Antiquities Near Miltown Malbay

Thomas Johnson Westropp
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Clare County Library

Types of Tombs

The type of burial place occurring in various districts has been as yet very little worked, though no uninteresting branch of study. First it is very remarkable how ancient types of the earliest origin are found. We have noticed in western Kerry graves exactly similar in all respects to the long dolmens tapering like the coffins eastward, formed by slabs set on edge, with several covers, and on top a miniature cairn. The modern box tomb of five slabs is very similar to the common type of cists and dolmens. The table slab on four or more pillars, again, is very like a free-standing cromlech. These latter types are too widely spread for specialisation. In Clare there is an archaic looking vault, common in the shale and flagstone districts, closely resembling an early oratory, but with the lintelled door to the east. It usually has a flagged, vaulted, or sodded roof, and often has an arched or square recess for a memorial tablet over the door. This type of vault is characteristic of the shale and flagstone districts, rather than of the limestone region. In the latter the large stone (laid flat on the ground or supported on a base of masonry or slabs) prevails. We of course do not consider the conventional designs of modern tombstones as having any local bearing. For example, the encircled cross, now so common, hardly existed in ancient Clare, we only recal one at Noughaval. A noteworthy fashion in crosses is found in Rathborney graveyard, the arms are each nearly square, and the shaft widens towards the base. This variety is found in the ancient cross at St. Doulough’s Church, County Dublin, and is found (as Dr. Munro shows) in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Roumania. In the latter country it may be noted that the enriched cross also occurs, and interlacings are found very similar to those in use in Ireland from the ninth to the twelfth centuries.

As to the later ornamentation of tombs in Munster we find very interesting survivals, interlaced bands forming encircled crosses and triquetras down at least to the reign of Charles I. The Crucifixion and rough figures of local saints, angels, and religious emblems, especially those of the Passion, occur. The cock crowing out of the pot is widely distributed. The earliest example known to me in Clare is in the Ecce Homo group in Ennis Abbey, made about 1460-1480. The bird sometimes stands on a pillar, but more usually on or in the pot. The pretty or grotesque forms of the legend are well known and are found all over Ireland and even in France. The thirty pieces of silver, sometimes arranged in two rows of fourteen and sixteen pieces to either side of the cross, form a not uncommon addition. The scourge, a very favourite device in the fifteenth century and later, was in little favour after 1630. The hammer, nails and pincers, the spear and the sponge, the dice, or “lots,” the crown of thorns, and the sun and moon constantly occurred Sometimes a chalice, a skeleton, or a skull (with or without a bone or cross bones) and cherubs were introduced. Occasionally quaint figures of the Angel of the Resurrection, with skeletons and little shrouded figures rising from their tombs, are carved. Late in the eighteenth century, the fashionable pagan ornaments, urns and inverted torches, crept from the monuments of the gentry to the tombstones of the peasantry. The letters I.H.S. and I.N.R.I. are common, sometimes even by themselves; the hour-glass is very rare after 1700, though common before it.

In the times of Elizabeth, and still more during the following century, emblems of the trade of the deceased man were frequently used, sometimes arranged as a “coat of arms” on the tomb. Ploughs, coulters, pincers, hammers, squares, nails, horse-shoes, and bellows most frequently appear, or, far more rarely, a ship or boat.

The gentry, besides the pagan designs, rarely added anything save clumsy cherubim, roses and coats of arms, with elaborate “mantling,” or rather fantastic foliage, to the carvings of their tombs. In very many cases the Clare gentry, even many of the wealthiest and most influential, made plain vaults without carvings, sometimes even without inscriptions.

The heraldry after 1714 is bad, often extremely inaccurate, sometimes reversed, probably having being copied from seals.

To tabulate briefly the occurrence of monuments in this country. The cist of five or more slabs is found from pre-historic times to the present day. The flat tombstone with a cross and epitaph, from the ninth to the seventeenth century. The canopied tomb from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. The vaults rarely date before the eighteenth century. The Passion emblems are found from the fifteenth to late in the nineteenth century, and the pagan designs from the late seventeenth century to the middle of the last century.

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