Friday, October 31, 2014

Seeking a Sense of Place

While much can be gleaned, researching family records ahead of a trip overseas, paper trails of ancestors alone cannot provide a full revelation of what daily life was like for the multiple “greats” in our family tree. On our recent trip to Ireland in pursuit of my husband’s roots there, we were glad to be able to walk the paths in the rural homelands where these immigrant ancestors originated.

In the past few days, I’ve been focusing on what we found while walking the graveyard of a particular church in the Diocese of Limerick. This church was not on our original itinerary, but when we pulled into Ballyagran—the village where our Flanagan ancestors once lived—a current resident pointed us in the direction of this graveyard.

It turns out this church—now in ruins—had a long and varied history. It once was part of the Corcomohide parish—namesake of the civil parish as well—but was carved out of that jurisdiction in 1719.

Originally on land once belonging to the MacEnerys, the ruling family in the area, the place was once known as Castletown MacEnery. By 1703, the MacEnery land was obtained by Captain George Conyers. At that point, the land was referred to as Castletown Conyers.

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the parish became known as Ballyagran—the place name that our Flanagan ancestors carried with them to Chicago when they emigrated from their homeland in the 1850s.

The ruins in the graveyard were apparently from the church building in use when the parish was part of Corcomohide. An original building from 1200 was destroyed during a war in 1302, and the replacement was not built until 1410. Whether those walls still standing are part of the remains from the 1410 building, I can’t tell. Unlike what I was able to find at other graveyards we visited, I couldn’t locate any markers explaining this place’s history—although after our return, I discovered that just down the road from the church was the very castle from which the graveyard took its name.

According to a wonderful heritage project undertaken by the Diocese of Limerick, the graveyard at Castletown is considered “large.” Despite priding ourselves on locating a headstone dated from the late 1700s, the earliest burial still able to be read was apparently that of a Cornelius Ryan, who died in 1737.

When we were walking the paths of the graveyard, my husband took several photographs of headstones, even though those they commemorated were not related to us. My hope is to post these photos to Find A Grave—although apparently there is no official entry for that cemetery currently, so I’ll first have to determine what the official name of the place should be.

To give you some perspective on the photographs I’ve included from the last few days, I’m including some pictures to help you gain your bearings. The cemetery itself sat back from the road—a modest two-lane country road. The side road leading up to the graveyard seemed to continue further—to the castle that “Castletown” refers to, oh duh!, as we later found out—but since it looked like a downpour was imminent, we hustled to park and see what we could find.

In the middle of the graveyard sat the church ruins, roofless and overgrown with trees. Closer to the street side of the property, there seemed to be more recent burials, but on the back half of the property, and inside the church walls as well, were the older burials.

Clearly legible headstones alternated with more faded stones. Those which I can read, I’ll transcribe and post on Find A Grave. But it was one section of low-lying, jagged rocks over which I grieve. Could our family members be buried under those silent markers? Who knows?

The church walls, themselves, were full of features to wonder at. The stone work, still standing after centuries, was now interwoven with massive roots, branches and vines. Narrow windows let in light to the darker recesses of the building—despite the fact that the building no longer boasted a roof of its own, the trees furnished an adequate canopy to block much of the daylight on this gloomy day.

It was apparent that people were buried here from all over the parish—witness the Deely memorial I posted a few days ago, mentioning the townland of Rusheen, part of this County Limerick parish which is actually located in neighboring County Cork. As for our Flanagans and Molloys, however, there was not a sign. Whether their relatives moved to other parishes, I can’t tell—though more tedium in cranking through microfilmed records for those neighboring parishes might help tell the tale.

Leaving the church ruins at Castletown was a somber yet edifying moment. While we didn’t find what we came to see—any headstones for our family’s surnames—we couldn’t escape without a sense of the simple life led by the folks who found this to be their final resting place.

All photographs from the Catholic Church ruins and graveyard at Castletown (sometimes referred to as Castletown-Conyers) in County Limerick, Ireland. Photographs courtesy Chris Stevens.


  1. It is too bad you never got to the castle but ... maybe next time?! :)

    1. Ah, that may depend on where a certain unnamed someone ends up doing her graduate work...

  2. I love how places like this make me feel. I love the outlined family plots - a funny kind of gathering place but still a lovely way to proclaim "here we are. This is us."


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