The Headstones of Ferns

Ferns, in Co Wexford, is an historic town that boasts many fine heritage attractions including an Anglo-Norman Castle, an Augustinian Abbey and other medieval ruins, high crosses and associations with the McMurroughs and the Marshalls. Not least among its delights is the Cathedral graveyard, which has one of the best collections of eighteenth century headstones I have ever seen.

Look at the headstone above and the one below. The elements used in the carving are identical except that the central image in the first is a crucifixion scene and in the second it’s an IHS in a sunburst. Note the J Byrne signature under the carving to the left above and the Pat Byrne signature below. How were J and Pat related? Does the difference demonstrate anything other than the preference of the person who commissioned the headstone? I’m tempted to see the gradual replacement of the crucifixion image with slightly less ‘popish’ symbols, but I’m probably overthinking this

In our post Memento Mori, I introduced you to Irish headstones and the practice, which really only dates back to the 18th century, of routinely placing headstones on graves. Even then, only those who had the means to pay for a carved headstone were memorialised in this way – most still lay in graves with simple field stones at their head (and sometimes feet).

In Headstones or Folk Carvings? we visited Kilcoole graveyard to Co Wicklow, home to many fine headstones including one by Dennis Cullen, an acknowledged master carver. In Ferns we found many of the headstones had been carved by J Byrne (or J: Byrne, as he styled it) and although his technique does not quite have the refinement of Dennis Cullen, his carvings have a charm and energy that make them recognisable even where the headstone is not signed.

See the ‘J: Byrne’ signature just below the carvings to the right. There is no date on this headstone for William Lea (or Leacey? See the tiny superscript above the ‘Lea’). The detail on the angels is very fine and I love the little arrow in the centre of the sunburst, just below the IHS

The most common image is, of course, the IHS. Known as a Christogram, IHS is shorthand for the name of Jesus. It is often surrounded by a sunburst, or surmounted by a cross. Interestingly, the earlier and later headstones are more likely to feature the IHS as their main element.

Two early headstone, from 1758 and 1773, starting with Here Lieth. Mogue is a local name, for Saint Mogue of Ferns, whose well lies across the road. Note that the final Y of Mercy doesn’t quite fit on the line so a superscript is used

Many of the most interesting headstones date from the 1790s and where they have a signature it is that of J Byrne. There must have been a vogue for crucifixion scenes at the time, because they appear here and there throughout the graveyard and date to this period.

The J: Byrne signature is almost obscured by lichen. This is a typical J Byrne carving, with a crucifixion scene: Jesus on the cross, Mary and possibly John on either side, all three with halos. Sun and moon round out the carving

Jesus is on the cross at the centre of the tableau, with Mary on one side and John on the other. Occasionally other figures appear – Roman soldiers, a man on horseback, angels.

The dress, as is common with carvings of this period, reflects eighteenth century styles – observe the soldier in the frock coat in the Moses Breen scene (above) and the angel in the seamed jacket on John Kehoe’s stone (below).

There are a couple of headstone with horses in the crucifixion scene, but it’s unusual

The most frequent other symbols are the sun and moon, often with faces. The sun/moon symbols can be the main elements or can be wedged into available spaces on either side of crucifixion scenes.

The lettering styles vary, although generally they become tidier over time. Occasionally, the lines incised to keep the carver straight can be discerned. Words that don’t fit are either carried over, or a tiny superscript finishes them so they can stay on the same line.

The lightly incised ‘stay between the lines’ can be seen in Mogue Doyle’s headstone from 1775

This 1792 headstone is for Catherine Murphy. But it is also for her husband. However, none of the husband’s details appear. I can understand that he would have been added to the headstone at the time of her death, for efficiency perhaps, with his dates to be added later – but the fact that his name is missing gives rise to all kinds of speculation!

One mysterious element of several of the gravestones in Ferns is that at some point in the past someone has drilled holes in some of the headstones (see the two examples, below). If anyone can tell us the significance of this, we would be grateful to know it.

We highly recommend a visit to Ferns. Give yourself a day to take in all that’s there, but don’t forget to have a good wander around the old graveyard. Morning is best, as the light goes behind the headstones in the afternoon.

I love the primitive quality of this 1780 stone for Mary O”Danioley – Jesus on the cross with the soldier piercing his side with a spear

Fading Treasures

For me, Ireland’s greatest treasures are those that are shy of publicity. There’s nothing more rewarding than turning off the beaten track and negotiating a narrow boreen with a lush growth of grass down the middle and brambles scratching your car on either side to find – often by chance – a stunning piece of medieval architecture, perhaps just the fragments of a ruin in a field, but revealing the beauty of a decorated doorway or an ornately carved corbel. Always these items are discernible but fading. Their splendour – and the exquisite craftsmanship that created them – are manifest. But there’s a melancholy in these finds: you see them, and wonder at them, yet you ask: how many more generations will be able to appreciate these works of ancient hands?

A classic case study would be the medieval high crosses. There are a remarkable number of these still intact on the island of Ireland, and many more fragmentary remains. We go out of our way to search for all these traces in our travels: some of those we have visited to date can be found through this link. It’s such a rich archive, and there are many more to be written up.

Above is St Cronan’s High Cross, Roscrea, Co Tipperary. As you can see, this example has been removed to an indoor location (Black Mills Heritage Centre), to protect it from further weather deterioration, although all the fine detail has been lost. In fact, this example has been assembled from sections of two different medieval crosses for purposes of display. I am an advocate of protecting these artefacts in this way, as acid rain and modern pollution seem to be accelerating the decay of the stone monuments. As in many cases with the protection measures, a high quality reproduction cross has been placed on the original site in the churchyard of St Cronan’s, just a few metres away. Have a look at my post on Monasterboice for a further discussion on the arguments for preservation of these monuments – and compare the condition of the as yet unprotected high crosses there with the wear and tear above.

While in Roscrea, you can take your own journey along a ‘secret track’ to find treasures. Visit Inis na mBeo (Island of the Living) at Monaincha, just a stone’s throw from the town: you are likely to be the only visitors there and can fully appreciate the solitude of the location while exploring a ruined Romanesque church and a reconstructed high cross (above). The monastic site was founded in the 6th century, and was then a true island, only accessible by boat; now you can walk to it. Not least of its attractions is the fact that you are immortal while you are there (so they say). Certainly, we came back alive, but I was concerned to read later that another tradition has it that when the now dry lough contained water, no woman or female animal could ever set foot in or cross it without dying instantly. (Below – looking along the remote trackway that takes you to the former Island of the Living at Monaincha).

Another ‘rescued’ high cross can be found quietly located in the far less remote (but still a little unsung) Cathedral of St Flannan in Killaloe, Co Clare. Megalithic Ireland has a good account of the history of this cross, which can be seen in the images below (while the header picture at the top of this post shows exquisitely carved detailing from a Romanesque doorway in the same Cathedral):

. . . The High Cross in St Flannan’s Cathedral was moved to Killaloe from Kilfenora in 1821. Originally the cross stood on the highest point south of Kilfenora Cathedral, and became known as the cross on the hill. Dr Richard Mant who was appointed Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora in 1820, was appalled by the condition and lack of respect shown for the antiquities in Kilfenora. The cross, which had fallen in 1820, was sent to the Bishop the following year. He had it erected on the grounds of his residence Clarisford Palace. The cross was moved at a later date by a Bishop Ludlow and moved back within the Palace grounds in 1850. In 1934 the cross fell again and this time broke into three pieces. It was re-erected inside the cathedral and fixed against the west gable. In 1998 the cross was repaired and erected as a free standing cross. It stands over four metres high and bears a figure of christ in the centre of the head . . .

The White Cross of St Tola (images below) may not be on everyone’s list of things to see at Dysert O’Dea in Co Clare (you are more likely to be channelled to Corofin), but it’s easy to visit from the better known Romanesque monastery ruins: the ecclesiastical centre was founded by the saint in the 8th century. Cromwell’s forces destroyed the monastery and demolished the cross, but the cross was repaired by Michael O’Dea in 1683. The Synge family restored the cross again in 1871, and in 1960 it was temporarily dismantled and shipped to Barcelona for an exhibition on Irish art.

Clonmacnoise is likely to be on everyone’s list, and rightly so. It was one of Europe’s most important religious centres in medieval times. Ireland’s Ancient East website describes it thus:

. . . The whole of this early Christian site – including ruins of a cathedral, seven churches (10th–13th century), two round towers, high crosses and the largest collection of early Christian grave slabs in Western Europe – is a vast story in stone that keeps alive the spirit of Ireland as a Land of Saints and Scholars . . .

There are three conserved high crosses at Clonmacnoise – all are placed inside the visitor centre, while quality replicas are positioned on the original sites: this is a good exemplar of how to look after ancient stones and, while perhaps the seasonal crowds can be off-putting, I believe it’s the only answer for maintaining access to and displaying this valuable history. Ancient East mentions the important grave slab collection: after the high crosses (and, of course, Romanesque architecture) I feel these are the most beautiful representations of art and craftsmanship that connect us across the centuries to our remarkably focussed forebears.

These are just a few examples of the many grave slabs which are fortunately conserved at Clonmacnoise. But there are many more monuments that are less fortunate, albeit they may enjoy some sort of state care. There are just not enough resources to look after the huge historical heritage of Ireland: we can only hope that, in time, they will all be fully appreciated and that not too many treasures will fade away.