Volunteers help archaeologists log historic graves

Archaeologists have trained volunteers to map headstones and record the stories and folklore from historic cemeteries as part of a nationwide project aimed at reaching out to the Irish disapora.

The information — being collected using digital cameras, hi-tech GPS systems, and low-tech carbon rubbing techniques — will be uploaded to the internet as part of a massive national Historic Graves survey.

Funded by the proceeds of the plastic bag tax through the Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht, it involves a physical survey of the historic headstones and memorials in selected graveyards, and the recording of the stories and folklore associated with the graveyards.

All the information is being uploaded to a website which will allow users to trace their ancestors.

They will be able to see a photograph of a headstone and read the story associated with it. Audio clips and video files are also linked to the photographs.

Project co-ordinator John Tierney said that while a lot of survey work had been done over the years in several cemeteries, the data was fragmented.

“We have built a system which combines the works done already and aims to work with people to build a resource of national significance,” he said.

His survey has been under way for eight months and has resulted in over 6,000 historic graves in almost 80 graveyards in 12 counties being recorded and published.

The archaeologists came to Cork City recently where sixth class girls from the North Presentation National School helped record the headstones in St Anne’s Cemetery in Shandon, some of which date from the early 1700s.

Transition year students from Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh Secondary School in Bishopstown joined with the volunteer custodians, the Friends of St Finbarr’s Cemetery, to survey and photograph some of the 9,000 headstones in St Finbarr’s cemetery, which dates from 1868.

Philip Brady, 26, who is originally from Dublin and who lives near St Finbarr’s Cemetery, was among the volunteers involved.

“Graveyards are not just for the dead. They are for the living to explore too. And it’s good to get active in the community,” he said.

Taylor Sexton, 18, was also involved in taking carbon rubbings of some of the Celtic cross headstones. “Cemeteries are fascinating places to visit,” she said.

Mr Tierney said historic graveyards were full of heritage and character and were “unique connectors between people and place”.

“The goal is that communities will develop a richer view of their local heritage with benefits for locals and for tourists who find Irish historic graveyards so fascinating. Many of the 19th and early 20th century Irish city graveyards have links across to families and communities in the UK and by making the burial data available via the web and smartphone devices, it is hoped to connect into the growing area of genealogical tourism.”

St Finbarr’s on the Glasheen Road in the western suburbs is one of the city’s largest and oldest cemeteries still in use.

Unlike older cemeteries, it was professionally laid out with numbered pathways and wide avenues.

Mr Tierney said it had a world-class collection of stylised Celtic crosses.

Many of Cork’s merchant princes are buried there and it features a large republican plot near the entrance where lord mayor Terence McSwiney, who died on hunger strike in prison in England, and his predecessor Tomás MacCurtain, who was shot by the RIC, are interred.

Other famous people buried there include former Taoiseach Jack Lynch; the antiquarian, Richard Rolt Brash, who was among the first to decipher the ancient Ogham writing style; sculptor Seamus Murphy; and Cork’s first lord mayor, Daniel Hegarty.

Other notables laid to rest there include Rupert Boyd Barrett, the architect of churches at Dennehy’s Cross, Gurranabraher, Mayfield, and Ballyphehane, as well as several of the city’s primary schools and the Science Building at UCC; and architect Samuel Hynes, who designed St Finbarr’s Oratory at Gougane Barra as well as several of the Victorian churches which dominate the city.

Bishop John Hynes, of Demerara in Guyana, is the only bishop buried there.

Members of the Crosbie family, the owners of the Irish Examiner and Evening Echo, are buried there, as are jewellers Patrick and Eileen Keane.

Cork City Council is partially funding the Cork element of the project and it is being co-ordinated by city archaeologist Ciara Brett.

The council recently produced Cork City’s Burial Places booklet which examines the origins and development of burial grounds in the city which vary from churchyards, churches containing vaults, private burial grounds of religious houses and the military.

* www.historicgraves.ie

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