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Irish Gravestone Inscriptions, Tracing your Irish Ancestors: Introduction
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Rules, Rubrics and Relations



Robert M. Chapple, M. A.




The aim of this paper is to examine a number of quantifiable elements of gravestone morphology from the graveyards of Killora and Killogilleen, in Craughwell, Co. Galway. These include various commonly used decorative motifs, rubrics and ideogrammatic devices. Specifically, the stylistic changes of the ubiquitous ‘IHS’ monogram, along with various forms of hearts and cherubs used as decorative motifs are examined. From this, the study moves to an examination of the apparent sexual and family politics of commemoration. In particular, the problem of a male/female dynamic in commemorative practice and the social question of the family relationships between the deceased and the individual commissioning the memorial are addressed.




During the period from March 1995 to October 1997, I was contracted by Craughwell Community Council and FÁS to monitor all archaeologically sensitive work conducted in the graveyards of Killora and Killogilleen, in Craughwell, Co. Galway. The aims of this project included the cutting back of overgrowth within the graveyard and the trimming of ivy from the standing structures. During this time, the opportunity was also taken to compile a record of the gravestone inscriptions for both sites (Chapple 1995; 1997).


As with the majority of such projects, the primary aim was genealogical and not archaeological; in other words, it was simply to create a catalogue of ‘who is buried where.’ While there is no reason to suppose that either is the superior, the genealogical approach does fail to realise the potential of such sites for informing on an important aspect of our cultural heritage. Mytum (1996, 12), however, has, recently identified the lack of such research on individual graveyards as opposed to the study of various funerary designs over a wide area.


It is my contention that this lack of a defined, archaeologically-oriented research strategy is due less to the archaeologists co-ordinating such recording and clean-up schemes than to the concerns of the local community groups who, almost inevitably, sponsor such work. This is not to say that such organisations should be in any way criticised for their efforts. Indeed, it has been my experience that the ‘problem’ is one of a divergence of aims and expectations between the archaeologist and the community group. Often the primary aim of such projects is to provide a ‘cleaned’ and accessible graveyard, which provides visible and tangible evidence of hours worked and appeals to the broader community. This is in contrast to the less tangible work of recording the gravestone inscriptions, coupled with the infrequency of publication of results, usually on grounds of cost and limited readership. It has also been my experience that the situation may be often compounded by the fact that many archaeologists still refuse to accept the study of gravestones as ‘real’ archaeology. It may be noted that the present analysis includes modern as well as historic gravestones. While some may not see value in such an approach, it is my contention that such bodies of marker stones present an archaeological and social continuum, which is worthy of consideration as a whole, without unnecessary arbitrary limits.


While my previous work on these graveyards (Chapple 2000) has concentrated on the production a rudimentary classification system of memorials, this paper takes a different viewpoint. Firstly, it is intended to illustrate a number of broad decorational and related trends within this material. Secondly, I intended to examine a number of aspects of family and sexual politics as displayed on the stones. In both cases it not particularly my intention to draw any definite conclusions from what is essentially a preliminary examination of a relatively small body of data. Instead, the aim is more to bring these sites to a wider audience for the purposes of contrast and comparison with research from other areas. Thus, this paper is presented as a further step, to ‘illustrate the potential of such data’ in the understanding of our rural cemeteries (Mytum 1996, 12).


[1] This paper is partially based ‘Family Portraits: An analysis of 18th to 20th century gravestones from Craughwell, Co. Galway’ presented to the Ulster Historical Foundation conference at the Malone Lodge Hotel, Belfast 4th October 2003 and a paper entitled ‘Sex and death’ presented to the Maynooth gravestones conference 2002. Additional material is taken from the author’s 2000 article ‘A statistical analysis and preliminary classification of gravestones from Craughwell, Co. Galway’ in the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Vol. 52, pp. 155-71.

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