Thursday, October 23, 2014

Stones Without Stories

While researchers grappling with the dearth of genealogical records in Ireland may be disappointed at what they can find, once having traveled the distance to get there, there is always that hope that what is etched in stone will outlive what was once recorded on paper.

Sadly, that is not always so. While the permanency of stone may be admirable—it is, after all, the medium of choice for safekeeping of our remembrances of those long gone—it is wholly dependent on which type of stone is chosen, how it is engraved, and what type of weather conditions it must endure which reveal how long a stone may recount its story.

Recent headstones in Ireland are a treasure. Unlike American headstones, which may simply reveal the dates of birth and death for one individual, Irish memorials we saw from the mid-twentieth century onward sometimes presented an entire family tree for three generations—and listed the townland from which the family originated. As our family toured church graveyards in the various counties of Ireland, we encountered some stones which provided the family story for the deceased, plus a spouse and children—in addition to a parent or in-laws. All on one memorial. The stone might also include a long list of all the remaining family members who contributed to erecting the memorial, thus providing names of still-living grandchildren.

In unfortunate contrast, those headstones we were hoping to find for relatives of my husband’s ancestors—all of whom would have been living in the 1800s—had encountered various difficulties in bringing their stories forward through time. For some, the choice of stone—coupled with the types of lichens of the area which favored the damp, cool weather—insured that any inscriptions would be obliterated by environmental factors. We saw this, again and again, as we walked the gravel groundcover of the Templekelly church ruins above the River Shannon in northern County Tipperary or the grassy Aghadoe graveyard near Killarney in County Kerry.

More heartbreaking than that was to encounter stones of a different type—some of which we found at Templekelly near Ballina, some from the Castletown church ruins near Ballyagran in County Limerick. Tall, flat, dark stones, devoid of any inscription, instead of standing upright, were face down in the dirt—yet, it didn’t appear as if they were dislodged from a previous position, but laid that way originally. I have yet to learn the significance—or fate—of such stones. But I can’t help wonder if any of them once bore the surname of any of the eight family lines we were seeking.

In contrast to those tall stones were the small, chipped flat stones, rising up from the ground in jagged configuration. They were silent reminders that someone was buried beneath them—but who? The sight conjured up vignettes in my mind of those too impoverished to sustain life through even rudimentary items like food—how, then, could their mourners provide adequate memorials for those in death, for whom they couldn’t provide sustenance in life?

While remaining church records of bygone years in Ireland may name the details we seek for baptisms or marriages, there are precious few records identifying details of the deaths of family members. Outside city life, it would be doubtful to find obituaries providing the dates and relationships of those who had passed on in such rural surroundings. Our only hope had been to find some records in the churchyards of our Irish ancestors. In walking through those very places, though, it became clear that this was not to be. The stones which we would expect to divulge their story in places closer to our homes would, in this faraway land, conspire to remain silent in the presence of these encroaching strangers.

Photograph: Headstones alongside the ruins at Templekelly church near Ballina, County Tipperary, reveal the conditions buffeting these monuments over the centuries. White marks visible on the stones are from lichens. The lower left and center of the picture show two of the large, flat stones mentioned above in the textwholly embedded in the gravel, they have no markings showing. Very few of the engravings on the upright stones were legible.


  1. Jacqi, you've written a very interesting post & write about things I have thought about as well. Those stones that have fallen or are so weathered that the writing is no longer visible always make me wonder who they represent.

    1. Colleen, sometimes--here in the States, at least--I've been fortunate to discover books of headstone transcriptions done fifty years ago or more, that will help to tell those silenced stories. As for the cemeteries in Ireland, I just don't know enough, yet, about the resources which might provide that information. Hopefully, there are such resources. Just before our trip, I did stumble upon some local websites for other counties with crowdsourced information of that type. It may just be a matter of finding more of those resources.

      On the other hand, other than doing rubbings, there may be no way to know what those stories were...

  2. Replies
    1. Far Side, when I think of some of my earliest memories of cemeteries--I used to walk through old cemeteries in New York as a teenager, looking for the oldest dates I could find--I can remember finding stones dating from the 1600s. And yet, in Ireland, it was hard to read some that I found from the 1800s. I had felt certain that we could have found some of our surnames among those stones, but when we realized how weathered they were, it was plain that we weren't going to find much that we were seeking.

      Sometimes it's what the stone's been through, sometimes it's what the stone itself was made of. Either way, there was very little we could find from that previous century that was clear enough to read.

      Agreed: very sad.

  3. Funny I was just thinking about gravestones - many of the ones in my family are missing - the remains were moved from an inner city to a suburban cemetery and many of the stones destroyed. And I consoled myself with the thought that, even in the best of stone - they won't last forever - and being readable after say, 400 years is an accomplishment for a grave marker - so the ones we see today - no one will be able to read in 400-500 years. Nothing is permanent.

    1. I've heard stories like that of cemeteries having to be moved for construction--building a new highway, for instance--and the resultant "resting" place never seems adequate. My family and others have told me of the horrible jumble that resulted in a local--and rather large--cemetery from the Long Island Expressway being built. I know the same has happened here, near where I live now. It's as if those in charge seem to think it doesn't matter what resultant piles are left behind. There are many, however, who see things differently.

      While your outlook is realistic, Iggy, it's still a shame these projects aren't undertaken with a little more administrative organization than they seem to reveal.


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