Academic journal article The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

Gothic Ruins and Remains: Disorderly Burials and Respectable Bodies in Irish Medieval Ecclesiastical Buildings, 1824-1900

Academic journal article The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

Gothic Ruins and Remains: Disorderly Burials and Respectable Bodies in Irish Medieval Ecclesiastical Buildings, 1824-1900

Article excerpt

On 5 October 1863, the Freeman 's Journal published a statement on the desecration of burial places in Ireland by Thomas Leverton Donaldson, professor of architecture at University College London. Donaldson had undertaken a tour of several medieval Irish ruins, and called attention to their disrepair in the Builder, the popular trade publication of the architectural profession. Donaldson had found the floor of the abbey ruins, in Ross Abbey near Headford in Mayo, 'strewed with the scattered remains of the dead'. In an altar recess, 'where once an altar stood, and the holiest rites of the Roman Catholic Church were anciently performed', he noted that a tomb was sunk in the earth, with its covering stones cracked and broken, exposing 'the scene of desolation below'. He reported similar scenes at the medieval ruins of Athenry and Muckross, with 'fragments of human skeletons lying about to be trodden underfoot'. To conclude, Donaldson demanded, 'who has the power to remedy this state of things', and wondered at what he had seen, as 'certainly disrespect to the dead has never been an Irish failing'.1 Donaldson's remarks reflect several strands of contemporary public discourse, including the value of ruins and their care and preservation, as well as the proper treatment of the remains of the dead in mid-nineteenth-century Ireland. These issues were complex and multi-faceted, and were based on fears for public health and sanitation due to contamination and the spread of disease caused by decomposing bodies, as well as contemporary anxieties around growing Roman-Catholic political agency, and potential Catholic repossession of medieval sites.

This essay examines the tensions between respectable and disorderly burial in ruined medieval ecclesiastical buildings throughout the nineteenth century in Ireland, and the conflict between the antiquarian and religious values associated with the sites. While it considers burials in several different ecclesiastical sites, the essay focuses on a case study of the burial ground around the Franciscan friary at Muckross in Co. Kerry, one of the most celebrated Gothic ruins of the nineteenth century, not least due to its position at the heart of the popular picturesque destination of the Lakes of Killamey.2 According to Gwynn and Hadcock, the ecclesiastical site at Muckross was first known as Irrelagh Abbey, with the foundation of the Observant order of Franciscans between 1440 and 1448 by the MacCarthy family.3 This date is also given by Colmán Ó Clabaigh in his survey of Franciscan settlements in Ireland.4 The friary was dissolved between the years 1586 and 1589, but, reflecting the uneven suppression of the monasteries, Muckross was listed in a 1613 parliamentary report as one of the friaries where friars publically preached and celebrated mass.5

The role of Muckross friary as a burial place and site of picturesque and antiquarian tourism reflects the shifting perceptions and uses of medieval ecclesiastical buildings in Ireland between 1824 and 1900. The time period of this essay is bounded by the proposal of the Easement of Burial Act in 1824, and takes the end of the century as its terminus, reflecting the Irish Church Act of 1869, the introduction of the Ancient Monuments (Ireland) Act in 1882, and the foundation of organisations such as the Fund for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland in the late 1880s, all of which had an impact on the treatment of ruined medieval ecclesiastical buildings and their use as sites of burial.6

The establishment of these Acts and funds reflects the extent to which discourses of antiquarian and aesthetic concerns had become predominant by the beginning of the twentieth century, structuring the use, preservation, and management of medieval ecclesiastical sites. By the establishment of the Free State, the buildings were primarily valued for their antiquarian and picturesque qualities, rather than as sites of specific religious significance. …

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