|Glasnevin, first Catholic Cemetery in Dublin|
I've been reading some enlightening articles at JSTOR, (which I blogged about earlier here) and would like to share one. I have never given the subject of early 19th century burials in Ireland much thought, though I have often lamented the dearth of headstones and/or church records for Ireland's Catholics of that period. Today I finally got around to reading an article titled, Burials and Bigotry in Early Nineteenth Century Ireland, by John Murphy of University College in Cork and Cliona Murphy, State University Bakersfield, California.
I thought this would probably be another article describing the protestant loathing for wakes and so forth, but instead it's topic was the burials themselves. While the odious penal laws were more strictly enforced in some parts of Ireland than in others, from the time of the Reformation until about the early 1830's, nowhere in Ireland were Catholics allowed their own graveyards. They sometimes buried their dead near old monasteries, but the preferred site for burials was in their parish graveyard where the bones of their ancestors lay, even though those cemeteries were now under the control of the church of Ireland and Catholic services and prayers were forbidden.
This meant that when an individual died, his or her family was forced to pay a priest to come to their home and say a proper Catholic burial Mass, then pay a protestant cleric to perform a burial in "his" cemetery. Add to this the cost of a coffin and the aforementioned wake, and a typical family likely didn't have the additional funds to procure a stone for the grave. This could be part of the reason many of our ancestors lie in unmarked graves. It probably also at least partly explains why the few I've found have incorrect dates. Sometimes those stones weren't carved until years after the death had occurred, often when a descendant went to America and sent money home for one to be placed. It could be difficult to remember exact dates, especially if the family was illiterate and the death took place before records were kept.
Naturally this state of affairs caused much anger among the Catholic population, particularly when a burial was interrupted by an overzealous cleric objecting to a Catholic prayer being said over a grave, which sadly did happen. In one case, a priest was admonished as he began to recite the De Profundis, a traditional prayer for the dead-- a particularly brave friend of the deceased finished it for him. Even as late as 1863 the protestant rector of Clonoulty wrote a letter protesting the actions of Reverend Thomas O'Carroll who had read the burial service in the parish graveyard.
Today, the controversy is long over in most of Ireland, but in the north it still occasionally rears it's head. The innocuous, once yearly Cemetery Sunday, a Catholic custom in which the priest blesses graves in the local cemetery, drew the ire of Belfast protestants in 2001. They responded by interrupting the service with loud picketing, and ultimately burning the Catholic church and defacing Catholic graves. Sometimes, I can only shake my head...