After the Franciscan Order were forced to leave Ennis Friary in the wake of the suppression of the churches and monasteries, the nave of the friary was repurposed as the Church of Ireland parish church, from the late 1600’s up until 1871. It is from this time frame that most of our surviving gravestones and memorials date. The right of Catholics to be buried within the graveyards attached to previously Catholic churches, abbeys and friaries was never revoked in law and as such there are a mixture of both Church of Ireland and Catholic burials during this period. The Church of Ireland vacated the friary in 1871 after the construction of their new church on Bindon Street in Ennis, but burials still continued at the friary for a further two decades. The site was handed over into the care of the Board of Works in 1892 and it became a National Monument. It was thereafter decided that there would no longer be any burials permitted on the grounds of the friary as the graveyard was overcrowded and had become quite unsafe and unsanitary. In 1969, in an ecumenical gesture, the Church of Ireland gave the legal deeds of the friary back to the Franciscan friars of Ennis. The Franciscans in turn handed legal ownership of the friary over to the Office of Public Works, under the condition that they would be granted a burial plot on the grounds of the friary. This plot is still in use by the friars today and gives us our most recent dated stone in 2001, which is 370 years later than our earliest legible memorial from 1631.
Grave Mapping Project
A previous grave mapping project had been completed in the 1980’s as part of a youth training FÁS course run by The Clare Heritage Centre. It was among one of the first projects of its kind and, as such, there were no real guidelines or templates for the course participants to follow. A hard copy of this early project was kept on file at Ennis Friary. Over the years we noticed errors in the transcriptions and that a number of the graves were omitted. We decided to start from scratch and begin our own grave mapping project of Ennis Friary. This began towards the end of October 2015.
One of our main reasons for opting to start a whole new project was our visitors to Ennis Friary. We get upwards of 16,000 visitors from all over the world to the site every year. People visit the friary for numerous reasons, they have a love of history and architecture, they wish to see our magnificent 15th century stone carvings, it is one of the main attractions in the town of Ennis, to name but a few reasons, but one of the most popular reasons for people visiting the friary is genealogy. We get numerous visitors to the site every year researching their family tree. Some of these arrive with folders full of information including birth certificates, marriage licenses, land deeds etc. and other visitors arrive with just a name and a possible date. We love to help these people delve into their ancestral past, whether they are just beginning their tree or whether they are nearing the end of their research. We needed to remap all of the burials and memorials and transcribe all of their inscriptions in order to ensure we were providing these researchers with the best possible information available.
We began our mapping by first of all enlarging and photocopying different sections of the maps of areas of the friary containing burials. This was done from an architect’s map we had on site after the then-recent conservation work at Ennis Friary. We decided to map each section individually as it ensured the maps could be bigger and, in turn, this would make the graves easier to locate. There are eight maps in total, the chancel, the sacristy, the cloister, the nave, the transept and the graveyard, which has three maps allocated to it as it is quite a large space. There weren’t any graves marked on the map so these all had to be drawn in by eye and by hand. The fact that we had to draw the graves in meant that we were able to draw their exact shapes and we could include any cracks or blemishes they may have had. Again this would make them more identifiable on the map. Some areas were easier to map as they had a large number of graves quite compacted together and other areas such as the graveyard proved more difficult as the space was much larger and the graves more dispersed.
Once all of the gravestones in each section had been mapped and numbered, we then transcribed the inscriptions from each grave in that section. This proved to be a more difficult and time consuming task. Nearly all of our gravestones and memorials are made from local limestone. Unfortunately, due to its composition, limestone weathers quite badly. This, compounded by a number of other factors such as age of the grave, positioning of the stone - whether upright or laid flat, any damage and also the font type used in the inscriptions, made transcribing some of the graves extremely difficult and, unfortunately, in a few cases impossible to transcribe. Another factor that played into our ability to read the inscriptions was the weather. Some days rainwater lying on the graves would make the inscriptions more legible. In other instances, on sunny days the angle of the sunlight hitting the exact same graves might make previously difficult-to-decipher words easier to read.
As a consequence of all of the above factors, the grave mapping project was an extremely slow process. Our capacity to be able to work on it during the visitor season was only possible thanks to the great help given to us by our colleagues on site. During the quieter shoulder season they would cover reception while we, equipped with clipboards, maps and walkie-talkies would head out on site in all weathers, to try and get as many transcriptions or graves drawn as possible before we were called back to the main desk again. On quieter days during the busy season, we would grab ten minutes now and then to continue with our work. Nonetheless, only being able to grab a moment here and there, and sometimes going days or even weeks at a time without being able to work on the project meant it was taking a very long time to complete.
Then came lockdown! There are not a lot of positives that can be found from the pandemic that engulfed the world over the last year and a half. However, we found one, in that we were given special permission to access Ennis Friary in a safe manner, while it was closed to the public, in order to continue with our project. The ability to go on site and purely focus our attention on the grave mapping was invaluable. We were able to complete our maps of the graves and memorials. We were able to complete the transcribing of all of the inscriptions. We were able to return to others that we had difficulty with, in the hope that we would have more luck in deciphering them the second or third time around. On days when the weather was too bad to work outside we worked on the excel spreadsheet we had set up to input all of the inscriptions along with names, dates, ages, aliases and where applicable addresses of those who were interred in Ennis Friary or of those who memorialised them. At the time of the writing of this article, we are just putting the finishing touches to that spreadsheet and it is our hope that when it is complete we will be able to put it online on the Heritage Ireland website. This will mean that anyone visiting Ennis Friary, with an interest in genealogy can access the list of graves and inscriptions prior to their visit. Or even for those who are unable to visit the site in person, it will mean that they will at least have access to all of that information online. In the future it would be nice to be able to add in extra descriptions of the graves such as decoration and iconography, size and dimensions and possibly photographs of each grave. For now however, we are delighted to be able to have this part of the project completed and to be able to share it with as many people as possible.