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Gravestone Symbolism

The Iconography of Death in Ireland


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In Ireland only one instance of the ‘Legend’ has come to light: that at Abbeyknockmoy, Co. Galway. The depiction consists of three kings carrying hawks who are faced by three spectres who address the kings, ‘fuimus ut estis vos eritis ut sumus nos.1  The mural has been dated to about 1400.  Helen Roe identified eleven examples of cadaver monuments in Ireland dating from the mid-fifteenth century to 1637.  The earlier date means that cadavers appeared in Ireland less than 100 years after they first appeared in continental Europe, while the fact that they were made well into the seventeenth-century means that they continued longer in Ireland than in most of the rest of Europe. 

 

The Irish cadavers are generally found on tombs to men of standing within the towns as an attempt to demonstrate their status.  This differs from England where cadavers are generally to very important ecclesiastics and went out of fashion in the sixteenth century.  However, given that no cadavers are found in Ulster it is unlikely that the gravestones in the area under study derived their mortality symbols from this source.  It is also unusual to find individual mortality symbols on Irish cadavers.2

 

Individual mortality symbols begin to appear on Irish sepulchral monuments from the middle of the sixteenth century.  The MacCragh monument in Lismore cathedral, Co. Waterford, features a skull clenching a longbone in its teeth and dates from 1557.  This was a common feature on European tombs in the sixteenth century, and can be seen, for example, on the monument to Canon Hubert Milemans, died 1558, in Ste. Croix, Liege and on the tomb of Sigismund II, erected in 1574-5, in Cracow, Poland.  The variety in the symbolism on Irish funerary monuments also increases in the seventeenth-century.  An hourglass and a skull featured on the Proudfoot monument, erected in 1619, which formerly stood in St. John’s Church in Dublin, while the skull on the Arundel memorial of 1626, which also stood in the same place, is winged.

 

Seventeenth-century gravestone symbolism in west Ulster, in general, differs from that in other parts of Ireland.  Ada Longfield found that in Leinster the symbolism was inspired by the ‘heraldry of Christ,’ which was reputedly introduced to Ireland by Flemish settlers under the Ormonds, and resulted in Crucifixion scenes being carved on memorials to the dead.  Julian Walton has found that symbolism relating to the Passion is particularly encountered in east Waterford, south Kilkenny and south Tipperary.  This can be seen on grave-slabs in east Waterford from 1582 on.  Skulls and crossbones do occur on gravestones in the above areas though usually on eighteenth-century stones and in a different context from the Ulster mortality symbols.

 

A collection of mid-seventeenth-century gravestones in Loughmore churchyard, County Tipperary, feature skulls and crossbones which would appear to be in the context of mortality symbols.  However, lacking are the bell, hourglass, coffin and spade found on gravestones in west Ulster.  In County Meath there are several examples of gravestones featuring heraldic devices and mortality symbols which are very similar to Ulster gravestones.  It is highly probable that the symbolism on the Meath stones was derived from the same source as the mortality symbolism on the west Ulster stones.

 

It would seem that although some memorials to the dead in other parts of Ireland display representations of death similar to those found on memorials in Ulster,  these are lacking, excepting those in Meath, in some of the symbols of death found on memorials in the area under study.  Therefore it is necessary to examine the use of symbolism on memorials from mainland Britain.

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