Cemeteries in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXVII....continued

4. Cemeteries.

In pagan times the Irish had royal cemeteries in various parts of the country for the interment of kings and chiefs with their families and relatives. Of these I will notice three—Brugh, Croghan, and Tailltenn.

The cemetery of Brugh—the burial-place of the Dedannans—lies on the northern bank of the Boyne, a little below Slane, extending along the river for nearly three miles. It is one of the most remarkable pagan cemeteries in Europe, consisting of about twenty barrows or burial-moulds of various sizes, containing chambers or artificial caves, with shallow saucer-shaped sarcophagi. The three principal mounds are those of New Grange, Knowth, and Dowth, which are the largest sepulchral mounds in Ireland. There are numerous pillar-stones: and many of the great stones forming the sides and roofs of the caves are carved with curious ornamental designs of various patterns—circles, spirals, lozenges, and so forth. The term brugh (pron. broo) has several meanings, one of which is a 'great house or mansion' (p. 290, above): and it was applied to this cemetery because the principal mound, that now called New Grange, was supposed to have been the fairy palace of the Dedannan chief and magician, Aengus Mac-in-Og (see p. 108, supra). To this day the name is preserved: for a place beside New Grange mound is now called Broo or Bro.

New Grange

FIG. 203. New Grange. About 70 feet high, but once much higher: base occupies more than an acre. Formed of loosely piled stones, with a surface of clay, covered with grass. It was surrounded at base by a circle of great pillar stones, about a dozen of which remain. Beehive shaped chamber in centre, 20 feet in diameter, and 19 feet high, with three recesses, in one of which is a shallow sarcophagus. A passage, 60 feet long, leads to exterior: sides of both chamber and passage formed of enormous stones, covered with carvings like those seen on fig. 205 farther on. This sepulchre closely resembles some of the ancient Greek tombs. (From Wakeman's Handbook of Irish Antiquities).

The cemetery of Croghan is called in old documents relig na Rig [Rellig-na-ree], or the 'burial-place of the kings.' It is half a mile south of Croghan, the seat of the kings of Connaught (for which see p. 331, supra), and is still well recognisable, with numerous sepulchral monuments. It covers about two acres, and is surrounded by a dry wall, now all in ruins. A little to the north-west of this main cemetery is a natural cave of considerable extent, still much celebrated in popular legend. This is the very cavern—the "Hell-Gate of Ireland" already mentioned—from which in old times, on every Samain Eve, issued the malignant bird-flocks on their baleful flight, to blight crops and kill animals with their poisonous breath. The great Queen Maive lived at Croghan, and was interred in this cemetery; and to the present day, all over the district, there are vivid traditions about her.

Tailltenn as a palace, and as the scene of a great annual fair, has been already noticed. The cemetery was situated near the palace, but has been long obliterated; and no wonder, seeing that the whole site, including raths, sporting-greens, beds of artificial ponds, cemetery, &c., has been for generations under cultivation: so that, with the exception of one large rath, the ramparts and fences have nearly disappeared.

Besides the great royal cemeteries noticed in the records, the pagan people had their own local burying-places in every part of the country, of which the remains are still to be seen in several places, containing the usual mounds and kistvaens. The history of many of these is quite lost. By far the most remarkable and extensive cemetery of this last class in all Ireland is that on the ridge of the Loughcrew hills near Oldcastle in Meath. It consists of a wonderful collection of great mounds, carns, cromlechs, sepulchral chambers, inscribed stones, and stone saucer-shaped sarcophagi, all of the same general character as those of Brugh. It must have been a noted cemetery; yet not a word about it is to be found in our old books.

By far the greatest number of interments in pagan times were, not in cemeteries, but in detached spots, where individuals or families were interred. Such detached graves are now found in every part of Ireland. Sometimes they are within the enclosure of raths and cashels. After the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century, the people gradually forsook their pagan burial-places: and the dead were buried with Christian rites in the consecrated cemeteries attached to the little primitive churches. Reilig, Old Irish relec, means a cemetery or graveyard, and it was applied to a pagan as well as to a Christian cemetery. We have already seen (p. 270) that the cemetery in which the victims of a plague were interred was called Tamhlacht.

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