Fusilier's Arch, Saint Stephen's Green, Dublin, Co. Dublin, Ireland

Ireland: Honouring the Dead

Honouring the Dead has been a custom in Ireland since early prehistoric times, resulting in a wide range of funerary artefacts and commemorative structures dotted across the country, from simple unmarked burial grounds to megalithic tombs to medieval effigies to elaborate C19th and C20th memorials.

Carrowkeel Megalithic site

Carrowkeel, Co. Sligo, a neolithic hilltop cemetery with radiocarbon evidence indicating that some of the megalithic structures in the County Sligo area date from between c.6400 and 4600 BC, far earlier than anywhere else in Europe. These very early dates seem to indicate that the practice of constructing megalithic monuments in Ireland started on the west coast.

In Ireland there are four main types of megalithic tombs:

Court cairns

Chamber of the court-cairn at Teergonean, Doolin, County Clare. Danny Burke
Chamber of the court-cairn at Teergonean, Doolin, County Clare. Danny Burke

A typical Court cairn / tomb (sometimes called a lobster-claw or half-moon cairn due to its typical  shape)  has an east-facing entrance leading into a number of rectangular chambers (up to four) roofed on the inside by corbelling. Each of these chambers may contain inhumations and cremated remains. Surrounding these chambers is a low dry stone wall with orthostats at the extremities. The pronounced “courtyard” in front of the entrance was supposedly used for rituals, either during burials or at festive occasions. They are generally considered to be the earliest chambered cairn tombs in Scotland, and their construction technique was probably brought from Scotland to Ireland. First appearing around 4000 – 3500 BC, many remained in use until as late as the Bronze Age transition, c. 2200 BC. About 300 of these Neolithic tombs are documented in Ireland, some with variations.

Portal tombs / dolmens / cromlechs

Portal tombs are constructed out of three (sometimes more) massive Standing Stones, bearing an even more massive slab which can weigh up to 100 tons and forms the roof of a straight sided chamber, often narrowed at the rear. The entrance, marked by tall portal stones,  usually faces east towards the sunrise, but this is not always the case as many such tombs face different directions. Most portal tombs were erected  in a valley near a stream or river between 3,000 and 2,000 BC. Examples include those at Poulnabrone in the Burren, Co ClareKilmogue, Co. Kilkenny and Knockeen, Co. Waterford.

Passage tombs 

The passage tomb is a large round mound of earth or stone with a narrow passage leading from outside to a central chamber or chambers. Examples include Newgrange, Knowth (which has two passages) and Dowth.  Tombs like these two or the main tombs at Loughcrew often have spectacular astronomical, especially solar alignments. Geographical alignments seem obvious at Carrowmore. Some believe that the main purpose of these megaliths was not burial but connected with calendar calculations. Neolithic art is almost always found on passage graves.  Many later passage tombs were constructed at the tops of hills or mountains, indicating that their builders intended them to be seen from a great distance and / or that views were of great importance in their siting. There are 163 portal tombs in Ireland, the majority located in the northern half of the country, and most dating from c.3,100 BC.. Passage graves are also found in Britain, Scandinavia, northern Germany, parts of  the Netherlands, Iberia, some parts of the Mediterranean, and along the northern coast of Africa. In Ireland and Britain, passage tombs are often found in large clusters, giving rise to the term passage tomb cemeteries.

Wedge tombs

Generally but not exclusively found in the west and north west of Ireland,  these are often quite small, and look like truncated court tombs. Their sloping roof and narrowing walls at one end make them taller and wider at the entrance than they are at the rear, producing their characteristic wedge shape.  Like court tombs they have a gallery measuring anything up to 8m in length, which is split either by septal slabs or sill stones into smaller chambers. Uniquely, the side walls are made of two or three rows of stones, referred to as double or triple walling. The roofs are large slabs laid across the gallery, resting on the tops of the walls. In some cases the roof would have extended beyond the front to form a portico, which in a few specimens was split by a vertical stone place centrally in the entrance. It is very rare to find a wedge tomb with its roof still in situ, although, occasionally, one or two of the roof slabs are present, e.g. at Proleek, Co. Louth. Like other tombs they were covered by a cairn , which it is still often possible to determine. A few, such as Burren SW. Co. Cavan, still retain a large proportion of the cairn. Wedge tombs appeared on the Irish landscape in the Final Neolithic and were construcAn antechamber is separated from the burial area by a simple jamb or sill, and the doorway generally faces west.[1]ted into the Early Bronze Age. Almost 550 survive today, mainly dating from after 2,000 BC.  A particularly striking example is Labbacallee, Co. Cork, one of the largest. More are low sized, usually about 1.5 metres high, and are generally found on mountainsides, about three-quarters the way up. They were often covered by cairns, which could be round, oval or D-shaped, often with a kerb to revet it.  in the country.

A wedge-shaped gallery grave or wedge tomb is a type of Irish chamber tomb. They are so named because the burial chamber itself narrows at one end (usually decreasing both in height and width from west to east), producing a wedge shape in elevation. An antechamber is separated from the burial area by a simple jamb or sill, and the doorway generally faces west.[1]
A distinguishing characteristic of wedge tombs is the double-walling of the gallery. They were often covered by cairns, which could be round, oval or D-shaped, often with a kerb to revet it. More are low sized, usually about 1.5 metres high, and are generally found on mountainsides, about three-quarters the way up.
Wedge tombs were built between the Irish late Neolithic and middle Bronze Ages (about 2500 to 2000BC). Today, between 500 and 550 known wedge tombs survive[2] in Ireland, and are found predominantly in the west and north west of the island.

A distinguishing characteristic of wedge tombs is the double-walling of the gallery. Wedge tombs were built between the Irish late Neolithic and middle Bronze Ages (about 2500 to 2000BC). Today, between 500 and 550 known wedge tombs survive[2] in Ireland, and are found predominantly in the west and north west of the island.

Heroes’ Beds / Graves: Partly destroyed / uncovered tombs, open chambers and dolmens were often re-interpreted in the light of mythology – mostly the Fianna cycle. Ireland abounds with structures said to be the (often final) resting places of legendary figures such as Diarmuid & Grainne. In addition, these and indeed more complete tombs were used as places of shelter by hermits, poor families, outlaws and rebels on the run.

Honouring Ireland’s Famine Victims

Ireland has suffered several major Famines over the centuries; the greatest tragedy in Irish history was undoubtedly the Great Famine  (1845 – 1850).

The Great Famine is memorialised in many locations throughout the country, especially in those regions that suffered the greatest losses, and also in cities with large populations descended from Irish immigrants in the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia.

National Famine Monument with Croagh Patrick in the background. Murrish, County Mayo.
National Famine Monument with Croagh Patrick in the background. Murrish, County Mayo.

The National Famine Memorial, designed by John Behan as an “abstract” representation of a coffin ship filled with dying people, was unveiled in July 1997 by President Mary Robinson in Murrisk, Co. Mayo, at the foot of Croagh Patrick.

The National Famine Commemoration Day / Lá Cuimhneacháin Náisiúnta an Ghorta Mhóir is an annual observance held in the Republic to commemorate the Great Famine. A week-long programme of events leads up to the day, usually a Sunday in May. It has been organised officially by the government of Ireland since 2009. The main event is held in a different place each year, rotating among the four provinces of Ireland, and  includes lectures, arts events, and visits to places connected to the Famine. There is also an international event, held in a place important for the Irish diaspora. The government encourages local events, and a minute’s silence on the day, or the preceding Friday for schools and workplaces.

Honouring Irish people killed in Wars, Rebellions etc.

The commemoration of Irish soldiers and wars has been fragmented within Ireland for historical and political reasons.

Fusilier's Arch, Saint Stephen's Green, Dublin, Co. Dublin, Ireland
Fusilier’s Arch, Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, Co. Dublin, Ireland. Robert Linsdell

The Fusiliers’ Arch, at the main Grafton St entrance to Dublin’s beautiful St Stephen’s Green, was erected by public subscription in 1907; designed by John Howard Pentland, it is dedicated to the officers, non-commissioned officers and enlisted men of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who fought and died with the British Army in the Second Boer War (1899-1900) in South Africa. The names of 212 dead are inscribed on the underside of the arch. The structure was branded  “Traitor’s Gate” by Nationalists (who had generally supported the Boers, and had no thoughts on the African natives). Though damaged in a cross-fire between the Irish Citizens Army and British troops during the 1916 Easter Rising, the arch remains “one of the few colonialist monuments in Dublin not blown up“.

A full list of Wars for which Irish Memorials exist,  from the Nine Years War (1594 – 1603) and the American Indian Wars to the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975) and the Falklands War (1982), together with details of each monument, can be viewed here.

11th November – Armistice Day / Remembrance Sunday, aka Poppy Day, originally commemorating the end of WWI, extended after WWII to honour all British Army and Commonwealth soldiers killed in these and subsequent wars – ceremonies have been held in Ireland since 1918, mainly observed by ex-servicemen and relatives. In the Republic, the principal annual ceremony is organised by the Royal British Legion at the Islandbridge War Memorial in Dublin; low key commemorations also take place at some war memorials around the country, and religious services are held in most Church of Ireland parishes, with a special service in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, attended in recent years by the President of Ireland.

Armistice Day commemorations are well attended in most parts of Northern Ireland. The Enniskillen  War Memorial, where the IRA murdered participants in the 1987 Armistice Day solemnities, is the venue for a particularly poignant annual  remembrance ceremony. The 2012 event was for the first time attended by the Republic’s Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who laid a plain laurel wreath beside the poppies deposited by other dignitaries.

Irish National War Memorials

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens / Gairdíní Náisiúnta Cuimhneacháin Cogaidh na hÉireann, at Islandbridge, Dublin, were designed by Sir Edward Lutyens “to the memory of the 49,400 Irish soldiers who gave their lives in the Great War, 1914–1918“, and also commemorate all of the over 300,000 Irish men and women who served, fought and died in the British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African and United States armies in support of the Triple Entente’s war effort against the Central Powers. The elaborate layout includes an altar-like 7.5 ton Stone of Sacrifice aligned with a Great Cross, a domed temple, various terraces, pergolas, lawns and avenues lined with impressive parkland tress, a central Sunken Rose Garden and two pairs of  granite bookrooms containing illuminated volumes recording the names of all the dead.

Completed in 1939, the National War Memorial Gardens were allowed by successive Irish governments to decay until finally restored and officially dedicated in 1988, and are now managed by the OPW in conjunction with the National War Memorial Committee. One of the historic highlights of Queen Elizabeth II‘s visit to the Republic of Ireland was her formal visit to the Memorial Gardens on 18th May 2011, when she and President Mary McAleese laid wreaths of poppy and laurel respectively to honour the dead.

A further Irish national Great War Memorial Round Tower was erected in 1998 at the Island of Ireland Peace Park, Messines, Flanders, Belgium.The tower memorial is close to the site of the June 1917 battle for the Messines Ridge and was chosen because that battle witnessed one of the few where Irishmen, regardless of religion, fought side by side against a common enemy. The design has a unique aspect that allows the sun to light the interior only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the anniversary of the armistice that ended the war and the time for the minute’s silence on Remembrance Day.

The tower was unveiled after an 11 am service on 11th November 1998 by President Mary McAleese of Ireland, Queen Elizabeth II of the UK and King Albert II of Belgium. A commemorative ceremony is held yearly in the park on that date, in conjunction with similar ceremonies at the multi-national Menin Gate Memorial in nearby Ypres / Iepers.

The Poppy symbol, recognised as commemorating British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in WWI and WWII, is sold worldwide by the Royal British Legion to fund its activities of caring for veterans etc.,  but is rarely seen in the Republic, where those choosing to wear it were until recently regarded as somewhat unpatriotic. For many years the wreath of poppies ceremoniously laid every 11th November before the War Memorial in the Four Courts, Dublin,  was anonymously removed within half an hour. The symbol was not worn by a TD in Dail Eireann until November 1996, and 16 years elapsed before it appeared there again.

Easter Sunday is still used by Republicans to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising.

The Easter Lily

The Easter Lily is a badge worn at Easter by Irish republicans as symbol of remembrance for Irish republican combatants who died during or were executed after the Rising. Depending on the political affiliations of the bearer, it can also commemorate members of the pre-Treaty Irish Republican Army (“Old IRA”), the post-Treaty IRA, the Provisional IRA, the Official IRA or the Irish National Liberation Army / INLA.

The Easter Lily was introduced in 1926 by Cumann na mBan, the feminine wing of the Republican movement.Proceeds from the sale of the badge went to the Irish Republican Prisoners’ Dependants’ Fund. Traditionally, they were sold outside church gates on Easter Sunday and worn at republican commemorations. In the early years of their existence, people from a relatively broad political spectrum – from Fianna Fáilto Sinn Féin – wore lilies, which were sold by members of those political parties as well as the IRA, Fianna Éireann and Conradh na Gaeilge.

In the 1930s, relations between Fianna Fáil and the IRA deteriorated considerably. Following the IRA murder of land agent Richard More O’Farrell in February 1935, the Fianna Fáil leadership instructed party members to stop selling the lily as it was “the symbol of an organisation of whose methods we disapprove“. For its Easter commemorations that same year, Fianna Fáil introduced a new symbol called the Easter Torch. This was sold for a number of years but was discontinued as the badge proved unpopular with the party grass roots, many of whom continued to wear the Easter Lily despite several government efforts to suppress sales.

At the 1967 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis a motion from the Tipperary Cummain calling for the Easter Lily to be supplied with a self-adhesive backing was passed. After the 1969/70 IRA split which led to the emergence of the Provisional IRA, Official Sinn Féin kept the Easter Lily with a self-adhesive backing while the Provisional’s reverted to the traditional paper and pin Easter Lily. This led to the members of   Official Sinn Féin and the Official IRA being referred to pejoratively as “Stickies” (the Provisionals were called the “Pinheads”, a nickname which has not lasted).

Both the Officials and the Provisionals saw the Easter Lily as a symbol of remembrance for their members who died on “active service”. With the decline in the Official IRA, the Easter Lily became more and more associated with the Provisionals.
Metal versions of the Lily became popular in the 1990s, and are worn by some at any time of the year. Their sales have increased with the rise in Sinn Féin‘s electoral support.

Commemoration of the War of Independence (1918 – 1921) was muted by bitter memories of the subsequent Civil War (1921 – 1923).


The National Garden of Remembrance / An Gairdín Cuimhneacháin, located in part of the former Rotunda Gardens in Dublin‘s Parnell Square, is dedicated to the memory of  “all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom”, with particular reference to the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867, Easter 1916 and during the 1918-1921 War of Independence. Opened by President Eamonn De Valera in 1966, the Garden was designed by Dáithí Hanly as a place of quiet reflectionthe Children of Lir statue by Oisín Kelly was added in 1971. The UK’s Queen Elizabeth II laid a wreath here during her state visit in May 2011, a gesture that was much appreciated in many quarters.

The National Day of Commemoration / Lá Cuimhneacháin Náisiúnta (Republic only), the Sunday nearest 11th July, the anniversary of the date in 1921 that a truce was signed ending the War of Independence, honours all Irish people who died in past wars or on United Nations peacekeeping missions. The first National Day of Commemoration ceremony was held on 13th July 1986 in the Garden of Remembrance, but Old IRA veterans objected to the venue, which recalls those who died in “the cause of Irish freedom”, being used to honour British Army veterans.

The Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin, built in 1684 by order of  James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to King Charles II as a home for retired soldiers, similar to Les Invalides in Paris and the Chelsea Royal Hospital  in London, now houses IMMA. Since 1987 the annual National Day of Commemoration has seen the President of Ireland lay a wreath in the courtyard in the presence of members of the Government of Ireland, members of Dáil Éireann and of Seanad Éireann, the Council of State, the Defence Forces, the Judiciary and the Diplomatic Corps. (The 2012 ceremony took place in the NMI at Collins Barracks due to restoration work in progress at Kilmainham). Commemorations are also held in the regional cities of  Cork, Limerick, Galway,  Waterford and Kilkenny.

 Honouring the ordinary dead.

Ireland’ cemeteries cannot be compared with those of Paris (Père Lachaise), London (Highgate) or Barcelona (Montjuic), but the island does have several burial grounds with interesting and / or impressive  funerary monuments dating from ancient times to the C20th. Details of Irish cemeteries can be viewed here.

The Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland

In the early 1900’s a group of scholars, local historians, etc. (184 of them in 1907) called themselves the ‘Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland’. They went graveyard to graveyard, throughout all the counties of Ireland, and reported back the inscriptions they recorded, which were then published in a journal twice yearly.

The goals of this association were as follows (as stated in their 1908 journal):

I. To endeavor to arouse the attention of the Clergy and Laity to the present generally very disgraceful state of the burial-grounds in Ireland, and to enlist sympathy and active aid in getting them into better order, and enclosed, where they require it: to strive to have them preserved and protected, and treated with the respect and veneration due to them.

II. To secure a record of ALL existing tombs and monuments of any interest–by having their inscriptions carefully and accurately copied, and to obtain information, as far as possible, regarding those that have been removed or destroyed.

III. To watch carefully works carried on in, and about, churches &c., so as to prevent injury to monuments and tombstones.

IV. To repair tombs of National Interest where the present representatives of the deceased are not in position to do so, and when the funds admit of it, as has been done in the case of Richard Millikin’s tombstone, at Douglas County Cork (The author of the Groves of Blarney) and several other tombs.

V. To print a half-yearly journal, with illustrations and copies of inscriptions, and also such other matter connected with the Ancient Memorials of the dead in this country as may be thought desireable.

VI. The printing of extracts of interest from chapter-books, parochial and other registers and records, is thought very desireable; and the Clergy are earnestly requested to furnish them, as well as any other information they can give connected with their churches and parishes, and used and disused burial grounds.

VII. Accounts of ancient fonts, bells, church plate, and memorial glass, are also requested, with sketches, photographs or rubbings; and copies of inscriptions and “Hall-marks” thereon.

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