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Gravestone Symbolism

Scottish Mortality Symbolism and Ulster


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The earliest instance in Ulster of the full complement of mortality symbols - skull, crossed bones, bell, hourglass and coffin (though in this case not the spade) - is on the slab built into the north wall of Enniskillen cathedral which commemorates the Cole family and is dated to 1627.  The fact that this family was very much English may appear to discredit the suggestion that the Scottish influence was paramount in Ulster funerary symbolism.  However, it is clear from architectural features on Enniskillen castle that Scottish masons were employed in the town in the early seventeenth-century.  It is quite possible that one of them was responsible for the aforesaid memorial.  Other gravestones which feature the full complement of mortality symbols include the gravestones to the Galbraiths at Aghalurcher and the memorials to the Sinclairs at Old Leckpatrick, both of these families being Scottish.

 

Where mortality symbols are combined with heraldic devices, a common feature on Scottish gravestones, these are nearly twice as likely to be commemorating Scots as English.  The lack of prominence on English gravestones of symbols representing death may explain why on only one gravestone in Clogher cathedral churchyard is an emblem representing mortality, and that a lone coffin.  The barony of Clogher was originally granted to English undertakers and although considerable numbers of Scots were later to settle here it is possible to argue that the masons were of English background, being originally brought over by the undertakers to build their castles and bawns.6  Consequently when employed to carve gravestones they neglected to decorate them with mortality symbols since this was not in their tradition.  Towards the end of the century the full complement of mortality symbols, sometimes in combination with heraldry, may be seen on memorials to English settlers, e.g. the Edwards monument in St. Columbs Cathedral, Derry, and the Dovey stone at Castlederg.  This probably indicates that either Scottish masons were at work or that the Scottish practice was being copied by English masons.

 

The one complete anomaly to all this is the gravestone in the parish churchyard in Carndonagh, County Donegal, to Torlagh Doharty, died 1636, which features a skull, crossed bones, bell and hourglass.  The combination of the symbols, the early date and the nationality of the deceased is intriguing.  Links between Scotland and the north of Ireland had been going on for centuries and Scottish influences may be seen on medieval funeral sculpture in Donegal in the form of four grave-slabs which, like their counterparts in the western highlands, were intended to be lain over graves.  Two of these are to be found in Inishowen at Clonca and Clonmany.  It could be suggested that the decoration on the Doharty stone was a result of continuing close links between north Donegal and Scotland.

 

Mortality symbols continued to be used on memorials long after the seventeenth century.  Their distribution in Ulster was wide ranging with several early eighteenth-century examples noted on Inishkeel island off the west coast of Donegal.  They are especially common on eighteenth-century headstones in counties Fermanagh and Monaghan.  Finbar McCormick has suggested that the symbols on these memorials derived their immediate origins from the seventeenth-century gravestones bearing the emblems of death such as the Galbraith stones at Aghalurcher and the Forster stone at Tydavnet.  The most recent use of the mortality symbols is on a gravestone in the cathedral churchyard in Enniskillen which bears the date 1841.  However, the decoration does look older than the inscription.

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