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