Churchyard and Cemetery Sculpture

By Jacqueline Hayes

Information on Irish graveyard and churchyard sculpture has tended to be localized. Ada Longfield’s pioneering work in the field in the 1940s and 1950s concentrated mainly on counties Wicklow and Wexford, although significant gravestone art was noted by her in other areas. Her research uncovered a sophisticated folk art in the south-east, in particular the work of Dennis Cullen of Monaseed, who experimented with figure sculpture in elaborate crucifixion scenes. Further insight into the quality and extent of Cullen’s work was published by Eoin Grogan (‘Eighteenth century headstones and the stone mason tradition in County Wicklow: the work of Dennis Cullen of Monaseed’, Wicklow Archaeology and History, I (1998), 41–63). 

Diarmuid O’Keefe discusses gravestones carved with Passion symbols in south Tipperary, Kilkenny and east Waterford, where the remains of seventeenth-century table tombs for the old pre-Cromwellian Catholic elite were still visible in the eighteenth century (‘18th-century decorated grave- stones; the Kilsheelan-Kilmurry group’; ‘Instruments of the Passion on the gravestones of South Tipperary’, Tipperary Historical Journal (1998), 198–214; (2001), 155–73). Research in the Clogher region of County Tyrone has uncovered groups of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century headstones carved with occupation symbols, heraldic motifs, mortality symbols, Adam and Eve motifs and foliage designs (Finbar McCormick, ‘A group of 18th-century Clogher Headstones’; ‘A group of tradesmen’s headstones’, Clogher Record, 9, 1 (1976), 5–16; 10, 1 (1979), 12–22). Gravestones with heraldic symbols were classified at the beginning of the twentieth century in County Antrim, one of the most interesting being a crest with images of children, representing those named in the family inscription (Francis Bigger and Herbert Hughes, ‘Armorial Sculptured Stones of the County Antrim’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, second series, 6, 1 (January 1900), 39-53). 

A distinctive school of carving was discovered at Balrothery in north County Dublin by Harold Mytum, who noted a number of gravestones from the eighteenth century decorated with artistic interpretations of the IHS monogram, sometimes accompanied by heart, lozenge, foliage or scroll motifs (‘Local Traditions in Early Eighteenth-Century Commemoration: The Headstone Memorials from Balrothery, Co. Dublin, and Their Place in the Evolution of Irish and British Commemorative Practice’, PRIA, 104C, 1 (2004), 1–35). Gravestones with Passion symbols from the nineteenth century have also been discovered in the mid-west, and Mary B. Timoney published a history of grave memorials in County Sligo in 2005. In examining grave- stone art of the eighteenth century, it is important to focus on regions because schools of carving cross the county boundaries we know today. 

The dating of gravestones and cemetery monuments is uncertain. Obituary dates on monuments of the eighteenth century and earlier are only a guideline because a long period of time might elapse between the date of death and the erection of a monument. Little churchyard sculpture survives from the seventeenth century owing to the destruction of tombs by the Cromwellian army in the mid-century and the decline of Catholic gentry patronage in the second half of the century as a result of dispossession and the Penal Laws. Tombs have also been lost with the clearing out of graveyards in subsequent centuries. There is evidence of this practice at Skreen, Co. Sligo, in the early nineteenth century, to make room for the box tombs carved by the Diamond family of stonemasons (Timoney, p. 5). The elite memorials of the seventeenth century were mostly internal monuments, erected in churches or in church ruins on old monastic sites. Timoney identified six graveyards in County Sligo with memorials dating to the seventeenth century. Sculpture on many dynastic tombs consisted of a family coat of arms, but Passion symbols were popular on Catholic tombs. 

The iconography of the Instruments of the Passion, or Arma Christi, on Catholic tombs in the seventeenth century served a political as well as a religious purpose, asserting fidelity to the Old Religion. The O’Tunneys (see AAI i) and the O’Kerins (qv), families of sculptors who produced the ‘only signed tombs in Ireland of the 16th and 17th centuries’, employed these iconographical symbols (Margaret Phelan, ‘The O’Kerin School of Monumental Sculpture in Ossary and its Environs in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’, JRSAI, 126, (1996), 167– 81). The O’Kerins depicted the symbols of the Passion across the full frontals of altar tombs. Their work, and that of other seventeenth century tomb sculptors, inspired the stonemasons of the following century, who responded to the needs of a rising Catholic middle class of farmers and merchants wishing to commemorate their dead with a stone memorial. 

The most influential tombs with Passion symbol carvings were erected at the beginning of the eighteenth century by English sculptor William Kidwell (qv), who signed work in 1711. These ledger tombs, commissioned by Waterford merchants William Dobbyn and Peter Synott, are the only known memorials by Kidwell to incorporate carvings of Instruments of the Passion. He introduced new motifs and design features, in their depiction, which are found on later tombstones within the region. (Julian C. Walton, ‘Pictorial Decoration on East Waterford Tombstones’, Decies, 14 (1976), 67–82). 

Passion symbols on headstones became widespread in the mid-eighteenth century, but the earliest concentration of these memorials was in the Kilsheelan-Kilmurry area of south Tipperary [369], some with Passion symbols only and others combined with a crucifixion scene (O’Keefe, 1998). Grogan suggests that crucifixion imagery on the Tipperary stones may have influenced the development of figure carving in the Wicklow and Wexford schools of stone carving later in the eighteenth century (Grogan, 1998). The greatest of these sculptors was ‘Dennis Cullen stonecutter Monaseed’, whose ‘signature stone’ in the old graveyard at Glendalough, inspired Longfield to undertake research in gravestone decoration (Longfield, p. 10). Grogan discovered additional works by Cullen, some signed and some attributed to him because of stylistic connections. In the peak of his production, 1760–90, he carved in semi-relief, ‘of very good and consistent quality’, with few elements which are cut or incised (Grogan, p. 52). His most sophisticated works are elaborate crucifixion scenes with three crosses and a number of figures. There is usually a building in the shape of a church, which probably represents the Temple. Cullen also did less elaborate scenes with a single cross, which will likely have been more affordable for less prosperous clients.

369. Gravestone with mortality symbols in memory of Patrick Naughton (d.1801), stone, Kilmurry churchyard, Limerick. Photo © Jacqueline Hayes.

Cullen worked for both Catholic and Protestant patrons, producing different designs for the Protestant, where scenes of the Crucifixion were avoided. Among the most charming aspects of his sculpture is the detailing of costume and weapons, emphasizing the folk quality of his art, a panniered eighteenth-century dress, contemporary military costume, pikes and even a pistol! Miles O’Brien and James Byrne were also significant craftsmen in the region. O’Brien was initially influenced by Cullen but developed a distinctive personal style, an interesting feature of which is the attempt to include portraiture. Two medallions with profile busts were carved on the signed stone, c. 1796, at Whitechurch, Co. Wexford, to James Carty and his wife. James Byrne was also a noted artisan sculptor of the period but, in spite of a prolific output, his scenes were less varied. 

The practice of decorating headstones with crucifixion scenes and Instruments of the Passion continued into the nineteenth century, as evidenced by high quality carving on head- stones in County Limerick (Charlotte Murphy, ‘Instruments of the Passion on Gravestones in County Limerick, North Munster Antiquarian Journal, 51 (2011), 81–92). There are examples of fine artisan sculpture in Effin and Nantinan graveyards. The headstone erected by John Lynch in memory of his father and son (d. 1781 and 1829) in Effin has a Crucifixion with the figures carved in relief. 

Fine carving at Nantinan graveyard, such as a headstone commissioned by James Cahill in memory of his wife (d. 1852) is signed ‘In Rahilly’. His technique was to cut away the stone background so that the central elements stand out in relief. The Crucifixion is surrounded by Instruments of the Passion, including the cock on the pot, symbol of a folk legend concerning the wife of Judas. The tall Enright gravestone, in the same graveyard, is attributed by Murphy to Rahilly because of a similar carving technique. The depiction of Christ, less naturalistic than the Lynch headstone in Effin, is a thoughtful and expressive portrayal by a skilled carver. The Crucifixion is flanked by an ordered arrangement of the Instruments of the Passion. 

With the advent of landscaped cemeteries in the nineteenth century, funerary monuments reflected international trends in memorialization and city churchyards and country graveyards erected similar monuments to those found in urban cemeteries. In the graveyard surrounding the old church of Kilmurry, Co. Limerick, memorials from the late eighteenth century reflect local craftsmanship, while mid-nineteenth-century memorials are similar to those monuments seen in the new urban cemeteries; for example, a carving on the headstone in memory of Alfred Matterson (d. 1848) of a woman mourning over a sarcophagus. 

Although cemetery memorials were largely architectural, they were rarely devoid of decoration. The same monument types were erected in different cemeteries, with variations in sculptural detail revealing the hand of local sculptors, or regional differences of expression. The treatment of the obelisk, for example, reveals a variety of artistic interpretations in different parts of the island. This ancient Egyptian tapering structure has a long tradition in western art, both as commemorative monument and street marker. In Mount Jerome cemetery in Dublin the traditional structure of the monument with pointed pyramidal top is rarely altered, although the McIlree obelisk (c. 1875) is crowned with a hand finial, the index finger pointing towards heaven. The Warren memorial (c. 1850), in the same cemetery, is devoid of ornamentation on the obelisk form, but small classical allegorical figures, designed by sculptor Joseph Robinson Kirk (qv), are located in the recessed corners of the pedestal. 

Another regional variation is the obelisk memorial to Hannah Lyons (d. 1834) in St Joseph’s Cemetery, Cork. This has a tiered pedestal with the inscription panel surrounded by a flowing pattern of foliage leaves, in the classical tradition, and a fluted obelisk form itself. One of the finest examples of the sculp- tural treatment of the obelisk is the memorial to Anna Maria Eagleson (d. 1875) [370] in the old Clifton Street Cemetery, Belfast, one of the earliest independent graveyards in Ireland, founded in 1797. The obelisk appears loosely draped with a tasselled cloth, underneath which is an eagle on the point of flight, the delicately carved wings seeming to melt into the stone. 

370. Obelisk memorial to Anna Maria Eagleson (d.1875), stone Clifton Street Cemetery, Belfast. Photo © Jacqueline Hayes.

Most architectural monuments incorporated sculptural elements that reflected the different revival styles of the era. The Gothic Revival emphasized religious imagery and fine naturalistic foliage decoration. The execution of foliage and floral motifs became one of the specialisms of the monumental workshops. The rich ornamentation on Gothic Revival monuments, imitative of the medieval style which English architect Augustus Pugin recommended as the ideal source for Christian architecture, had spiritual meaning as well as decorative intent. An example is the Eucharistic symbolism of vine leaves on the Boland memorial chapel in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. 

The Celtic Revival (qv), inspired by Early Irish Christian art, had the most impact on Irish funerary sculpture, leading to the adoption of the Celtic cross (qv) as a funerary monument. Some of the finest crosses interpreted Celtic ornament creatively, often with great artistic originality, such as the Apjohn cross (c. 1877, Mount Jerome cemetery), modelled on the Killamery cross. The Celtic cross became an architectural support for all kinds of sculptural detail, religious imagery and motifs, naturalistic foliage, Celtic ornament and nationalistic emblems – the last of which is exemplified on the ‘Leo’ memorial to poet John Keegan Casey (c. 1870) in Glasnevin [355]. 

The most assured relief sculpture on Celtic Revival memorial crosses was inspired by the Early Irish scripture crosses. One of the finest of these, commemorating Dr Alexander McDonnell (Glasnevin Cemetery) depicts a Last Judgement on the cross head. Devoutly religious figural scenes on the cross shaft, representing the works of mercy, are also appropriately symbolic on a memorial to a physician. The parable of the Good Samaritan is similarly employed, an example of which is the base of the Dr George McCormick cross (c. 1877), in the same cemetery. Irish legends also appear on crosses, especially scenes from the life of St Patrick, evident on the base of the Celtic cross commemorating Ellen Burke (c. 1879), carved by the sculptor James Pearse. 

The Celtic cross, used to memorialize militant Irish nationalists, was employed for ‘Manchester Martyrs’ memorials in cemeteries around the country in remembrance of the executed men. The memorial in Mount St Lawrence’s Cemetery, Limerick [446], has a weeping Erin at the foot of the cross, a religious interpretation of ‘martyred’ nationalism, which continued into the next century with the Sigerson memorial to the executed 1916 leaders (Glasnevin Cemetery) taking the form of a Pietà. The Fenian plot in Glasnevin Cemetery has finely carved Celtic crosses in memory of some of its famous sons, notably James Stephens and John O’Leary. But the finest nineteenth-century tomb monument inspired by militant nationalism was not erected until long after the foundation of the Irish Republic. Thomas Farrell’s (qv) figure group of Erin flanked by Fidelity and Valour, commissioned in memory of Young Irelander Terence Bellew McManus, and also honouring members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (c. 1886) [105], was not placed in Glasnevin Cemetery until 1933. The cemetery authorities refused permission to have the memorial erected, ostensibly for financial reasons, but certainly also because of the politically challenging nature of the memorial with its ‘seditious’ inscription’ (O’Shea, p. 168). 

The nineteenth century also witnessed a growth in public commemoration, and the cemeteries provided a new landscape for public figures, such as Daniel O’Connell, to be buried and memorialized with intense publicity. The choice of memorial for both cemetery and urban context was an essential part of the ritual, creating a link between the religious and the secular forms of commemoration. Glasnevin Cemetery, where O’Connell is buried, inevitably grew in political importance and became recognized as the national cemetery of the new state in the early twentieth century. 

The focus on cemeteries as public landscapes, as well as private burial grounds, created opportunities for some of the finest sculptors of the day to create memorials honouring individuals of public importance, or honouring members of families with dynastic ambitions, anxious to perpetuate family memory with an appropriate monument. The work of sculptors such as Farrell in Glasnevin and Kirk in Mount Jerome is considered amongst the finest of nineteenth-century Irish memorial sculpture. Kirk explored the traditional theme of the mourning woman with an urn in a number of monuments, including the memorial to his father, Thomas Kirk (qv) (c. 1845) [371]. The same theme is explored on the Charlotte Bradley monument, with a woman in contemporary costume leaning on an urn, and on the Terry Driscoll (pen name for writer John Jackson, d. 1857) monument, with a mourning woman carved in relief. The Isaac Weld memorial (d. 1856), by an unknown sculptor, combines the classical iconography of the grieving woman with the occupation symbols of the artist. 

371. Joseph Robinson Kirk, Thomas Kirk memorial, c. 1845, Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin. Photo © Jacqueline Hayes.

Several well-known sculptors, James Cahill (qv), for instance, worked in Glasnevin Cemetery, but the finest works of freestanding sculpture are by Farrell: the lyrical statue of the soul rising, commemorating Ellen Palles (c. 1885); the theatrical figure of the actor Barry Sullivan portrayed as Hamlet holding a skull (c. 1891). The Sullivan portrait is a sophisticated interpretation of an old theme in funerary sculpture, the depiction of occupations, often portrayed in rustic art. The portrait effigy of Cardinal McCabe by Farrell (c. 1885), designed for the Hiberno- Romanesque mausoleum positioned in front of the mortuary chapel, is also an interpretation of a traditional theme, but here in elite funerary sculpture, once the preserve of cathedrals and private chapels. Farrell created the McCabe monument in collaboration with the architect George Coppinger Ashlin and the Harrison firm (qv) of monumental sculptors. 

Collaboration between architect and sculptor in the design of an important monument was continued in the following century, also under church patronage, in the classical mausoleum to the memory of Archbishop Walsh (c. 1920), erected beside the McCabe tomb. In this instance, architect John Joseph Robinson worked with sculptor Albert Power (qv), fine art sculptor and member of RHA, who was also trained as a monumental sculp- tor and ran a stone-carver’s yard. Power was recognized as a talented portrait sculptor and was popular for his realist sculpture supporting the nationalist and religious ideals promulgated by the emerging Irish state. 

By the twentieth century erecting a funerary monument was the norm, and the monument types popularized in the previous century continued to be employed, although classical monuments, like chest tombs and obelisks, lost popularity in most Irish cemeteries. Funerary art is essentially conservative and, despite developments towards abstraction in twentieth-century art, traditional themes and motifs continued to be carved on headstones and crosses. 

Séamus Murphy (qv), one of the most familiar names in Irish sculpture of the early twentieth century, was, like Power, academically trained, but spent time working and learning the traditional stone carver’s craft in a stonemason’s yard and continued the tradition of gravestone carving into the mid-century. Among his noted cemetery memorials is the statue of St Gobnait for Ballyvourney graveyard, Co. Cork, where the pat- tern day of the saint is still honoured by the local community. However, stone craftsmanship was rare in the second half of the century and the traditional craft of stone carving declined, as Murphy himself attested in Stone Mad, his account of the work of the ‘stonies’. New materials and machinery, which mechanized the design and lettering process, rendered the craftsmanship obsolete. 

The erection of elaborate memorials to the dead also declined in the twentieth century when such ostentation was no longer deemed appropriate. The huge loss of life in the Great War created a need for a collective form of memorialization. The fallen were remembered in military cemeteries in rows of identical gravestones with repetitive motifs, such as at Grangegorman Military Cemetery, Dublin [372], and a central commemorative monument, where it existed, remembered the sacrifice of all. 

372. Military Cemetery, Grangegorman, Dublin. Copyright and Photo Credit: © Photographic Archive, National Monuments Service, Government of Ireland.

In the Irish Republic the dead of World War I and the War of Independence are remembered in separate memorial gardens. The memorial at Islandbridge to the dead of the Great War [510] is a landscaped garden with an architectural feature designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, whereas the Garden of Remembrance is replete with Celtic symbolism to represent the new Irish state. The central monument in the latter, by Oisín Kelly (qv), depicts the Children of Lir at the moment of their transformation into swans, symbolic of the transformation wrought on Irish society by the sacrifice of those who had died. 

Narrative scenes could not always convey the symbolic meaning of transformative events in the twentieth century. The executed 1916 leaders are remembered in a commemorative monument (1959–63), in Arbour Hill Cemetery, where they are buried, consisting of a curved stone wall on which the words of the Proclamation are finely carved in Irish and English by sculp- tor and letter-cutter Michael Biggs (1928–93) [444]. A simple Latin cross is deeply cut between both scripts. The monument is visionary and expressive, art and language in perfect harmony. 

A growing realization in the late twentieth century of the importance of old graveyards and monuments as valuable local and national heritage has led to restoration work on a large and small scale, depending on the available funding. There has been substantial investment in Glasnevin Cemetery for its national importance, but small local cemeteries have also been restored. Of particular interest is the restoration of the little Jewish cemetery in Limerick, where the Jewish community who once resided in the city, before being dispersed at the beginning of the twentieth century, because of social and religious tensions at the time, is buried. A stone slab with an inscription in English and Hebrew, and decorated with a Star of David enclosing an Irish harp, and with the towered gate crest of the city of Limerick, was erected in the restored graveyard in 2001 by Limerick Civic Trust to remember ‘an unknown Jewish soul’. 

SELECTED READING Ada K. Longfield, Some Irish Churchyard Sculpture, Ballycotton, 1974; Brian Fay and Joseph Langtry, Funeral Art and Architecture (XIX–XX)Dublin, Genova, Madrid, Torino, Dublin, 2000; Shane O’Shea, Death and Design in Victorian Glasnevin, Dublin, 2000; James Stevens Curl, Death and Architecture, revised edition, Stroud, 2002; Mary B. Timoney, Had Me Made: A Study of the Grave Memorials of Co. Sligo from c1650 to the Present, Keash, Co. Sligo, 2005. 

The Royal Irish Academy has kindly granted permission to Sculpture Dublin to reproduce a number of texts from Sculpture 1600-2000, Volume 3 in the Royal Irish Academy’s 5-volume publication Art and Architecture of Ireland (Yale, 2014). The book, edited by Paula Murphy, comprises introductory essays, biographies and thematic essays.