While we are all in lockdown hoping to evade the dreaded Covid 19 virus, the subject of graveyards might not be the most appropriate to-day.   However, it is a subject that I often get queries on and it’s a good chance to get over an understanding of the difficulties of locating an individual ancestor’s grave in Kerry.

A Graveyard Survey Project, completed in 2012, was a six-year project by Kerry County Council, which aimed to provide a detailed record of the 91 graveyards owned by Kerry County Council that are listed as archaeological monuments in the Record of Monuments and Places (RMP).  The resulting publication The Unquiet Grave: The Development of Kerry’s Burial Grounds through the ages, edited by Michael Connolly, is an exceptional publication emphasising Kerry graveyards’  archaeological, historical and genealogical importance and is also available online.  

The book is richly illustrated and for descendants of the diaspora, it will show the difficulties in trying to locate and/or identify an ancestral grave. Two hundred years and more is a long time, with grass & ivy rampant as well as weathering, resulting in considerable overgrowth.  To quote from the Preface, by Dr. Michael Connolly:

The papers in this book give some idea of the importance of our graveyards as repositories of knowledge, not just as the last resting place of our loved ones.  This book shows that there is much that can be learned about life in the places of the dead, and all sorts of clues to past lives are scattered throughout our graveyards.

I will summarise the five chapters over the next few weeks starting today with In Memoriam: Markers, Monuments & Headstones by Dr. Harold Mytum, on the ‘changing materials, styles and craftsmanship over the last 250 years as an indicator of the changes taking place in Irish society over that time.’

  • Graveyards in County Kerry contain a rich variety of memorials, from all sectors of society and spanning several centuries.
  • Relatively few gravestones belong to the eighteenth century and those that have survived are roughly shaped stone with no biographical information
  • Kerry graveyards have few ‘ledgers’ – large flat slabs laid over the grave – ‘generally used by more affluent families.’
  • Table and other early tom forms are also rare in Kerry
  • In the nineteenth century, more people were able to afford stone memorials, and a range of simple upright slab headstone forms became common.
  • Low tombs in the Gothic Revival style came into fashion, ‘commonly used for priests’ memorials, both Catholic and Church of Ireland.
  • One of the most popular revival styles is that of the Celtic cross carved on stone. ‘Many Celtic crosses reflect nationalistic sentiment, and this can also be seen in the use of the Irish language. This is relatively rare across Ireland, by Kerry has a larger number of inscriptions than most counties’.
  • Wood and Iron markers. These wooden and/or iron markers were the most common but these materials decay rapidly in the Kerry climate so only relatively modern wooden crosses survive.  It is important to remember that these were the most likely markers for our ancestors.  Cast or wrought iron crosses which became the norm in the late 1890s or early 1900s have survived better.
  • Mausolea: Most graveyards have the remains of family Mausoleums.  These are above ground, have dedications and inscriptions and would mostly have been used by substantial or ‘strong’ farmers or business people. ‘Some have been maintained by the families to the present day, but others are overgrown or have collapsed.’

I would urge my readers to read the full details and particularly to view the rich illustrations in this book online.    Note all quotes from The Unquiet Grave: The Development of Kerry’s Burial Grounds through the ages, Ed. Michael Connolly, (Kerry Co. Council, 2012)

Next week: A Tale of Two Tombs: The Rise of the Catholic Middle Class by  Helen O’Carroll, Curator Kerry Count Museum, considers how two graves reflect a family’s change in status in the 1800s[1].

[1] https://www.academia.edu/4533738/The_Unquiet_Grave_The_Development_of_Kerrys_Burial_Grounds_through_the_Ages_Editor_