Irish Graveyards

Drawing: Rory O’Shaughnessy, “Ireland Reaching Out”

Irish Graveyards

Some of the older Irish graveyards date back to medieval times, and often there are structures or ruins of the old churches around which the graveyard and parish evolved. Commonly known as graveyards, burial grounds or cemeteries – the word “cemetery” was adapted by the early Christians from the Greek word “koimerterion” meaning sleeping place or dormitory.

There are a small number of seventeenth-century tombstones, also known as tapered grave-slabs and also some mural plaques found at a number of Irish graveyards. This type of monument was more commonly placed by the wealthy members of the parish and are likely to be located at the residences of the various religious orders. It was not uncommon for many people to have a simple stone or a cross, (not inscribed) marking their grave.

Tomb Types

Like many things in life, the type and construction materials implemented in a tomb were often a reflection of a family’s wealth or position in the community. Some types of tombs were more historic in nature and were unique to a specific time in history when that particular type of tomb was in fashion.

Altar Tomb – A rectangular, raised tomb, commonly used by early Celts

Bale Tomb – Resembles a chest tomb, with a rounded top

Barrel Tomb – Has a curved top which may or may not extend to the ground

Chest Tomb – Resembles a large trunk or container

Hip Tomb – A rectangular box with a hip roof added to the top.

Table Tomb – Appear to be a stone table, and normally supported by 6 legs

Pedestal Tomb – A tomb placed on a pedestal

Family History

For family historians, a search through a graveyard can be a rewarding experience if you’re lucky enough to find the markers you’re looking for.  In some cases grave markers with names of families who no longer live in the community might be found. Some of the families left the area because of mass-emigration, death through famine, or changes in the political, religious or social evolutions in the community.  These events can provide challenges for local genealogists searching for the gravestones of a particular family.

Yew Tree

The yew tree is a common sight in an Irish graveyard. The ‘tree of death’, or Yew, is a slow-growing, long-living tree, common in many parts of Europe. An older yew will often hollow out in the center, then send down a shoot which begins the growth of a new tree, or a tree within a tree. The ancient Druids worshipped the tree, and often buried their dead beneath a yew. When the newly-converted Christians in Ireland began to bury their dead, the bodies were often added to existing pagan cemeteries, which always had at least one yew tree on the grounds. The Christian clergy eventually incorporated the planting of the yew and its ability to generate new life, as a symbol of the resurrection.

Wrought Iron

Markers and Fences

At one time wrought iron was a common material used throughout Ireland, and many grave markers and fences surrounding tombs were created by talented local blacksmiths. The old English term ‘wrought’ is the past tense of a Medieval word meaning ‘to work’, and in this case the white-hot metal was forged with a hammer.

Wrought iron fences were built around individual graves or family tombs.

Some families chose a stone curbing around a tomb.

Ledger Stones

A ledger stone was a flat stone and had an inscription about the deceased, and often displayed symbols related to their profession, their religion, or their affiliations to a group. These stones were sometimes placed on the top of Chest Tombs.

Grave Symbols

Memorial stones may help us with our family history research through their unique individual markings. Some have vocational symbols, depicting the type of work done, or a family coat of arms, or perhaps a Masonic symbol indicating lodge membership.  In the case of a Masonic Lodge symbol further information may be found in the local or national lodge records.

Gravestone with Masonic Order Symbols


Obelisk markers are usually found on family burials or those of people of high social status, and they also tend to stand out more in the cemetery and are easily located. The advantage of the shape is that it provides four engraving surfaces, rather than just one, as in a standard headstone. The shape and height also relates back to the Celtic pagan worship of the sun god. In more modern times this shape was favoured by familes wanting to display their wealth or power.

Celtic Cross

The religious denomination of the deceased can often be established through the types of religious symbols used on their memorial. Usually, resurrection symbols are more frequently associated with Catholic memorials while mortality symbols are used more commonly on a Protestant grave marker.

A symbol of Christianity, the Celtic cross first appeared in the 8th century. Legends say that Saint Patrick introduced the Celtic Cross to Ireland and that the circle within the cross symbolizes the pagan sun, or the old beliefs, and the cross represents the conversion to Christian beliefs by the early Irish Celtic people. The circle was a powerful symbol to the ancient Irish people, and it was considered a sign of strength and many rituals were performed while standing in a circle. Several ancient monuments, such as Stonehenge were constructed in a circle, because the unbroken formation was believed to hold magical powers. It’s been thought that St. Patrick incorporated the circle within the cross knowing it was a meaningful symbol to the Celts.

Catholic Grave Symbols:

The letters “IHS” may be engraved on a cross. These letters represent – Iesus Hominem Salvator (Jesus Saviour of Mankind). The Greek letters Alpha and Omega can also appear on a gravestone to symbolize the beginning and the end.

“IHS” carved in the centre of the cross

Protestant Grave Symbols:

One of the most common symbols on Irish Protestant (and some Catholic) gravestones is a simple three letters: “R.I.P.”, in Latin: “requiescat in pace“, in English: “Rest in peace”. The letters represent a longer prayer which is:

Eternal rest grant unto him,
And let perpetual light shine upon him;
Rest in peace.”

The Clasped Hands

In the eighteenth-century there was a “Great Awakening”, when Protestantism began to change their focus to salvation and a personal relationship with God. The symbol of the clasped hands were often accompanied with words: “farewell”,  “goodbye,” and “until we meet again.” The carved hands were almost always portrayed as right hands and they represent a husband and wife sharing a last handshake. One hand is usually flat and loose, its fingers extended, which may be interpreted as either a final embrace, or the deceased leading the living to follow them.

Many of the Irish Protestant graves have what was known as “mortality symbols”, which were thought to remind people that life is fleeting, and to seize the day. The skull and crossbones are probably the oldest mortality symbols found in Irish graveyards. Often an hour glass is combined with the skull and crossbones symbols to signify time running out, or sometimes a winged death’s head also indicating that life is short.

This is the gravestone of a man who was a wood-cutter, and bears the symbol of a Forrester with an axe in his hand, as well as Adam and Eve beside the Tree of Life.

The symbols of the skull and the hourglass were known as ‘mortality symbols’, and were a reminder that a lifespan is brief. The hourglass, crossbones, bell, and skull are frequently seen together on 18th-century gravestones. The bell symbolized the church bells that rang to call the people to a funeral. These symbols were more commonly used on Protestant grave stones.

Some gravemarkers were engraved with rhymes or messages:

“Remember me as you pass by,

As you are now so once was I,

As I am now you soon must be,

Prepare for death and follow me.”

Burial Records

Note that burial records, also known as ‘plot books’, as well as maps of Irish graveyards are usually more recent in origin. The majority of records of historic graveyards in Ireland go back no further than the early twentieth century, with only a few dating to the nineteenth century.

A page from the burial records of Mount St Lawrence Cemeter, County Limerick

Local History

When possible, it may be best to find someone with local knowledge to identify individual family plots. While a local historian may not be able to confirm all individuals buried in the grave they may be able to assist with other important information such as where the family lived and what other families they are related to within that parish. Local guides and historians may be able to trace back people and events over a long period of time, so should never be overlooked as a source of information.

If you have Irish ancestry, Irish graveyards and their markers can provide a wealth of information for those researching their family history. From the ancient pagan symbols, to the more modern symbols and markers used today, the gravestones represent a physical link back to our forebearers, and they provide us with clues to who they were, and how they lived.

Arlene Stafford-Wilson

Member: Lanark County Genealogical Society

Association of Professional Genealogists, APG

Author of: “Lanark County Christmas”, “Lanark County Comfort”, “Lanark County Collection”, “Lanark County Calling”, “Lanark County Classics”, “Lanark County Connections”, “Lanark County Calendar”, “Lanark County Chronicle”. “Lanark County Kid”, and “Recipes and Recollections”.

2 comments on “Irish Graveyards

  1. Ralf p Siebel says:

    Thank you for this history lesson. It is greatly appreciated.
    I understand your parents served in WW2. Have u written a book on citizens who have served in The Great War and WW2 from Lanark County?
    I find the military service of neighbours is recognized in their obituarys unfortunately.

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