John Tierney's blog

Defining a mass grave

Do a google search for "mass grave Ireland" and Tuam comes up, top of the list.

The phrase mass grave is used descriptively and emotionally. There's a chamber with multiple bodies in it. There are serious questions about the numbers of bodies and the decency with which the children & babies were treated in life and death. Our society prizes decent treatment of our dead, regardless of status - at least we say we do.


But when you read the most recent technical report (December 2017) from the Tuam research team they say

"The site here cannot be considered a mass grave in terms of what is typically associated with violence or conflict; however, any further physical investigation here would necessitate the use of the skillset designed to forensically investigate mass graves. " (emphasis mine).(Executive Summary, pii) Read more »

A decent burial - common V mass graves

Public discussion of burial practices can become very emotional. 

Mass and grave are the two most emotive words used in recent times. Both in public & academic discourse.


When I first started studying these things I thought mass grave would be easy to understand. But. Not so!

Over the next few months i'm going to explore the use of mass grave in an attempt to better understand our funerary practices through time.

A key part of the exploration will be comparing mass grave with common grave. Best place to start this exploration will be with a few definitions.


Let's start with the easy one.

What is a common grave? Read more »

The healing grave of Fr. John O'Mullane; Old Kilcorney graveyard, Duhallow, Cork

This post starts and finishes with two different stories by two different women.

One woman was having trouble getting pregnant - she already had a few children - it just wasn't taking this time, until she went to her doctor for a chat. Talking to the doctor, who was a caring, kind, experienced woman, she came away more relaxed about the process. A month later it took. 


We're a very suggestible species. We are social creatures who need to fit in with our families and neighbours. We're expert at reading facial expressions and working out what other people think about us. Our reputation is important to us and without it we lose social status. Some people are bad at the social status game and others are excellent. Some people are good at taking social direction and others will bend the rules if they think they won't be caught. Mix in religion and a hotline to heaven and the situation of social influence can become more complex and interesting. Read more »

Healing Stones - Rev. Florence McCarthy d 1805

If you've ever flown into or out of Cork airport you may have flown over Killingley graveyard. This is one of those Cork graveyards situated on the side of a slope. It is rural but with strong links to the city and pride of place within the graveyard falls to the headstone for the Rev. Florence McCarthy (d 1805).

This is a healing headstone - a pattern of prayer links the headstone with an adjacent holy well, pray on your knee's before the headstone, score a cross onto the stone and then, still on your knees, crawl to the holy well 150m to the west. This lovely holy well site has done the research on Fr. McCarthy and details the strength of devotion to him and the many cures attributed to him. If any readers know any more about this Florence McCarthy please email Read more »

Reading a Graveyard; Clonfert, Duhallow, Co. Cork

Historic graveyards are compasses in the landscape.


If you're ever lost in the Irish countryside, a graveyard can help you get your bearings.

Because, historically Christian burials face the East, wherein the sun serves in persona Christi, our graves tend to run from west to east with the head at the west, feet at the east, and thus are considered to be facing east. This changed sometime in the mid 1800s, Christian burials didn't have to face E, although in Ireland we tend to do so if possible, and often, even if the headstone faces N, or S, or W, the coffin may indeed gone into the grave with a W-E orientation (gravediggers know these things).

  Read more »

Desecration for Salvation; the case of John Cuming Macdona



Catholics and Protestants are often buried together in Ireland.


Or rather, buried in the same place. The same burial ground.

We sometimes use different roads to get to the graveyard.

We sometimes use difference entrances into the same graveyard.

It's even been said some burial grounds have walls under the ground to stop our bones from mixing. We're a funny old crowd.


Very often we cooperate and help and bridge the gaps within communities but sometimes things break down and there is trouble. One fascinating tale of such a troublesome incident was told to us this time last year by Brian Scanlon, caretaker, chief gravedigger and local historian par excellence in Sligo Old cemetery. I'm not sure if it is Catholic V Protestant, and this story could even have resulted in cooperation between the two different branches of Christianity, but there is definitely religious doctrine at play. Read more »

Meeting Christ in a Graveyard

The Romans never really came to Ireland. They didn't really sail across the Irish Sea and bonk us on the head and kill all the chieftains and build roads and walls and towns and such.


But in many ways the Romans are all around us in Ireland today. When the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire he did it to bring the people together, to give them a common identity - a tall order given he was uniting tribal forces with origins in prehistory stretching from the Balkans, to North Africa and way up into Scotland. That Constantinian religion has proven to have had a 'number of net practical benefits' while also of course having it's 'issues'. But it can't be said it doesn't create a common identity. Read more »

Gates of Sligo Graveyards

Graveyards are made and maintained by the living, as sacred places to the memory of the beloved dead.


And the social history of a parish is wrapped up in it's graveyards. 


By studying graveyards we can tell who the big landowners were; who had a middling farm and who had none. We can identify the trades families engaged in. And one of the most commonly encountered trades is that of blacksmith. For graveyards, blacksmith's made iron crosses, grave surrounds, and put together grave railings. But mainly blacksmiths made the iron gates that close-off the sacred space. Read more »

Slow down in old graveyards



Graveyards are about slowing down. 


For those of us left behind when somebody dies, they are gone, but we're still here! Doing the shopping, getting the children to school, buying a niece's birthday present to post to Scotland, ringing the insurance company; working. We do a million things.


But when we go to visit the grave we slow down.



When we work in a graveyard we always keep that in mind. And if you care for an old graveyard you have to keep that in mind.

  Read more »

Finding monumental sculptors in Ireland.

The people who put up headstones have many names.

Stonemason, stonecutter, lettercarver, sculptor, and monumental sculptor are a few that come to mind.

Sometimes, about 1% of the time, we find the stonecutters name carved on the bottom of the headstone. It'll say something like Fecit D McCarthy.

Which is latin for D McCarthy made this! Read more »

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