Some 18th Century Irish Tombstones (published in 1943)

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Original article published in: The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Seventh Series, Vol.13, No. 2 (Jun. 30, 1943), pp. 29-39

A few years ago the cutting of several trees in the old Graveyard at Glendalough suddenly made visible an 18th Century tombstone, elaborately carved with a Crucifixion scene and signed ” Dennis Cullen, Stonecutter, Monaceed.”

Careful examination then revealed about a dozen somewhat similar specimens in that graveyard alone, and this led to a prolonged search for the same kind of work elsewhere. Since Glendalough had proved so rich, it was at first expected to be equally successful at the other great burial grounds of particular sanctity – such as Clonmacnoise, Monasterboice, etc., but practically negative results from large areas in western and midland counties eventually showed that this style was very limited in distribution and virtually confined to certain parts, only, of County Wexford, east County Wicklow and east County Carlow.

These limitations, however, are probably largely explained by the various geographical features of the districts in question, and by problems of 18th century transport – a supposition which is moderately well borne out by the grouping of the signed examples of the two best of the other men who did the same type of stone-cutting. Thus, following a very rough geographical basis, most of Dennis Cullen’s work is to be  found within reach of the Avonmore river basin, Miles O’Brien’s about the Barrow and J. Byrne’s distributed over the central Slaney section, as well as overlapping Cuilen’s as far east as Kilnahue and Ennisboyne or Three Mile Water and O’Briens as far north as Kilmyshall.

Thus there seems little doubt that at least one focal point for these productions existed on the Wexford-Wicklow border, possibly within convenient distance of the quarries near Newtownbarry, where a fine-grained greenish stone accompanies the slate, and it is from such material that the more highly ornamented specimens were made.

These three names do not, by any means, exhaust the list of signatures observed, but in general, it is the cutting on tombstones bearing their signature, that stand out for excellence of execution, and originality of design. Unfortunately there is an almost complete lack of documentary or traditional evidence, and so it is hard to ascertain how far they were connected in their work, but the practical evidence of the specimens themselves indicates a considerable interchange of ideas, whilst some of the unsigned, and differently signed examples suggest a following of apprentice hands and of imitators.

Nevertheless, it seems curious that the fashion for deep-cutting in hard stone should have been so much confined to the period 1760-1810. After that date, though there are many ambitiously signed examples – some even bearing the legend of ” sculptor ” – they usually comprise a few monotonous motives scratched on limestone.

The real dating of the cutting also presents some difficulty, for in no case yet seen, does the actual year of execution occur in connection with the maker’s name. Consequently only an approximate date can be obtained from the usual obituary details, and the memorial may not have been erected till many years after the date or dates in question, more especially when the notice includes several members of a family. The time-lag may, therefore, be anything from two to twenty years. It is likely too, that a few partially-worked specimens were kept for sample purposes and done in slack periods, and some of these may have been ready long before they were finally used. This would explain the crowded appearance of some designs where extra motives seem to have been added to the original scheme.

Moreover, much of this work was done, as, and when, these popular craftsmen journeyed round, and so the obituary dates are only relative guides in tentative attempts to trace the development in style.

As for the designs themselves – so far no source or sources have been found to which they can be attributed with any degree of satisfaction. That they should have originated from illustrations in contemporary Mass and religious books would seem an obvious solution – were it not that little decoration of similar quality has yet been discovered in such books, and although some affinity is shown to the carvings on penal crosses.

But much of the religious literature of penal times has undoubtedly perished, so that Cullen may well have utilised publications that are now lost. Another possibility is that Cullen, especially, came in contact with someone familiar with mediaeval representations of the Crucifixion scene, and that he adapted some of the older symbolic motives to his own ideas. Certainly he never hesitates to obtain variety by altering the positions of some of his figures and symbols in complete defiance of the rigid mediaeval conventions.

Nevertheless, he and O’Brien must be credited with considerable originality of their own, and with developing a school of folk art which at least gained a transient and local popularity. If they had been mere copyists, or if general foreign influence has been seriously involved, it is unlikely that the area and period concerned would have been so very restricted.

It may now be of interest to examine Cullen’s designs in some detail, and as his ‘signature stone,’ at Glendalough, gave Monaseed as his address, it was disappointing to find nothing in the three graveyards near that place. But later information received from Miss Mabel Vaughan, through the co-operation of the Irish Folklore Commission, revealed that he is still reputed to have lived in a house now owned by Mr. Breslin, on the Monaseed-Hollyfort Road – and to have got much of his stone from the neighbouring Slieve Bawn quarry.

An unfinished slab, circa 1791, remains in the haggard, but happens to be in Byrne’s rather than in Cullen’s style, and two other stones have been built into the house and covered with plaster so that they cannot now be examined. From all this, however, it seems likely that Cullen and Byrne lived near here, even if not both in that particular house, and the nearby graveyard of Kilnahue – a more famous centre than Monaseed – is rich in signed examples of their work.

Cullen’s examples at Kilnahue are particularly interesting, for despite the unsatisfactory nature of the evidence from the obituary dates, the work leaves little doubt that at least two of the stones were done early in his career. Thus the memorial, with boldly carved signature ” Dennis Cullen,” and erected to Daniel Byrn who died in 1769, lacks his later assurance in the assymetric distribution of motives (Plate I, fig. 1).

Beautifully executed as is the mounted centurion in 18th century costume complete with riding whip, the effect is not improved by the small figure of the Virgin crushed up to the horse’s head. And these are clumsily balanced on the other side of the cross by four small motives – an angel’s head, winged praying figure, a cock and pot, and partially obliterated figure with lance.

Much the same criticism applies to the rather similarly designed – though slightly better spaced – unsigned stone in memory of Elinor Boulger, died 1770. Four other stones, two signed and two unsigned, with obituary dates of 1778, 1779, 1770 and 1780 respectively, only display a crucifix and two attendant motives – angel’s heads, or mounted centurion and lance bearer – and their very simplicity suggests that they were cheaper productions.

It is in the old graveyard of Gorey, however, some three miles from Kilnahue, that two of Cullen’s simplest patterns are to be found. Thus on that dedicated to Mary Godkin (Plate I, fig. 2) who died in 1770, half the space is devoted to a finely diapered church with tall steeple and weathercock, the other half to a kind of Tudor rose. Above the church “Dennis Cullen” is cut in bold letters and that is all, unless some small device once occupied the now badly-chipped portion above the flower. Close by the unsigned stone erected to Robert Webster (obituary date buried in the ground) has a similar church and small tree in place of flower. A tentative explanation for the absence of the usual crucifix is that they were probably made for Protestants – vide the names Godkin and Webster – and then Cuilen would have been very restricted in his form of decoration. In direct contrast is the almost ultra-elaborate pattern to be found at Clonatin, 1 1/2 – miles outside Gorey, signed ” D. Cullen ” and commemorating Patrick Hughes who died in 1781 (Plate I, fig 4).

In this a veritable ‘ Biblia Pauperum ” is attempted, for the Crucifixion scene not only portrays the three crucifixes, mounted centurion, lance and sponge bearer and two armed soldiers, but Mary and John (presumably) praying beside the pedestal of Christ’s cross, a ladder behind, and the heart pierced by spears at the foot. As is usual with Cullen, the armed soldiers are in full 18th century costume, whilst Stephaton, thrusting his lance, has no distinctive garb except his headgear.

Yet despite the multiplicity of motives (some perhaps having been introduced by special request), the general balance is better than in the Byrn and Boulger patterns at Kilnahue and the fine quality of both cutting and workmanship suggests that it was correspondingly expensive to the purchaser. Indeed, the factor of cost of production must not be forgotten, for the amount of time and labour involved in the execution of Cullen’s more complicated themes must have added to their price. Consequently quite apart from the vexed question of dates his productions fall in three rough classes grouped according to the quality and elaboration of the decoration.

Thus designs like the Clonatin one including three crucifixes and six or more accompanying motives can be regarded as class ” A ” and the most expensive, especially as they are usually done in particularly close-grained stone which may have had to be brought from a distance. The type with a single crucifix and five or six motives – like the Byrn and Boulger examples – often executed in more ordinary and possibly local material, occur more frequently and may represent the averagely-priced intermediate or class ” B ” style.

Finally, the simple patterns with but two, three or four details, as at Kilnahue and Gorey, often cut in quite indifferent material, can only rank in the class ” C ” and presumably cheapest group.

Expense, rather than lack of appreciation, may have limited his employment locally, and this may explain why there are not more specimens of his better work nearer Monaseed and Kilnahue, whilst the existence of wealthier patrons may account for the numbers in distant centres. Thanks to information received from Mr. Michael Murphy my attention was drawn to Kilnenor or Killinor, 1 1/2 miles from Ballyfad and some 8 miles into the hills from Arklow, where, perhaps because of its remote position, there is an exceptional variety of decorated stones.

In addition to those by Cuilen and Byrne there are numerous unsigned ones of distinctive type, and were it not for the difficulty of dating from obituary notices, it might be contended that Cullen found some of his inspiration from these similarly cut, but naive themes – several being composed of the letter I.H.S., a crude crucifix and such symbols of the Passion as the ladder, dice, pincers, nails, hammer or the thirty pieces of silver (Plate I, fig. 5). But as the memorial dates on nine of these range from 1727 to 1795 it is nearly as likely that one, or even two, local and almost contemporary craftsmen may have copied from Cullen. Be that as it may, the real value of these specimens lies in indicating the popularity of this form of 18th century folk art in such a lonely part of Co. Wexford.

Unfortunately, many of the stones at Kilnenor are affected by lichen, weathering and chipping, so that satisfactory photography is impossible. Thus out of the two clearly signed and typical class ” B ” Cullen specimens – one commemorating Rose Mullagan who died in 1761, the other Nicholas Bolan who died in 1778 – only the latter can be illustrated (Plate I, fig. 6). They are some what alike, however, and the partial similarity of the Bolan design to the Byrn one at Kilnahue is obvious, variety being obtained by the pincers, hammer, steepled church and cock – this time portrayed on the conventional flogging post rather than rising from the pot of Irish tradition.

Of the six unsigned patterns in the Cullen manner there is little to note. That to John Byrne who died in 1766 is in fair condition and also shows the cock and pillar motive, but the others are in a poor state of preservation and even at their best can only have been class “C” work, or even that of imitators.

Rather different is the problem presented by three stones with closely allied schemes of decoration, merely engraved on limestone, and not in the least in the manner of Dennis Cullen of Monaseed, though that in memory of Denis Whelan who died in 1798 is also clearly signed ” D. Cullen ” (Plate I, fig. 7). The late obituary dates of the other two, 1803 and 1804, and of similar examples elsewhere, for instance at Clonatin, Castletimon, etc., suggests that a younger member of the family tried to carry on the craft.

With their architectural ornaments round the crucifix and side figures, these specimens are quite creditable productions in their own way. But the same cannot be said of certain feebly scratched patterns, all with the same crudely drawn crucifix surrounded by rays and much debased cherub heads, which are to be found at Whaley Abbey, Avoca, etc., and signed ” Dennis Cullen ” or ” Denis Cullen, sculptor, Ballintombay.” As the obituary dates to these are usually still later, 1827, 1836, etc., it may be presumed that there was yet another of the same name, who, despite the appalling inferiority of his workmanship, considered himself entitled to add the qualification “sculptor.”

Few of the many small graveyards scattered about the area between Arklow, Wicklow and Rathdrum are without examples of typical Cullen work, though this does not apply to the burial grounds in those particular towns, Arklow alone having one characteristic signed, but unfinished, pattern of about the year 1769.

The spirit of the penal legislation was probably more actively enforced in such centres, than in secluded places like Templerainey, three miles from Arklow, where there are four moderately well-preserved examples. Only that in memory of William Ringwood, died 1777, is signed, but there is little doubt as to the authenticity of the others, and especially of the one erected to James McLaughlin, died 1771, with its resemblance to the Kilnahue Kilnenor style of arrangement of motives (Plate III, fig. 6).

At Ballintemple, near Woodenbridge, is another signed and really fascinating piece of good class ” B ” and surely maturer work, since the obituary notice to Owen Kinsley is dated April 1782 (Plate II, fig 1). The very deeply-cut motives are placed with symmetrical assurance, the crowned figure of the Virgin with rosary being especially charmingly balanced by that of an angel playing a small harp and seated in comfort on a Chippendale style of chair. This last presumably represents David – symbolic of the old dispensation as opposed to the Virgin of the new, and these figures frequently appear elsewhere, though seldom so clearly as in this example.

Thus they can only be discerned on the badly chipped memorial to John Vickers (died 1784) at old Castlemacadam grave yard. Originally this must have been an elaborate “A” class example with its three crucifixes and numerous and well-arranged attendant figures and devices?fine enough to justify the full signature “D. Cullen, Moneyseed,” but now mainly interesting for purposes of comparison.

For instance, at Ennisboyne or Three Mile Water, on the coastal side of the river, there is nearly the same design (including the Virgin, angel, harp and chair) on the signed stone dedicated to Alexander Ellis who died in 1783, and the nearness of the obituary dates may not be without some significance. A regrettable abundance of lichen unfortunately makes photography useless here, both of this and of simpler designs with obituary dates of 1769 and 1784 respectively.

The same difficulty applies at nearby Castletimon where there is an attractive ” B ” class and signed pattern commemorating Sarah McDaniel who died in 1779. More satisfactory photographic records are fortunately obtainable at some of the other inland graveyards, and so it is possible to illustrate the excellent stone (signed ” Dennis Cullen “) at Kilcommon, a hillside graveyard between Rathdrum and Glenealy (Plate II, fig. 3). It is dedicated to the Rev. Bryan Byrne who died in 1776, and happens to be the only specimen, observed so far, where Cullen’s work commemorates a priest. Though only a single crucifix is portrayed, it must be ranked with his other ” A ” class designs, for much skill and labour was undoubtedly expended on the execution of the numerous subsidiary features, the most notable being the exceptionally elaborate church with steeple and dome, even further embellished by two miniature figures on the roof.

In still better condition is the one example (signed ” D. Cullen “) at Glenealy, erected to the memory of John Pluck who died in 1778 (Plate II, fig. 4). Here the fortunate absence of any chipping or weathering permits unimpeded observation of Cullen’s vigour in the delineation of the lance and sponge bearer, for instance, and of his ingenuity in the delicate ornamentation of the edges and pedestal of the cross. Here too is variety, for this time the angel harpist goes unseated.

At Rathnew, however, the same fortunate conditions do not prevail, and only the chipped fragments of characteristic designs remain on the two signed stones commemorating Michael Collins (1774) and Eddee Darcy (1785) respectively.

Grateful acknowledgment is due to Mr. Con. Curran for drawing my attention to the group still further inland at Whaley Abbey, close to the Rathdrum-Aughrim road, where there are three well preserved specimens – all signed and all characteristic ” B ” class work. They commemorate Hugh Byrn, Edward Byrne and John Graham (Plate I, fig. 3), with the respective obituary dates of 1764, 1778 and 1784. On two, the ladder is placed behind the cross with similar effect to the McLaughlin design at Templerainey, whilst on that to Edward Byrne another fine church is depicted. A further inferior and unsigned stone is of little significance.

Far as is the old graveyard of Glendalough from Cullen’s Monaseed base, yet it is there that the largest collection of his stones occurs – surely evidence of wealthy and appreciative patrons amongst those who had the privilege of burial within its famous precincts.

The “signature stone” erected to Elizabeth Roach who died in 1775, with its inscription “Dennis Cullen, Stonecutter, Monaceed,” has already been referred to as outstanding (Plate III, fig. 3). It has many “A” class features in common with the Clonatin example (three crucifixes, etc.), but the figures are grouped in a more careful and pleasing manner, although certain emblems of the Passion (hammer, pincers and nails), which are incised near the top, seem to be less skilful additions.

Once more the Virgin and harpist appear beside the central cross, but with some differences, their relative positions being reversed, and whilst the former is clearly kneeling instead of standing, the harpist is as clearly without wings. No bald statement however, can do justice to the design, because, as elsewhere, most of the attraction lies in the fanciful interpretation of details – in the careful diapering of the church, in the cut of the 18th century costumes complete even to the flaps of the pockets, and in the exquisitely patterned saddle cloth with which the horse is caparisoned.

By contrast, the crucifixion figures are interpreted in a less imaginative way, though as always, entirely in keeping with the older tradition of the Irish High Crosses. No other specimen of Cullen’s is better executed, and the very fullness of his signature suggests that he took great pride in it. Perhaps it was one of the first of his to be erected at Glendalough, for the obituary date of 1775 does not exclude the possibility. Of the five other signed stones four are in poor condition and only enough can be discerned to show that even originally they were “B” rather than “A” class work. All display clever variations on the patterns already discussed and their obituary dates belong to the years 1773 (Thomas Grant), and 1784 and 1785 (various members of the Byrne family).

Fortunately, the fifth – commemorating the brothers James and Patrick Malone who both died in 1786 – is of better material and so has weathered less, for the design includes unusual architectural features about the central crucifix (Plate II, fig 2). Otherwise it repeats the scheme of the Owen Kinsley specimen at Ballintemple.

Amongst the many unsigned stones at Glendalough, that erected to Andrew Byrne of Greenane who died in 1789 has several uncommon features (Plate III, fig 1). Outside pilasters similar to the signed Malone pattern, float an angel and winged sun-face device, whilst beneath stand two figures representative of life and death – the former a gay fantasy robed in waving ribands and holding the staff of life, the latter a gruesome skeleton with scythe and hour-glass.

Two typical Cullen soldiers guard the corners and the whole is executed so much in his manner that it may tentatively be classed as belonging to a more sophisticated period of his output. Nevertheless, it should be noted that crudely done versions of the figures of life and death occur on two stones of obviously different workmanship with obituary dates of 1808 and 1810, at Kilcommon and Killadreenan.

Of still more interest is the simple pattern repeated on the three stones dedicated to Hugh Healy, 1771, Arthur Doyle 1779 and to the Murrays – John and Andrew who died in 1765 and their Mother who died in 1779 (Plate III, fig 2). On all, only a single crucifix, one soldier, and the lance and sponge bearer are portrayed, but these two attendant figures are unusually large, and the lance and sponge bearer is on a different side. Undoubtedly the simplicity of the few large motives is most attractive and some hesitation might again be felt in attributing the work to Cullen, were it not for the careful craftsmanship, especially of the cut-away coat, the hat and even the long queue of hair down the soldier’s back.

Of the remaining unsigned stones it is unnecessary to deal in detail. Suffice to say that those to Mary Jane Healy 1773 and James Sullivan 1779, somewhat resemble the Malone pattern and were almost certainly done by Cullen, whilst yet another three are broken almost beyond recognition. Brief mention must also be made of several specimens lying rather outside the area already defined. Thus Miss J. Otway Ruthven has reported two unsigned stones near Ashford, one at Killiskey (to Loughlin Cullen died 1788) having architectural features like the Malone pattern at Glendalough, and one at Trinity (to Elizabeth Higgins died 1782) with typical elaborate church, etc.

Even so near Dublin as Kilcoole, there is a mutilated specimen still showing the crucifix, the Virgin with her crown and beads, and on the other side, an exceptional portrayal of St. John with book and 18th century costume (Plate III, fig. 5). The other motives have been practically obliterated by the insertion of two marble crosses at some later date, but the original memorial notice to Robert McCormick, who died in 1784, shows that it could have been, and probably was, done by Cullen.

Finally, there can be no doubt about the fine stone at St. Maur’s, near Rush in north Co. Dublin, for it bears the signature ” Dennis Cullen, Co. Wexf.”, and its exceptional situation is probably explained by the fact that it commemorates Michael Field and his wife “Catherine Field alias Archbold” who died 1776, and Archbold is a well-known Wicklow name (Plate III, fig 4).

In design it resembles the Edward Byrne stone at Whaley Abbey, but has a remarkably well executed weather cock on the steeple of the church. Even with kindly assistance from friends and from correspondents of the Irish Folklore Commission, it has not been possible to make a complete survey of all the places where Cullen’s work might be found, but in any case no great interest would necessarily attach to a merely increased list of specimens.

That most of his work was done during the years 1765-1790 with an optimum period round about the decade 1775-1785, is obvious. Moreover, that Cullen seldom absolutely repeated his designs, but had a set of stock motives – whatever their exact origin – from which he composed his patterns and executed them in a characteristic manner, has been fully emphasised from the most important of the examples noted so far.

These have been dealt with here in considerable and possibly tedious detail, in the belief that further specimens will fit readily into this outline.

Besides the help already acknowledged, I am indebted to Mademoiselle Francoise Henry, Mr. Con Curran and Mr. John Hunt for various suggestions. To my husband are due the map and the photographs which alone have made illustration possible.


Reproduced with the kind permission of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.     

 Original article in: The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Seventh Series, Vol.13, No. 2 (Jun. 30, 1943), pp. 29-39

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