Some eighteenth-century granite headstones from Wicklow

Original article published in: The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 140 (2010), pp. 35-47.

This study provides an overview of some mid-eighteenth-century granite headstones found in south Wicklow. Their style is a distinctive one that could be described as vernacular Baroque.

Roughly contemporary with the more famous headstones of Denis Cullen, whose work extended over much of the same area, the mason responsible for the granite headstones remains unrecorded. The use of granite has resulted in very solid looking pieces, whereby the nature of the stone requires bold carving. The coarseness of granite, however, also means that the carvings are not so fine and are less subtle compared to some contemporary headstones of a different geology.

The eighteenth-century granite headstones described here are found almost exclusively in the southern half of Co. Wicklow (Fig. I). They are found in large numbers at Glendalough (22), Bahana Whaley (14), Preban (8), Arklow Abbey (7) and Macreddin (7), with smaller numbers in graveyards at Redcross (4), Castlemacadam (3), Rathdrum (3), Rosahane (3), Tinahely (3), Castletimon (2), Stranakelly (2), Templerainy (2), Threemilewater (2), Arklow Main Street (1), Crosspatrick (1), Dunganstown (1), Kilcoole (1), Kilpipe (1), Kilbride, near Arklow (1) and graveyard at Ballyhenry (1).

Fig. 1 : Map showing distribution of graveyards with granite headstones.

The single example from Kilcoole is the most northerly, but the name James Deacon is today more associated with Wexford, so perhaps a family originally from north Wexford or perhaps south Wicklow. As can be seen, the largest number from any one graveyard is from Glendalough, which other than Kilcoole is the most northerly graveyard where these headstones are found. Glendalough was a very popular burial place in Wicklow throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and headstones from far afield were commissioned to mark burials in the cemetery there.

Therefore, while the concentration of headstones at Glendalough is significant, it is unlikely that this was the focus of the stonemason. The other main concentrations are in the Aughrim area, namely Bahana Whaley, and Macreddin. This may well imply that the focus of production was in the area, which is roughly central within the main distribution of these headstones.

It is clear that the headstones in question must have been extracted from a quarry. This limits the likely source of the granite, if indeed that source was within the area, since granite is less frequent here than elsewhere in the county. The main source in the Aughrim area is a quarry site at Tinnakilly Hill, about 1.5km north-east of Aughrim.

This quarry was an important source of granite in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While the historical evidence for earlier quarrying is very limited, there is evidence on the ground for extensive open-cast granite quarrying that most likely predates the nineteenth century.

Notably, when Liam Price visited nearby Threewells in March 1932, he was told a few years before an old headstone that had been ‘cut and never used’ was used as a windowsill in an outbuilding. It was placed face-down in cement by the time that Price visited, but he was told that it read ‘BRIDGET BYRNE’. This cluster of houses is located less than 600m due north of the quarry holes on the western slopes of Tinnakilly Hill. Could this have been the location of the stonemason’s workshop, within a short distance of the granite quarry source? Or was this stone simply a reject retained by the family who commissioned it? It has not been possible to relocate this stone and confirm whether or not it is one of the granite series.


These are upright headstones that have been simply inserted in the ground without any form of socket or base. They have been carefully carved and dressed on one face, but the rear is always left undressed. The lower part of the stone below the inscribed panel, i.e. that part of the stone that would be below the surface, is also left undressed.

One stone at Redcross (Ambroce Doyle, 1763) is entirely uprooted and measures fully 1.6m in length, with the bottom 35cm undressed. A significant number of the stones range in dimensions from 60cm to 64cm wide, and 12cm to 14cm thick, but as might be expected there are some variations to this. For example, one at Castlemacadam (Darby O’Neill, 1756) is 74cm across.

Fig. 2: Type I: A. Castlemacadam (Edward Maddin, 1741); B. Macreddin (illegible); C. Glendalough (Laurence Harman, 1756); D. Glendalough (Daniel Whyte).

The headstones can be divided according to the form or shape of the head of the stone. There are two forms or shapes that are most common in the series, and both can be defined as a pediment or façade style. Type I features a domed top and a combination of stepped and cascading sides (Fig. 2).

Fig. 3: Type II: A. Bahana Whaley (Patrick Byrne, 1758); B. Threemilewater (Edward Doyle, 1765); C. Preban (James Byrne, 1756); D. Bahana Whaley (Hugh Toole, 1765).

The Type II stones have a domed top with winged sides, and there are frequent variations of this type. The winged variety often feature an arc cut out of the rounded top (Fig. 3A), and sometimes the stone has a flatfish top, but the wings are formed by a frame in relief (Fig. 3B).

Type III consists of a small number with a plain flat top such as two at Glendalough (Figs 4A and B), two at Arklow Abbey graveyard (one to Mary Brown, 1776) and one at both Castlemacadam (Darby O Neil, 1756) and Crosspatrick (Carey family, 1767). One from both Bahana Whaley (Fig. 4C) and Macreddin (Fig. 4D) are unique in the series. These and a small number of others are essentially variations of the two main types. There is no chronological or geographical bias in the main types.

Fig. 4: Type III and unique types: A. Glendalough (William Troy, 1773); B. Glendalough (Daniel Brady, 1773); C. Bahana Whaley (Joseph Roark, 1756); D. Macreddin (? Lochlin, 1779).

The shape of the head is usually complimented and reinforced by a frame in bold relief. The frame commonly incorporates or terminates in a scroll. Apart from the flat headed forms, which are a minority of the overall series, the types could best be described as a vernacular form of Baroque. One possible inspiration for these designs may have been pattern books of the period.

Equally, it could be argued that they were based on architectural forms, and the similarity to the pediments or façades of Baroque churches is notable. While such churches certainly did not exist in rural Wicklow, there were a number in Dublin city at this time. It seems most likely, however, that the source of inspiration came from Baroque furniture. In particular, the framed panels bearing the inscriptions are reminiscent of framed mirrors, which would have been surmounted with decorative pediments similar in style to those found on the headstones. The little rosettes that feature on a number of the headstones are also similar to examples found in timber furniture of the mid eighteenth century.

Ultimately, a number of different influences may have contributed to the main styles found in this series. Whilst it could be argued that Baroque was generally out of date by the mid eighteenth century, it is clear that it had not entirely gone out of fashion in the rural parts of south Wicklow at this time.


While the IHS is in relief; the dedication is always incised. The dedication is commonly, but not universally, contained within a framed panel formed by a recessed moulding, giving the impression of the panel being in relief. This recessed moulding sometimes encloses or is enclosed by a rounded moulding.

Fig. 5: Examples of inscriptions: A. Bahana Whaley (Patrick Byrne, 1758); B. Bahana Whaley (Hugh Toole, 1765); C. Preban (Bridget Keegan, 1763); D. Glendalough  (recessed panel with illegible inscription at the Priest’s House) and a close up of the distinctive conjoined H and E in the word HERE at the beginning of each inscription.

The script is almost always in capital letters, even where the letters of the persons name are carried above the line, for example:

     (Fig. 5C).

Elsewhere, letters carried above the line are usually in lower case: for example,

The lettering is generally quite plain and very rarely embellished. The inscriptions always start with HERE, and the first two letters in this word are usually conjoined (Fig. 5D).

The inscriptions appear to be relatively formulaic and typically begin with HERE LYETH YE BODY OF, followed by the name of the deceased, the date the person died and their age. They make no reference to the provenance of the deceased and do not name the person responsible for commissioning the stone. The following two examples from Bahana Whaley are typical of the series:

The following example from Redcross is less abbreviated:

One at Trinity graveyard at Ballyhenry is also unusual in that the beginning inscription deviates from the normal formula, but then reverts back to the usual wording:

Unfortunately, the rest of the stone is concealed below the soil and it is not clear this is the full extent of the dedication.

There are no examples of the addition of a secondary inscription following the reuse of the plot, except for the headstone at Castlemacadam to Thomas Pue (1772), whose brother Charles is commemorated after his death in 1845 aged 91. Indeed, few of the inscription panels leave any room for any additional text to be added later. A headstone at Crosspatrick is unusual in that it refers to a number of members of the same family:

One at Preban simply has the initials:

This stone is unusual in that it features a framed panel to accommodate a full inscription. It is tempting to view this stone as a case of where the family who commissioned headstone were unable to pay for the completion of the stone with the full inscription. A headstone at Glendalough is the only example from the series where the inscription is in Latin:

One example at Bahana Whaley also deviates from the normal formula:

This inscription is particularly worn; it also features the earliest date of the series. Notably, the inscription is not in upper case throughout, which is the standard elsewhere in the series. Thus could this be the first stone from the series when the mason had not yet committed to a formulaic dedication, or does it represent an example of where the inscription was added by someone else?

There are five headstones where the dedication occurs on a deeply recessed panel — two at Glendalough and one each at Castlemacadam, Macreddin and Templerainy (Fig. 5D). Curiously, the inscriptions on these are usually poorly executed and therefore less well preserved. Nevertheless the two that are legible — one each at Glendalough (Laurence Harman) and at Castlemacadam (Darby O Neil) — both feature the year 1756 and are among the earlier of the overall series.


The example just noted at Bahana Whaley (1733) has the earliest date on any of the headstones in this series, though it is most likely to have been commissioned much later than the date suggests. Another early example can be found at Preban (Bryan Byrne, 1738) and further early dates in the series are at Castlemacadam (Edward Maddin, 1741) and Bahana Whaley (Arthur Ubank, 1745).

Fig. 6: Examples of the Passion symbols at Bahana

These are also too few in number to provide a clear date for the origins of the series. Even so there are a significant number dated to the mid and late 1750s that suggest that the mason had begun work between 1755 and 1760. These include one each at Castlemacadam (Darby O Neil, 1756) and Preban (James Byrne, 1756), and several at Bahana Whaley (Joseph Roark, 1756; Patrick Byrne, 1758; and Nancy Byrne, 1759) as well as at Glendalough (Laurence Harman, 1756; Thomas Tymen, 1757; John Bryne, 1757; Thady Bryan, 1757; Edward Byrne 1758; Peter Bryan, 1759; Revd Phelin Bryan, 1759; and Thoma Cholmonly, 1759).

With this in mind, it can be suggested that the mason began work about 1756 or 1757. The majority of headstones are from the 1760s and the 1770s. The latest stones appear to be one at Macreddin dated 1779 and another at Redcross (James Philpot, 1779), and it can be suggested that the mason’s work on the series ended about 1780.


Only one example at Bahana Whaley (Sarah White, 1767) and one at Redcross (John String’, date possibly 1750) have been left entirely blank, without any symbols or decorative frame. Otherwise, the headstones in this series are quite decorative and feature a range of Christian symbols. The symbolic decoration is always in a panel, usually framed, on the top of the stone, directly above the panel bearing the inscription. Decoration is never found elsewhere on the stone.

The type of top determines the space available for decoration, but the choice of symbols is never restricted to one or other of the two main types. In the case of the flat-headed or Type 3 stones, however, the symbols are exclusively those of the Passion.

Fig. 7: Examples of the use of hour glasses: A. Rathdrum (Peter Ellis, 1772); B. Bahana Whaley (James Doyle, 1764); C. Kilbride near Arklow (Nathaniel Stringer, 1772); D. Dunganstown (William Grange, 1761).

The IHS is very common on these headstones, with a cross extending out of the cross bar of the H, and below the H is a heart — the sacred heart. The cross is always a Latin cross, with expanded or splayed terminals. There are two exceptions that feature a Greek cross (at Glendalough — Thady Bryan, 1757; and at Preban — Bryan Byrne, 1738) and both of these do not feature any other motifs.

The commonest symbols found on these headstones are those of the Passion (Fig. 6), i.e. the Crucifixion of Christ. In contrast to some other headstones of this period, human figures are never depicted. Likewise Christ is never depicted, but in this series it appears that the cross (generally more prominent than in other headstones of the period) was specifically and consciously intended to represent Christ crucified. In a similar way, the other characters associated with the Crucifixion are also symbolised by objects. Typically the hammer, ladder, spear and dices (always two) are shown on one side of the cross, with the pincers and nail on the other side, though the placement of these object can vary. Often a coffin is represented with the other Passion symbols.

Mortality symbols are less common, but they are a feature of this series and where they do occur they are never found with the Passion symbols. The commonest mortality symbol is the hour glass (Fig. 7) and this is generally found in a Church of Ireland context, though not exclusively so.

At Dunganstown and Kilbride near Arklow, the hour glass is flanked by crossed bones (Fig. 7). There is only one example of the skull and cross bones — that on the stone to Arthur Ubank (1745) at Bahana Whaley (Fig. 8B).

Fig. 8: Examples of other symbols: A. Pair of doves at Bahana Whaley (Nancy Byrne, 1759); B. Skull and cross bones at Bahana Whaley (Arthur Ubank, 1745) — on either side is a rosette basically forming a Maltese-style cross and over the skull is the sun, which is rarely depicted in this series; C. Compass and square motif and other symbols at Rathdrum; D. Chalice and cock on the pot at Glendalough (Thoma Cholmonly, 1759); E. Disc at Bahana Whaley (Mary Kavanagh, date concealed); F. Disc at Castlemacadam (Thorns Pue, 1772).

Fig. 8: Examples of other symbols:

A. Pair of doves at Bahana Whaley (Nancy Byrne, 1759);

B. Skull and cross bones at Bahana Whaley (Arthur Ubank, 1745) — on either side is a rosette basically forming a Maltese-style cross and over the skull is the sun, which is rarely depicted in this series;

C. Compass and square motif and other symbols at Rathdrum;

D. Chalice and cock on the pot at Glendalough (Thoma Cholmonly, 1759);

E. Disc at Bahana Whaley (Mary Kavanagh, date concealed);

F. Disc at Castlemacadam (Thorns Pue, 1772).

A pair of doves is featured on the stone to Nancy Byrne (1759) at Bahana Whaley (Fig. 8A). The stone to Thoma Cholmonly (1759) with the Latin inscription at Glendalough is also unusual in that it lacks the IHS and sacred heart; instead it features a cross on a domed base as well as a chalice and the cock on the pot, representing Judas’s guilt (Fig. 8D).

Another common symbol is a pair of disks, sometimes placed on either side of the cross or on either side of the IHS (Figs 8E and F). Presumably these are intended for the sun and moon, i.e. symbols of the universe and God’s creation of it. The moon is never explicitly depicted and the only explicit examples of the sun are found on the Ubank stone at Bahana Whaley (Fig. 8B) and at Dunganstown (Fig. 7D). The disks are sometimes the only symbol on a stone, but can also be found combined with mortality symbols (Figs 7A and B). They are rarely found with the symbols of the Passion.

Arguably the most unusual stone is one at Rathdrum (Fig. 8C). This features a compass and square (the only example in this series), flanked on one side by a coffin shape in outline enclosing a saltire cross and on the other side by a rectangle enclosing two discs (perhaps intended for an hour glass). Above the compass and square is an oval outline (perhaps intended for a human head) flanked on each side by a curving arrow. Could the compass and square in this case indicate that the person was a stonemason? Unfortunately the inscription on this stone is very worn and it is not possible to identify conclusively the name and the date.

Fig. 9: Selection of headstones at Glendalough: A. Revd Phelin Bryan (1759); B. Revd John Connor (1772); C Daniel Connor (1776) and Margaret Doyle (1776).



Before broadening out the discussion, it is worth drawing attention to a number of other headstones from the series. For example, in the Priest’s House at Glendalough there are presently three headstones, all of which are from the series. One of these is not legible (Fig. 5D), with the result that it is not entirely certain that this was erected in memory of a Catholic priest, but the other two certainly were.

Notably, both of these are very different. One is extremely plain, with a flat unembellished head and a small incised IHS and cross, with a tiny X or saltire cross in each of the angles of a square frame (Fig. 9A). It is possible that, unlike any other in the series, this very large stone was also intended to be recumbent. It commemorates Revd Phelin Bryan (1759) and it must be concluded that whoever erected the stone, or more likely the priest himself, deliberately requested a modest headstone.

This contrasts with the more ornate example adjacent to it (Fig. 9B), commemorating Revd John Connor (1772). The IHS is treated differently from all others in the series (though there is a broadly similar example at Abbey graveyard in Arklow) where it is contained within a heart-shaped frame or shield, with three spears pointing up from the base of the frame — presumably representing the Holy Trinity.

Staying at Glendalough for a moment, south of the cathedral are two relatively modest headstones side by side. One is to the memory of Daniel Connor who died on 6 May 1776 and the second is to a Margaret Doyle who died on 26 December 1776 (Fig. 9C). Both stones are practically identical in terms of inscription and even spacing of the lettering, the form of the head, the choice and positioning of the Passion symbols, as well as in size — they measure 62cm and 63cm across and both are 14cm thick. Despite the different surnames, it would appear that Margaret Doyle and Daniel Connor were related (perhaps brother and sister) and given the relatively short period between deaths, it can be suggested that the two stones were commissioned at the same time that the instructions to the stonemason were for two identical stones.

There is a strong sense that those who commissioned these granite headstones had a very significant role in terms of the finished product. This is not so evident in terms of the dedications, which as noted are quite formulaic and rarely personalised. While the mason’s clients may have been attracted by the distinctive design of the headstones and may have been given the opportunity to select a design from the main types, it seems likely that it was the mason who generally retained control over the overall form. Nevertheless the variation of symbols used and also their combinations strongly suggest that the respective client was given a primary role in their selection.

The granite mason was certainly prolific and the only contemporary mason who matched his output in Wicklow was Denis Cullen. Indeed, many of Cullen’s headstones can be found in the same Wicklow graveyards and occasionally side by side with granite series. Grogan suggests that Denis Cullen of Monaseed, Co. Wexford, began about 1765—6. This is relevant since it is clear that the granite mason’s headstones are a decade or so earlier. While Cullen was still producing occasional stones down the 1790s, the granite headstones appear to cease by 1780.

Cullen was not inspired by our granite mason. Of course, Cullen chose to work with greenstone rather than with granite, which goes some way to explaining the differences in the stone cutting, yet it is clear that Cullen had a greater interest in depicting the actual Crucifixion rather than simply its symbolic representation.

While some of Cullen’s headstones from the early 1760s show a degree of similarity in terms of the shape of the head of the stone, the differences between the two styles are so striking as to suggest that Cullen deliberately chose not to adopt any of the features that were the trademarks of our granite mason. Indeed, the granite series stand apart from all other headstones in south Wicklow of the period.


The granite headstones described here form a very distinctive group of mid-eighteenth century headstones found almost exclusively in south Wicklow. Many questions arise from the research to date. Can we ever hope to identify the mason who appears to have deliberately neglected to leave his name, initials or mason’s mark from this wonderful series of granite headstones? A closer analysis of the stones, in particular the inscriptions, may reveal that more than one hand was at work. Can we also hope to find the workshop of our granite mason and confirm or indeed rule out Tinnakilly Hill near Aughrim as the mason’s source of granite?


1 Ada Longfield ‘Some 18th century Irish tombstones’ in R.S.A.I. Jn., lxxiii (1943), pp 29-39.
2 At the time of writing, I have noted a small number of very similar granite headstones in south Co. namely, one at Whitechurch and four at Cruagh, as well as a single example at Manor Kilbride Wicklow. These are well north of the south Wicklow distribution. Furthermore, the south Dublin examples have some very subtle differences. The headstones are so similar, however, that they raise some interesting questions about the movement of ideas and possibly stone-cutters. I hope to describe and to discuss in a follow-up paper.
3 Christiaan Corlett and Mairéad Weaver (eds), The Price notebooks (2 vols, Dublin, 2002), i, 150.
4 My sincere thanks to Nessa Roche for making this suggestion to me.
5 Notably while Cullen’s headstones are found in his native Co. Wexford, to date no examples of the headstones have been found in any of the north Wexford graveyards that neighbour south Wicklow.
6 Eoin Grogan ‘Eighteenth century headstones and the stone mason tradition in County Wicklow: of Denis Cullen of Monaseed’ in Wicklow Archaeology and History, i (1998), pp 41-63.
7 Granite headstones are a feature of graveyards throughout Wicklow, but many of these from the eighteenth century are very different from those described here. At several east Wicklow graveyards (e.g. Abbey, Rathnew and Killiskey) there are a very small number of similar granite headstones, generally dating to the 1770s, which are sufficiently different as to indicate that they are the work of a different mason, perhaps a successor, who was influenced by or who may even have worked with our mason. In common with the Baroque granite series, they feature the Passion symbols, but the inscription always begins with THIS STONE WAS ERECTED BY. Otherwise they are generally plainer noticeably less accomplished than the main series.


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, Vol. 140 (2010), pp. 35-47. Article contains footnotes – please see original article.


No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *