The art in the object

Cross at Kilcreevanty Graveyard, Co. Galway

Exploring church ruins and grave memorials reveals not only the extent of the skill of local stonemasons, but can also expose occupational and other relevant information. These can give a clue as to the social, economic and religious times lived by people in a parish. The ‘iconography of death’ or ‘funerary art’ appears in almost every graveyard in Ireland.

The purpose of the symbols or carvings on headstones was both representative and aspirational. Many portray the IHS insignia or cross (in many variations) symbolising the suffering of Jesus Christ. Others, like the one pictured below are much more ornate and point to a wealthy or well-known family, in this case John Nolan, Justice of the Peace who died in 1900. Nolan’s headstone is made from limestone with a simple base and transcription:

A Tribute of Love

In Loving and Fond Remembrance


John Nolan ESQ JP

And County Councillor

Who died 16th February 1900


The headstone is topped by an Urn and flower wreath symbolising the victory of the soul over death.

Urn on Nolan Headstone, Tuam Graveyard

Graveyards are the final resting places of the prominent, the poor and all the classes in between. For some families, there was no money available to erect a headstone so a simple stone marker records were their loved one was buried. Unfortunately, this is often the last record available, especially if parish registers were not kept for the period.

Stone markers

Other symbols regularly found include monograms of the Holy Family, the Blessed Virgin, ivy, garlands and other leaf and flower symbolism. Occupational symbols like shepherd’s crooks or carpenters tools are interesting to look at as well as providing useful genealogical information.

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