Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Another Reason There's No Headstone

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...


  1. Sobering thought to realize how recent that latest outbreak was...

    Ellie, I'm glad I spotted your post today. While you weren't talking about JSTOR itself, per se, you reminded me of this excellent resource for broadening the cultural understanding of the family whose history we are researching. Then, too, our family is hoping to be headed to Ireland, following our daughter who will be by then, hopefully, studying at that University College Cork that you mentioned in your post today.

    Sad to think that we won't likely be finding any headstones. Here's hoping at least not all the documents got burned, too.

  2. Hi Jacqi, I'm enjoying JSTOR and you're right, it's an excellent resource. How wonderful your daughter will be at University in Cork, and that you will get to visit, or will you be there long term? My daughter went to Ireland when she was studying Irish Lit. and she loved it. Hope your daughter does too--and you just may luck out with the headstones. Best Wishes, Ellie

  3. Have to say, I'm very interested in old Irish burial customs - I'm sure most the graves once had some kind of marker, maybe a wooden cross that no longer survives. I've also wondered if the custom was to leave prayer ribbons, etc, near the grave, similar to the old old customs associated with Pattern Sunday.

  4. I'm very interested too. I would bet they did have some type of marker, just not an expensive one that would last very long. I still have hope I may find one or two when I finally get over there.