Memento Mori

Fanlobbus

It’s Halloween – what better time to take a wander round an old graveyard! Fortunately, we’re well endowed with them in Ireland, in varying states of preservation and decay.

Old graveyard, near Dunmanway

Except for the wealthy, who could afford to erect tombs and decorate churches with effigies of themselves and carved wall plaques, most people who died in Ireland up to the 1700s lie in unmarked graves. However, in the 18th century the practice of erecting carved headstones become commonplace for those who could pay for it. Styles of headstone carving evolved over time. Local craftsmen used the symbols in vogue, interpreting them according to their own ideas and their level of skill. The result can best be described as folk art.

Bridget Sweeney Kilmallock

Bridget Sweeney’s grave in Kilmallock Co Limerick is memorialised with a great example of a nineteenth century carved headstone

One recurring theme is the passion, or crucifixion of Christ, and a headstone we saw recently in Kilmallock, Co Limerick, is an excellent example of the crucifixion and other symbols.

Bridget Sweeney Closer

Top: Not only a crucifixion image,  but various other symbols feature on the headstone, such as a chalice (eucharist) and a rooster (awakening or time). Below: close up of the two angels: left is Michael blowing his trumpet and bearing a set of scales (reflecting his role of weighing souls at the gates of heaven); right is another angel bearing a book (in which might be recorded a person’s good and bad deeds) and keys (to the gates of heaven?)

Denis Sheehan, Kilmallock

Another crucifixion headstone, also in Kilmallock: harder to make out, but full of interesting elements

You may have noticed the letters IHS on Bridget Sweeney’s grave. Ubiquitous on old gravestones, on its own, accompanied by a simple cross, or as part of a more elaborate decoration, IHS stood for the name of Jesus. For a full explanation, see this post from the always excellent Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.

Thomas Donahoe Clonfert

Another favourite symbol was a head with wings, usually representing the soul on its flight to heaven, but perhaps also an angel. 

Alice Bolster, Kilmallock

A particularly fetching angel/soul on the grave of Alice Bolster, Kilmallock

St Michael, blowing his trumpet to welcome that soul to heaven, was a favourite motif. We found one behind a bank of ivy in the old Aughadown graveyard near us, down by the Ilen River.

Aughadown

AughadownCan you make out Michael, blowing his trumpet? The enemies of all headstones are ivy and lichen and this one has been overtaken by both

Symbols of mortality decorate some of the earliest Irish headstone – skull and crossbones, hourglasses, books and bells, skeletons, even rotting corpses – all represent the finite nature of life on earth. Memento Mori literally means Remember, you must die. These images were supposed to encourage us, apparently, to lead better lives by reflecting both on the futility of relying on earthly delights and on the reward awaiting us in heaven. Mortality symbols generally date to the 1700s.

Cloondara, Co Longford, no inscription

Top: this slab is in the churchyard at Cloondara Co Longford and has no inscription. The two images below it are from a grave in Castlelands, near Kinsale. These two images are courtesy of our friend Amanda Clarke: she was told by a man doing maintenance work that this was the grave of Anne Bonny the pirate – hence the skull and crossbones!

Sun, moon and star images represent the glories of creation and we’ve seen many instances of sunbursts, often enclosing the IHS lettering. Here’s a nice example, below, from Kilmallock, which also has winged heads and beautiful lettering.

William Jones Kilmallock

Lettering styles varied widely, as did the carver’s ability to spell and to ensure he had left himself enough room. Anyone wanting to invent new fonts (yes, that’s a thing) could well study old headstones and admire the incredible variety of lettering. Carving some of the more elaborately rounded scripts must have been a job for only the most highly skilled.

Dan Linnehan, Cullen, Co Cork

We often see instances where letters and words have to be added above or below the line, where the carver ran out of room

The Lamb of God is another common image – although it can be hard to recognise a lamb in the often lumpen carving at the top of a headstone.

Headstone, Cullen

At an old graveyard in Cullen, Co Cork, there are several stones that appear to be in a local style with a head on either side of the top of the stone

We can’t resist old graveyards – we seldom pass an opportunity for a stroll and an explore. Sometimes we find interesting headstones, sometimes we just soak in the atmosphere, sometimes we worry about the neglect that allows them to slowly disappear into a jumble of brambles and nettles.

Four Children gravestone, Bandon

It’s hard to make out what’s on this old headstone in the churchyard at St Peter’s C of I church in Bandon. The words include a reference to ‘his four children’ so I am tempted to think these four heads representing those little souls.

Here’s some good new – there is an Irish organisation, Historic Graves, that is doing outstanding work in saving our historic graveyards from that fate. In their own words:

The Historic Graves project is a community focused grassroots heritage project. Local community groups are trained in low-cost high-tech field survey of historic graveyards and recording of their own oral histories. They build a multi-media online record of the historic graves in their own areas and unite to form a national resource.

Lissagriffin

Kilmoe churchyard, in LIssagriffin on the MIzen Peninsula, has benefited from a Historic Graves survey

I used information from the Historic Graves survey in my posts about the Stouke Graveyard (Priests and Poets Part 1 and Part 2) and I hope to learn more about their methods and objectives in the future.

Another Historic Graves project was Castlelands, near Kinsale. These photographs are by Amanda Clarke, used with thanks

One thing we have seen is that once a graveyard has been surveyed it’s important to keep it well maintained. The Cloyne graveyard was surveyed in 2013 and many fine old headstones were found and recorded. We visited in May 2014 and loved our walk through the flower-strewn pathways and the newly-revealed headstones. However, earlier this month when we dropped in it had started to resemble a jungle again. 

Cloyne Graveyard

I will leave you with a couple of my personal favourites from graveyard visits – not elaborate, not particularly old, but saying so much. The first is from Castlehaven graveyard in West Cork, the second from Kilbarry, near Dunmanway.

Castlehaven Bridge McCarthy

Crowley Castle St

The Nativity – by Harry Clarke

Castletownshend East Window

Church of St Barrahane, Castletownshend, East Window

Images of the nativity are a special part of Christmas in Ireland – as witness the proliferation of Christmas cribs in every town and in half the shopfronts. In West Cork (and not too far away in Dingle) we are particularly fortunate to have several examples of nativity images in stained glass by the famous Harry Clarke.

St Barrahanes detail Mary and Joseph

St Barrahane detail Mary and Joseph

We have mentioned Harry Clarke, Ireland’s most renowned stained glass artist, in several posts before, and no doubt will come back to him again – his gorgeous windows repay multiple visits. In going through the many photographs I have taken I realised that Harry Clarke, at least in the windows I have visited here in the south west, concentrated on only two representations of the Christmas story – the visit of the Magi, and the flight into Egypt.

His focus on the the visitation of the Three Kings, traditionally celebrated on January 6th, is poignant, for it was on that day that Harry Clarke died in 1931, after a long battle with tuberculosis. He was, like the Magi, travelling at the time, in a vain attempt to get home from a sanatorium in Switzerland. He was only 41.

Dingle - the Visit of the Magi

Dingle – the Visit of the Magi

On a recent visit to Dingle we were lucky to find the Díseart Centre of Irish Spirituality and Culture open and to be able to view the magnificent windows in a tiny church previously only open to the nuns of the enclosed Presentation order. One of the windows was devoted to the nativity – once again, the Magi scene.

Clarke scholars will only assign a window as a true ‘Harry Clarke’ if it was designed and the construction supervised closely by him. His studios carried on after his death and windows made at that time are labelled ‘Harry Clarke Studio’ windows. While the Castletownshend and Dingle windows are undisputedly Harry Clarkes, there seem to be differences of opinion about the ones in Timoleague. When the Timoleague church celebrated its centenary, the Southern Star ran a story with this entry:

Pride of place in the church must go to the beautiful Harry Clarke windows at the back of the church as you exit. Harry Clarke achieved fame for his unique style, his incredible use of colour, his decorative designs and the beautiful medieval-styled figures that have rarely found an equal in the medium of stained glass. These windows were put in place in 1929/’30 and were among the last to be made by Clarke who died in 1931. The windows were in memory of Rev Fr Timothy O’Hea PP (1912-1929) by the parishioners and by his successor as parish priest, Rev Fr  Jeremiah O’Driscoll (1929-’49).

Timoleague, Flight into Egypt

Timoleague, Flight into Egypt

However, these windows are not listed on the authoritative site http://harryclarke.net/, implying that these are Harry Clarke Studio windows. They are certainly in the Clarke style, and very striking.

The Kilcoe Church of the Most Holy Rosary has a stained glass rose window over the entrance. A sign states that it was made by Harry Clarke Stained Glass Ltd (the Studios), designed by T Clarke and installed in 1943. It is in the Clarke style, and although beautiful and expertly done, perhaps lacks the level of detail one expects from a window given Harry’s personal attention. One of the small windows of the rose depicts the flight into Egypt.

Aughadown church, flight into Egypt

Aughadown church, flight into Egypt

The range of images in the Harry Clarke windows in West Cork is broad and fascinating. We will no doubt write future posts about this luminous body of work.

Three Pilgrims in West Cork

Glebe Church, on the Ilen River

Glebe Church, on the Ilen River

The guest speaker at this Thursday’s Skibbereen Historical Society meeting was Louise Nugent, speaking on the topic of Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland. We became familiar with Louise’s work though her blog of the same title – a blog which manages to be consistently erudite and down-to-earth and entertaining all at once – and suggested her as a speaker. This also gave us the opportunity to meet Louise in person (she is as engaging and as knowledgeable as her blog) and, the next day, show her a little bit of our part of West Cork.

One of the great delights of following Louise’s blog is realising that the concept of pilgrimage – a spiritual journey undertaken for a variety of purposes – is still very much alive in Ireland. Local veneration of shrines, relics and holy wells is common and often involves a mass or prayers on special days. The “journey” involves going to the shrine, and sometimes moving around it in a set pattern or round. Larger scale pilgrimages, such as the annual trek up Croagh Patrick or a stay at Lough Derg in Donegal or a Novena at Holy Cross Abbey, transcend the local and attract pilgrims from around Ireland. In her talk, Louise also described the popularity of pilgrimage in Medieval times to holy sites outside Ireland such as York, Santiago de Compostela, Rome, or Jerusalem. Those who completed the Santiago Camino wore scallop shells to signify their pilgrim status, an image we had just seen the previous weekend in Cork in the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne, where we came across a shrine to Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy. There was a statue, a painting, scrolls, but most fascinating of all a reliquary containing a leg bone! Blessed Thaddeus lived in the 15th Century and was appointed a bishop twice but was never able to take up his see because of the activities of the rival clan O’Driscoll.

On our day with Louise we concentrated on the area around Skibbereen. We started off by visiting the 18th Century Church at Glebe, on the banks of the River Ilen. The church and graveyard enjoy a picturesque and peaceful setting and a wander around the graveyard yielded interesting headstones.

Holy Rosary Church at Aughadown, window detail

Holy Rosary Church at Aughadown, window detail

From there we went to the ruined medieval church at Kilcoe, stopping for a quick peak at the notable windows in the Church of the Most Holy Rosary at Aughadown. They deserve a fuller description at a future date, so for now I will include a detail from the rose window at the back of the church, designed and executed by the Harry Clarke studios in 1941.

The church at the tip of the Kilcoe Peninsula was already a ruin in the early 17th century. Although a simple rectangular structure, the pointed arched doorway and the tiny ogival windows mark it as medieval, perhaps as early as 14th or 15th century. Romantic and atmospheric as it is, it has the added advantage of a clear view of Kilcoe Castle, famously restored by Jeremy Irons and gently glowing in the afternoon light as we were there.

Two of the three pilgrims at a holy well

Two of the three pilgrims at a holy well

Louise’s special interest is in holy wells and several audience members the night before had come forward with information about local wells and the practices and beliefs associated with them. Two of the best known and most beloved local wells are situated close to each other at Lough Hyne. Robert is writing about these wells this week so I will leave the detailed description to him.

Our final stop was the village of Castletownshend and the Church of St Barrahane, filling two different functions. First, Louise had been to visit a holy well dedicated to St. Martin of Tours in Clare, and we wanted to show her the Harry Clarke window that Robert had described in his Martinmas post. Second, a trip to St Barrahane’s is always a pilgrimage of a different sort for me, as it is the final resting place of three of my heroes. The first two, of course, are the writing team of Somerville and Ross – more about them in this post. The third is Vice-Admiral Boyle Somerville, brother of Edith and a keen amateur archaeologist worthy of a post to himself in the future.

St Louis: detail of Harry Clarke window in St Barrahanes, Castletownshend

St Louis: detail of Harry Clarke window in St Barrahanes, Castletownshend

Come back soon, Louise – these two pilgrims have lots more to show you!