But as part of a community initiative, the living are trickling back to ancient graveyards countrywide, to dig out information and document what they find.
At Caherlag graveyard in Glounthaune parish, a few miles east of Cork city, this work is well underway. More than 900 years old, the burial site was a dangerous place two years ago, a place where nature had taken over, with undergrowth hiding unexpected dips and hollows, where old graves had caved in.
Retired solicitor Paddy Twomey is a local historian who lives across the road from Caherlag graveyard.
“The first mention of it I came across was 1199, in a papal decree. That letter mentions several churches and graveyards including ‘Caherlagge’, as it was spelled then, to confirm they would be brought back to the Diocese of Cork from Cloyne, due to clerical upheaval,” said Twomey.
Jamie Murphy was among a team of volunteers who helped renovate the graveyard. “What started out as a one-day project went on for two years. All of the headstones were covered in ivy. What we discovered under that was amazing; tombs and headstones going back to the early 1700s,” said Murphy.
The project generated plenty of local debate and even earned the team a community award. Now the graveyard is pristine, complete with walkways and seating areas.
When heritage worker Grace Fox conducted information meetings on a new genealogy project, Historic Graves, in Midleton and Carrigaline last November, almost 100 people turned up. The aim is to encourage people to become involved in heritage projects; the Historic Graveyards scheme will create a database for people searching their family lineage.
Similar schemes are running in neighbourhoods throughout the country; organised by Eachtra Archaeological Projects. The West Cork Development Partnership will begin their training programmes in the coming months.
Fox works for South East Cork Area Development (SECAD). “The focus is to work with communities to use local knowledge as a free resource for people searching their genealogy,” she said.
Training programmes are advertised at selected graveyards and teams learn how to take a GPS photo of a headstone to post online, so someone seeking a relative can pinpoint their location. Next, teams are taught how to read a headstone without damaging it.
“We use torches and mirrors, we don’t put anything on the surface of the stone, we don’t clean or lift up stones that have fallen, we go to see what’s visible and capture that,” Fox said.
The team then learn how to conduct what Fox calls a ‘rubbing’, using carbon paper to capture images of carvings on headstones.
“There is incredible lore connected to different carvings. You can track specific styles across an area, sometimes to a particular stone mason or carver,” she said.
Next, teams learn how to upload the information to the website, historicgraves.com. It’s hoped that once a graveyard is documented online, teams will progress to other graveyards in their locality.
“Lots of tourists pass through East Cork on the motorway from Youghal to Blarney. We want to encourage them into the beautiful villages along the way with so much history,” Fox said.
Upon entering Caherlag, the first headstone on the right marks the grave of the parents of former Taoiseach Jack Lynch. “As a young fellow, he visited the village because he had several uncles and aunts there, he had connections through his relations on his mother’s side, the O’Donoghue family,” Twomey said. Thanks to the volunteers’ work, the Lynch headstone can now be viewed on the historicgraves.ie website.
Members of the Beamish family, of the Beamish and Crawford Brewery are also buried there. The churchyard contains a tomb, marking the last resting place of the Bury family. “They owned virtually the whole of Little Island, they were big landlords right up until about 1910,” Twomey said.
One of the family tombs, marked with a family crest, is that of Phineas Bury, who died in 1846.
“A member of the Smith Barry family from Fota House is buried there, James Hugh from Lota Lodge. The Barry family crest is on the tombstone. Both crests are very elaborate,” Twomey said.
The group have documented the grave of a Reverend Matthew Shinnick, former parish priest of Caherlag, who died 1791. “He was witness to the resignation of Bishop Butler of Cork around this time. The bishop resigned because he inherited the Dunboyne Estate outside Limerick and to take up his inheritance he had to recant his religion and become a Protestant. He got married, with the aim of achieving an heir but he failed and left most of his estate to St Patrick’s College in Maynooth.”