thought. My own opinion would be that the monastery would have been founded on the level ground close to the river: in fact where the graveyard is today. As the monastery declined, a church might have remained, eventually becoming a ruin. It was common for old churches and their environs to be used for burials and this might account for the comparative remoteness of this site from the village itself. Now – of course – there is no trace of a church ruin. This theory would hold good except for the annals quoted above, which state that a monastic site was situated on the hilltop overlooking what is now the graveyard.
Evidence of stone quarries on the hillside suggest that significant quantities of stone has been used locally. Graveyard wall, field fences, or built structures? But the most challenging feature has to be the ringed foundation, or base, clear to see on the edge of the hill (below). Could it be a souterrain entrance – or, more fanciful, the base of a round tower?
I’ll leave you with that conundrum (and my whimsical daydream below) for now, but we will continue with Francis O’Neill’s musings (which become even more complex) in a future post.
We had a great afternoon yesterday, exploring aspects of the history of Timoleague, in West Cork. Our Finola Finlay (above) was involved in an event organised by the Glass Society of Ireland. . . a professional all-island, non-profit association that opens a window onto the contemporary Irish Glass Community . . . The day’s proceedings were centred around the ecclesiastical buildings in the town, the earliest of which is the Franciscan Friary, now a substantial ruin beside the Argideen River.
This view of the ruined ‘abbey’, above, dates from 1830. It is located on the site of an early Christian monastic settlement founded by Saint Molaga, from whom the town of Timoleague derives its name. A story that I heard for the first time yesterday was told by local historian Donal Whooley: the Saint was trying to found his community back in the sixth century, but everything that he and his followers built fell down the following day. According to legend, it was originally to be built a mile west of Timoleague, but all work done on that site by day would fall down by morning. Interpreting this as God’s wish that the church should be built elsewhere, Molaga fixed a blessed candle on a sheaf of corn, and floated it down the Argideen river, siting his settlement on the spot that it came ashore, on the big bend in the waterway where the Friary ruins can be found today. Here is a view from the great three-light window which looks out to the east over the river. Finola told us that, in its heyday, this window would have been filled with beautiful medieval glass, bringing light and colour into the substantial nave of the church.
That’s Donal, above, leading our group of almost fifty keenly attentive people who shared an interest in the town and its history. To the right (in a blue jacket) is Father Patrick Hickey. He told us of the symbolism of the cockerel you can see on the large headstone in the nave (below), dating from 1821. Evidently some of the disciples were standing together while Christ was being crucified: nearby stood a pot in which a rooster was being boiled for supper. Judas reportedly said: do you think there’s any chance that our Lord will rise again? Mrs Judas retorted: there’s about as much chance of that as there is of that rooster jumping out of the pot and crowing! At which point – of course – the cockerel did just that!
It was the custom to place burials in ruined church buildings. Here’s another fine headstone in Timoleague Abbey, to Michael Deasy, ” . . . who departed this life on the 23 December 1755, aged 33. May he rest in peace. Amen . . . “
Lively discussions ensued on the efficacy of wart wells, and Donal suggested that this repurposed bullaun stone, above could be the oldest human element on the whole site!
Here’s an aerial overview of the geography of Timoleague. The Friary ruin is only one of many historic sites of interest which caught our interest yesterday. It was Finola’s task to introduce us (or those of us who had never seen it) to the little Church of the Ascension.
This building is currently undergoing major improvement works: the lime rendered tower has created a striking landmark in the town. This work has become necessary by water penetration through the stonework leading to deterioration of the fabric. The conservation project is led by a hard-working Parish committee who also served us delicious tea and cakes since the tour was a fund-raiser for their efforts.
The early OS map extracts, above, give further context to the town’s history. The top map dates from the 1830s and comparison of the plan forms of the Church and Chapel buildings with those in the lower map, which dates from c1900, and then the present day aerial view (higher up the page) shows the degree of change which has taken place. We finished our town tour in the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Here’s Finola standing outside it, below, prior to giving us an introduction to the history of the building, and its windows.
The fine Harry Clarke Studio window (one panel of which is shown in the upper picture) is a ‘must-see’, as is the mosaic work from the same church. The building work for this Catholic church, replacing an earlier chapel, dates from 1912.
Father Patrick Hickey nicely rounded off our day of Timoleague history by showing us the replica of the ‘Timoleague Chalice’ (above). The replica is kept in this Catholic church. According to Fr Hickey, ‘back in the penal days’ three monks were found floating in an open boat just off the island of Cape Clear. They had with them a box, or trunk. They were brought ashore but two of them died. The other asked that the box be kept on the island – but unopened – until he could return to retrieve it. He never returned, and in later years another visiting Priest said it could be opened. Inside was a gold chalice – blackened with age – and some liturgical vestments. The vestments fell to dust immediately, but the chalice was sent away for inspection, and was confirmed as coming from the Friary at Timoleague, where the replica is now kept.
Here is another ‘souvenir’ of Timoleague – it’s an extract from a poem written in Irish: The Mourner’s Soliloquy in the Ruined Abbey of Timoleague. The poet, Seághan Ó Coileáin, ” . . . was a Gaelic-language poet born in County Cork, in a time of faded Irish glory. He lived as a village schoolmaster, with a large family and no patron . . . “
Abroad one night in loneliness I stroll’d, Along the wave-worn beach my footpath lay; Struggling the while with sorrows yet untold, Yielding to cares that wore my strength away: On as I mov’d, my wayward musings ran O’er the strange turns that mark the fleeting life of man.
The little stars shone sweetly in the sky; Not one faint murmur rose from sea or shore; The wind with silent wing went slowly by, As tho’ some secret on its path it bore: All, all was calm, — tree, flower, and shrub stood still, And the soft moonlight slept on valley and on hill.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 do /
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.
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.
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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