17th-century Memorials in West Ulster

This table contains a listing of 17th-century memorials to the dead in west Ulster – counties Donegal, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone. Most were discovered during fieldwork by William Roulston in the summer of 1996. The rest were derived from a variety of sources, most notably the Journal of the Association for the Preservation of Memorials of the Dead in Ireland (1888-1933).

Many of these memorials are no longer to be found. Where possible English translations of Latin inscriptions have been given. A significant number of inscriptions did not have a legible name and these have not been included, even though they date from the 17th century.

Over 300 names are included in the table. These extend beyond the deceased to include other family members. The majority of these inscriptions were published in the 1998 edition of Familia, but others that were not published then appear in here.

Image: Hansard monument, Lifford, Co. Donegal

Hansard monument reduced

What do the inscriptions tell us?

The value of gravestone inscriptions for genealogical research has never been in doubt. Before the nineteenth century they are occasionally the only evidence that a family has lived in a particular area; often they reveal the name of a hitherto unknown parent, spouse or child. For the English and in particular the Scottish settlers arriving in Ulster in the early seventeenth century it was important to establish a new family grave, and for many people to-day great importance is attached to knowing where their forebears were finally laid to rest.

When searching the database it is important to bear in mind that spellings of names varied considerably in the seventeenth century. To give two examples, we have Hamilton spelled Hamiltoun and Montgomery spelled Mountgomery. Many inscriptions from the seventeenth century are particularly hard to decipher and in some cases we cannot be absolutely certain that what we have recorded is correct.

Dates have been recorded as they appear on the stones. It is important to take into consideration that until 1752 the new year began on 25 March. This means that, for example, the date 20 February 1650 on a gravestone would actually be 20 February 1651 under our present system. Undoubtedly the most interesting of all seventeenth century inscriptions in the area studied is that on the monument to Sir Richard Hansard in Clonleigh parish church, Lifford, Co. Donegal.

Not only does it describe Sir Richard’s education and military career in Ireland, it also goes into great detail on the bequests in his will. The final part of the inscription is interesting for it is concerns not Hansard, but the executors of his will, explaining how they had taken great care in ensuring that the instructions in his will were carried out to the full. In this way they hoped to ensure that their memory would also be perpetuated.

The inscription on the monument to the wife of Edward Dodington in Coleraine can be compared to that on the Hansard monument in this latter respect, for it is as much, if not more, intended to perpetuate the memory of Dodington’s achievements as it is concerned about informing us the date of his wife’s death, referring as it does to the fact that Dodington was commander of the King’s fort at Dungiven and the first man to build there in the ‘English manner’.

Although briefer and more to the point, the inscription on the monument to Alexander Sanderson in Desertcreat parish church, near Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, reveals him to have been an even more fascinating character than Hansard. It describes how he was born in Scotland, fought as a soldier in Belgium, was a commander of cavalry and infantry in Poland, before eventually settling in Ireland where he became a justice of the peace and served as High Sheriff of Co. Tyrone on three occasions.

Johnston Aghalurcher reduced

The monuments to Hansard and Sanderson are among the few that have survived to the leaders of the Ulster Plantation of the early seventeenth century - one wonders what has become of the rest. As the Irish Society’s chief agent in Co. Londonderry, John Rowley can also be regarded as one of the leaders of the Plantation, and his monument survives in Coleraine parish church close by the memorial to Dodington’s wife.

The inscription on the Rowley monument is the earliest in west Ulster to contain a lament to the deceased in the form of poetic verse, and concludes with the words, ‘For heaven contains his soul, the world his merit’. Rowley was actually investigated by the Irish Society for corruption - the deceased was not always the type of person his inscription would have us believe.

Poetic laments or elegies are frequently met with on the monuments to the wives of clergymen; these are also the inscriptions most likely to be in Latin. The inscriptions on the monuments to Isabella Sinclair, Jenet Houston, Alice Moore and Elizabeth Vincent all take the form of elegies, all commemorate the wives of clergymen, and all are in Latin.

These monumental inscriptions not only encapsulate the sorrow of a grief-stricken husband, they also reflect on the life of the deceased wife, praising her beauty, faithfulness and piety. The monument to Jenet Houstoun, wife of Dean Adair, in Raphoe Cathedral, Co. Donegal contains an inscription informing us that despite dying aged only twenty she had already given birth to two sets of twins.

Poetic verse on west Ulster memorials is not just manifested in elegiac form. The gravestone to Agnes Dovey in Derg churchyard, Co. Tyrone, features a rhyme imploring the passer-by to reflect on his own mortality and concludes with the words, ‘remember man that thou most [sic] die’. This verse is repeated almost verbatim on the Lyndsay stone in Taughboyne churchyard, Co. Donegal, and features in one form or another on memorials across Europe.

By emphasising that none of us will escape death these verses convey in literal form what the carvings of mortality symbols, which feature on so many memorials in west Ulster, convey visually. Both trace their origins to the medieval obsession with death that developed in the aftermath of the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century. This preoccupation with death was particularly strong in Scotland, and from there brought to Ulster by the Scottish settlers during the course of the seventeenth century.

The phrase Memento Mori - remember you must die - also features on several memorials in west Ulster, including the Goodlate stone at Killyman and the Eccles monument in Donacavey church ruin, Fintona, both in Co. Tyrone. Another interesting verse on a gravestone in west Ulster is that on the Feney gravestone in Clonleigh churchyard which, with truly awful spelling, takes the form of a children’s prayer. The Pockrich stone in Enniskillen Cathedral features an inscription which is based on the speech delivered by Henry VIII’s disgraced minister, Thomas Cromwell, on the scaffold immediately before his execution in 1540.

Although we have no examples of seventeenth century memorials in west Ulster displaying trade emblems - as is frequently the case in Scotland - the inscriptions on a number of stones do draw attention to the occupation of the deceased. Thus we have memorials to a mariner (and a mariner’s daughter) and a shipwright in St Augustine’s churchyard, Londonderry, a clothworker in Taughboyne churchyard, and two yeomen in Glendermott old churchyard, Co. Londonderry.

This does not include the many monuments to those individuals who possessed either ecclesiastical or military rank. We also have an interesting collection of stones both within the walls of St Columb’s Cathedral, Londonderry, and in its churchyard to men who played a part in the municipal government of the city in the seventeenth century, in the capacity of either alderman or mayor.

Aghavea Carwhers1681

In Camus-juxta-Mourne parish church, Strabane, Co. Tyrone, there is another example of a stone to a man involved in local government - William Hamilton, a former provost of the town. Hamilton’s monument also records that he had left the poor of Strabane ‘a yeerly revenew to help them in their need’.

While the genealogical value of these inscriptions is immense, and the information contained in them interesting in its own right, this is not all that they can teach us. The main thrust of this short discussion has been to show that it is possible to infer a great deal about the concerns and beliefs of those commemorated on seventeenth century memorials, or more correctly of those who actually commissioned the monuments, whether they be the grieving husband or even the executors of the deceased’s will.

It is not just enough to record their inscriptions. We must also think about what we can learn about the nature of society in the 17th century from these monuments. This also means the careful study of the decoration and symbolism displayed on them. In this way we will hopefully gain a greater insight into the social world in which the individuals to whom they are dedicated lived.