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the carvings and inscriptions as examples of folk art, he points out that the graveyards are also open-air archives of historical documents, not on paper, but on stone preserving genealogical information as well as reflecting some of the social issues of the period.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.

Headstones or Folk Carvings?

This week we stumbled upon one of the finest collections of 18th century gravestones we have ever seen, in the ancient Kilcoole Church yard. We’ve been visiting friends in Wicklow and enjoying ourselves very much.

The church itself is very old, mostly 12th century. Although un-ornamented, the arches and windows are Romanesque in design, and the church originally had a stone roof, like the one we wrote about in Kilmalkedar. It’s kept locked but the key is easy to obtain, although it only opened the outer gate, so we were unable to see inside the church.

The graveyard, however, turned out to be a treasure trove! In West Cork we do see the occasional eighteenth century gravestone, but they are often heavily weather and lichened and impossible to read. However they manage it, these gravestones were as fresh and readable as the day they were carved.

This 1792 headstone for Felix Kavanagh has the IHS symbol surmounted by a cross and surrounded by a sunburst. On either side is a six-pointed star and a barred circle – we are unsure of the meaning of this motif

In our post Memento Mori we introduced you to the joys of graveyard headstones, and explained what symbols were common and what they represented. The crucifixion is a favourite, of course, and that was beautifully represented in Kilcoole by a gravestone for Robert McCormick by Dennis Cullen, dating from 1784.

Dennis Cullen is recognised as one of Ireland’s finest folk sculptors. There are 105 known Cullen headstones, most dating from 1765 to 1785, many in Glendalough, and most depicting passion scenes. He was born in Monaseed and his carving technique was accomplished. He often signed his work, unusual for the day. This is a good example of a Cullen crucifixion scene, except that it was altered later by the addition of two marble crosses.

Cullen executed his work in delicate and accurate detail. Christ on the cross is flanked by the Virgin with a crown and beads and St John with a bible. Cullen’s habit was to carve figures in the costume of the 18th century. The Virgin’s flowing hair is, in fact, a long lace veil – common mourning dress of the time. John is wearing a dress coat.

Several of the headstones feature a sunburst as well as sun, star and moon motifs. Powerful symbols of the soul and of immortality, as well as rebirth, these motifs were very popular in the eighteenth century. The IHS symbol (explained in Memento Mori) usually adorned the top of the headstone.

Angels – the soul’s guide to heaven – are found on several of the Kilcoole headstones and we were  delighted at the the variety of ways in which they were depicted.

Because the carvings are so visible and well-preserved in Kilcoole, it’s possible to see not only the detail of the lettering, but also the guidelines used to keep them straight.

Most of the lettering is deeply carved and exhibits, here and there, that idiosyncratic and random placement of letters where the carver may have run out of room, or perhaps was anxious to balance a line.

The lettering styles are fairly plain, although some fancier initial words crop up.

The graveyard has suffered damage both from vandals and from the ravages of time. We were intrigued by the number of fragmentary inscriptions and broken headstones dotting the place.

A local style seemed to be the use of a floral or vine pattern across the top of the stone. There were several examples of this – perhaps the hallmark of a particular carver.

There were some fine later nineteenth century headstone in the graveyard too. Although we recognised that they were beautifully executed, it’s harder to get excited by them: they lack the naive exuberance of the eighteenth century examples and the symbols used are more restrained and limited.

There are several graveyards in Wicklow with similar collections of headstones and we hope to visit more in the future. Meanwhile, to learn more, order a copy of Chistiaan Corlett’s excellent book Here Lyeth about the eighteenth century gravestone of Wicklow

The Complex Cupmark

Rathruane More: the view from the rock art site includes a knoll with a row of cupmarks on its upper surface, and Mount Gabriel on the horizon

Rathruane More: the view from the rock art site includes a knoll with a row of cupmarks on its upper surface, and Mount Gabriel on the horizon

QUESTION: Is there a real difference between rock art and cupmarked stones?

A joint post by Finola and Robert

Distribution of 'rock art' (left) and 'cupmarked stones' (right) in Ireland

Distribution of ‘rock art’ (left) and ‘cupmarked stones’ (right) in Ireland, according to the National Monuments classification scheme

In recording the rock art of County Cork so far we have concentrated mainly on those examples described in the National Monuments Records as rock art. In the course of planning the Cork survey, years ago, a decision was made to distinguish between rock art and cupmarked stones and so they are listed separately. However, other counties appear to lump them together, or use the generic term rock art to include stones bearing only cupmarks. In addition, some monuments are classified using their most distinctive feature: a wedge tomb or a standing stone, for example, may well bear cupmarks on a surface, but do not therefore show up as examples of either rock art or cupmarked stones on the records.  

Drishane Cupmarked Stone. In other counties, this would be recorded as Rock art

Drishane Cupmarked Stone. In other counties, this would be recorded as Rock art

This is how the National Monuments Website describes cupmarked stones: A stone or rock outcrop, found in isolation, bearing one or more small, roughly hemispherical depressions, generally created by chipping or pecking. There are a total of 99 examples listed in Ireland, of which 64 are in Cork. However, as we have seen above, this is an arbitrary and misleading classification and varies from county to county. The number of cupmarked stones that fit the NM description is likely to be much larger. The question is – should we preserve this distinction between stones labelled rock art and those labelled cupmarked stones? Is it useful or merely confusing?

Rathruane - included in the list of rock art because, besdies cupmarks, it also has cup-and-ring marks, a rosette, and curved lines.

Rathruane – included in the list of rock art because, besides numerous cupmarks, it also has cup-and-ring marks, a rosette, and lines. The first photograph in this post was taken from this surface

The cupmark is the most basic and numerous element or motif of rock art in Ireland and elsewhere. In the examples labelled rock art in County Cork, they occur with other motifs, principally concentric rings, sometimes with radial grooves, and a variety of curved or straight lines. They can be incorporated within a motif (as in cup-and-ring marks, rosettes, or where enclosed by lines) or they may be scattered, seemingly randomly, over the surface of the rock, between and among the other motifs.

The two images above are from the shores of Lough Hyne. Two cupmarked stones lie on the beach, having probably fallen from the stone wall above. The right hand image is Robert’s drawing of the stone with 12 cupmarks

Since we have almost finished our recording of the rock art examples, we have moved on to focusing on those labelled cupmarked stones. As we spend time in the field recently with this class of monument we have begun to appreciate their differences from and similarities with rock art.

This simple cupmarked stone was placed many years ago within Knockdrum Fort, near Castletownshend, in the townland of Farrandau. It was brought to Vice-Admiral Boyle Sommerville by a local farmer

Let’s start with what differentiates them from rock art, apart from the obvious fact that the cupmark is the single motif employed in the carving.

  • Where a stone is smaller and moveable, it is more likely to bear only cupmarks. This also makes them more vulnerable to loss and to incorporation into field walls and other structures. While there are examples elsewhere, here in Cork we have found no examples of cup-and-ring carvings on small, easily moveable, stones.
  • We have found cupmarks on boulder burials here – Bohonagh is a good example, and Derreennatra (currently hidden under a mound of compost) may be another.
  • In general standing stones, where they have carvings, are more likely to have only cupmarks (we have three exceptions to this in West Cork).
  • The Bluid stone has cupmarks on both sides – there are no Cork examples with rock art on both sides.

The Bluid Stone is in Cork Public Museum but comes from near Castletownshend. It is a rare example of a stone with cupmarks on both sides, quite portable. Note the semi-circular patterns of the cupmarks

The Bluid Stone is in Cork Public Museum but comes from near Castletownshend. It is a rare example of a stone with cupmarks on both sides, quite portable. Note the semi-circular patterns of the cupmarks

Now – what’s the same?

  • Location: Most cupmark-only carvings are found in the open countryside, on large earthfast boulders or rock outcrops.
  • Clusters: as with rock art, cupmarked stones are often found within a kilometre or two of other examples or are within sight of each other or within site of rock art (intervisibility).
  • Carving technique: where it can be discerned, it appears to be the same as for rock art – pecking with a harder stone. In the case of some of the shaley sandstone that laminates easily, it is impossible to tell how the cupmarked was formed – it may have been simply bashed out.
  • Siting: where the cupmarks are found in situ, their siting is equally spectacular to rock art. In particular, many of them are found on rising ground with strongly marked horizons that include views, even quite distant views, of Mount Gabriel, Mount Kidd, or other prominent horizon features. The sea, or water in the form of a lake, stream or river, is often a feature of the vista from the rock. We have not worked with enough of them yet to form any opinion on whether they are sited at what may have been routes through a landscape or territorial boundaries.       
  • Patterns: as with more complex rock art, often the cupmarks appear to be scattered randomly over the surface of the rock. However, patterns of straight lines, or of rough circles or semi-circles, can be made out in several of the stones we have recorded to date.

Robert points to two outcrops in Kilcoe. The lower one has one cupmark, the upper one has 13 cupmarks arranged in a rough circular patter. The sea and Mount Gabriel are visible from this location, as well as some rock art

Robert points to two outcrops in Kilcoe. The lower one has one cupmark, the upper one has 13 cupmarks arranged in a rough circular patter. The sea and Mount Gabriel are visible from this location, as well as some rock art

In researching this piece we have been influenced by Christiaan Corlett’s book Inscribed Landscape: The Rock Art of South Leinster. Christiaan is an archaeologist with the Dept of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and specialises in the archaeology of Leinster, and especially Wicklow. His book has been the first to catalogue the extensive body of rock art in the South Leinster area (indeed the first published work on rock art in Ireland) and in his corpus he includes both cup-and-ring art and cupmark-only stones without undue distinction. He notes many of the same things about rock art that we have observed. For example, he was struck, as we were, by the dominance of high mountains (in his case, Mount Leinster, the Blackstairs, or Brandon Hill) in the horizon views from the rocks he studied, and by the intervisibility of stones from each other.

The newly-discovered Kilbronoge cupmarked stone. From it you can see Roaringwater Bay and a wedge tomb to the SE, and Mount Gabriel diametrically opposite in the NW

The newly-discovered Kilbronoge cupmarked stone. From it you can see Roaringwater Bay and a wedge tomb to the SE, and Mount Gabriel diametrically opposite in the NW

Robert's drawing of the Kilbronoge Cupmarked Stone, done on CAD using architectural drawing tehniques

Robert’s drawing of the Kilbronoge Cupmarked Stone, made using architectural survey and CAD techniques

His work is a strong argument for the inclusion of all cupmarked-based prehistoric carving under one rubric – rock art. First of all, he argues that it is all likely to be of a similar early origin. Recent thinking is that rock art may predate megalithic art and belong to the Early Neolithic (at least 5,000 years old). In fact, the cup-and-ring art may already have been dying out during the great flowering of megalithic art that we see at Newgrange, Knowth and Loughcrew. Cupmarks on their own may have persisted longer, as they are found in association with Bronze Age monuments such as wedge tombs and boulder burials. Here’s what he has to say about our search for meaning, vis-a-vis the humble cupmarked stone (p.78):

Arguably, it is only within the context of the overall composition that we may come close to some comprehension of the motifs found in rock art. Even the meaning of a completed composition, however, may only have been understood by the person(s) responsible for it. Perhaps the symbols represent a complex message of family history or a personal spiritual journey associated with an initiation ceremony or rite of passage, or perhaps they simply served to delineate family, tribal or sacred boundaries… [There is] a natural temptation to focus on the more elaborate designs and compositions found in rock art, as if they are more important because they are more accomplished. Yet the frequency of compositions consisting solely of plain and unelaborated cup-marks should not devalue their significance. Clearly their commonness would strongly suggest that these examples were just as important as, or maybe even more important than, the most elaborate examples of rock art found in the region. Given the intrinsic simplicity of a composition consisting entirely of cup-marks, however, it is arguably impossible to decipher or decode the specific meaning of the symbols themselves. That is not to say, of course, that we cannot attempt to understand the broader message of rock art, particularly where a complex of sites can be analysed. In such cases it may be the context of these sites that will provide the key to unlocking the meaning of rock art, in terms of the position and relationships within a given landscape, and the relationship with other examples of rock art on the vicinity.

The Kilcoe Cupmarked stone. The original record described three cupmarks - in fact there are 13, arranged in a rough circle.

The Kilcoe Cupmarked stone. The original record described three cupmarks – in fact there are 13, arranged in a rough circle

Christiaan deals with the similarity of cupmarks to the bowl-shaped depressions known as bullauns, assumed to be Early Medieval. But that’s a topic for another day. Suffice it to say here that one of our favourite stones, Castlemehigan, may have both cupmarks and bullauns on its surface, as well as a cross indicating its later use as a mass rock. In its extraordinary mix of seemingly-randomly-scattered but also possibly-linear-arrangement of cupmarks; large bowl and basin-shaped elements; a spectacular siting that includes views to a distant Mount Gabriel and a closer view of the sea; a nearby cluster of other cupmarked stones; and the folklore that surrounds it – this very special cupmarked stone embodies all that is wonderful about this class of ancient monument.

Castlemehigan cupmarked stone

Castlemehigan cupmarked stone

To come back to the question we posed at the beginning – should we preserve or abandon the notion that we are dealing with two classes of monument – rock art versus cupmarked stones? Our answer is that we’re not sure.  What do YOU think?

The Giant's Grave, Drishane. It bears numerous cupmarks on the upper surface of the 'capstone'

The Giant’s Grave, Drishane. It bears numerous cupmarks on the upper surface of the ‘capstone’

For those interested in more of our posts on rock art, go to Derrynablaha Expedition and scroll to the end for a list.