History from Headstones Online

History from Headstones Online was an innovative project from the Ulster Historical Foundation, delivered in 2002–04, the aim of which was to encourage people to take an interest in the graveyards of Northern Ireland and to provide an online resource for those searching for their ancestors.

One of the central aims of the project was to highlight the importance of burial grounds as historical sources that can be used to study the past. Graveyards are open air museums where it is possible to walk among the exhibits – the tombstones – and examine at first hand art and sculpture from a bygone age.

Graveyards form an integral part of the landscape. Because there are so many of them we can often take them for granted. However, each graveyard is unique. Each was created in its own particular set of circumstances. Each will have its own unique collection of headstones.

History from Headstones has now been expanded to include all nine counties of the province of Ulster. So far, over 1,800 burial grounds have been identified and information continues to be collated on them.

Devenish Island, Co. Fermanagh
Devenish Island, Co. Fermanagh

Value to Family Historians

Gravestone inscriptions have long been valued by historians and genealogists. The information recorded on gravestones varies considerably. Some will bear the name of the family interred beneath the stone and nothing else. Others may contain detailed information about several generations of one family. A date of death will usually be given for each person named on the gravestone. Ages will be frequently given. This allows for a year of birth to be estimated. The relationship between the individuals recorded on the gravestone will often be indicated: ‘son of’, ‘husband of ’, ‘sister of ’ etc.

The carvings on gravestones have deep symbolic importance. Mortality symbols, for examples, represent a desire to emphasise the fact that all will die and feature prominently on many gravestones. The symbols used include the skull and crossed bones representing death, the bell, which was rung at funerals, the coffin and the hourglass, which was used to represent time running out. Sometimes the hourglass was carved with wings to represent the flight of time.

During the initial project we commissioned local historians to write about graveyards familiar to them. Their histories can be read in our case studies section. Many inscriptions have an overseas dimension reflecting the importance of migration in Irish history. Other inscriptions record the occupation of the deceased or the circumstances in which he or she died. These can be explored in more detail in our section on gravestone themes.

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