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HISTORY OF HEADSTONES
By Cara Links
Levity in the churchyard may seem, a strange phenomenon to us now, but the custom of using the church yard for sport, and markets and pleasure was an old established custom and persistent one. There are records as early as the fourth century of St Basil protesting against the holding of markets in churchyards on the pretext of making preparations for festivals.
How Irish Epitaphs Began
The headstone with their epitaphs that we know today are descendants of the great stone monuments of megalithic Europe, known as menhirs, dolmens and cromlechs- A menhir a single upright stone, which may have been a memorial of an event or a Celtic hero.
The dolmen which means *Table Stone* is a stone chamber consisting of several stones set up on edge and covered by a horizontal slab Such Structures may be all that is left of an elongated grave mound called a long-barrow.
The Cromlech is a ring of standing stones generally surrounding a menhir or a dolmen.
Ireland's early cemeteries were in sacred places detached from living areas or within the enclosure of raths ( circular earthworks) or cashels.
Pagan Burial places were gradually abandoned after the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century; the dead were then placed in consecrated cemeteries attached to primitive churches. The fashions in monuments in pagan graveyards were carried over to Christian times, and stones still exist today with a mixture of pagan and Christian symbolism on them.
One pagan custom that lasted for a long time was the placing of a cairn of stones over the grave,
It was an early wish to be buried on a hill and often the elevation was enhanced by placing a duma, or burial mound, on the hill, here the dead person was placed, perhaps in a shallow stone coffin, and sometimes around the duma a circle of pillar-stones were erected. The pillar -stone developed into our headstone with its Christian inscriptions.
The oldest pillar stone in Ireland, Scholars believe and therefore Ireland's oldest epitaph is that of
Lugnad ( Lugna) traditionally identified as the son of the sister of St Patrick, at Templepatrick, Inchagoill, Lough Corrib it reads.
LIE LUGNAEDON MACC LMENUEH
( The Stone of Lugnaed son of Limenueh)
Of course Ireland's earliest were in ogham, that curious writing form of 25 letters set in a combination of one to five parallel strokes in various positions down a central line.
And one of those old Ogham stones was recorded by antiquary Dr George Petrie in 1845 and reads;
This is Eochaid Airgthech;-"Slew me in an encounter with Finn
Epitaphs that most people today would recognize are found on graveslabs of the Early Christian Monasteries, In his *Chronicle of the Tombs ( 1851) Dr J T Pettigrew cites what he believed to be the earliest Christian Irish Epitaph and he noted the inscription
C(APIT) I BRECANI
This set in a cross in a circle related to the sixth century St Brecon
But moving on
From the mid-fifteenth century to the mid 17th century the incised slab in Latin or English started to appear for the poorer folk, these were craft slabs for smiths, ploughmen etc.
The 16th Century saw the rise of sculptors who designed particular tombstones and one of those was Rory O'Tunney whose circa 1526 tomb to Piers Fitz Oge Butler at the Cistercian Abbey at Kilcooley, Co Tipperary is a fine example .
St Mochuda's cathedral Lismore Co Waterford has an individualised tomb to the MacGrath family showing a rare example of named figures.
The 17th Century in Ireland saw the flat slabs give way to the more ornate tombstones and embellishment of stones with the symbols of death.
Symbols have a rich history in The Irish Churchyards. The most popular symbols were the spade and scythe, the all -seeing-eye with a serpent and open book with quill pen and skull and cross-bones, the deaths head above an hour glass and the winged angel of death.
A History Of Irish Headstones Part
2 by Cara Links
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