by Alfie O'Brien
Clonrush graveyard like many other graveyards in Ireland was established on the site of an early Christian settlement dating from circa 12th century. It is situated on a ridge of moderately dry soil at the foot of sloping ground adjacent to Church Bay in Lough Derg. The bay being so called after the old parish church which once stood within this graveyard but has long since been in ruins. There is recorded evidence of other early buildings adjacent to the graveyard, such as a castle on the shoreline and a monument on higher ground overlooking the graveyard. Other buildings or ruins within the graveyard include, one small vaulted house at the east end called Poll Cholomhain or St. Colman's Oratory that was restored in 1989. It measures 10 feet 4 inches by 8 feet 6 inches on the outside. The Gothic doorway is evidence of a 16th century re-construction. There was another building in the centre of the graveyard called Tigh na MBráthair (Tinamraher) or the Friars House. This is badly ruined and as it does not contain any architectural feature of merit, no effort has so far been made to restore it. A portion of the old church at the east end remains and some preservation work was carried out on it by the then Clonrush Heritage Group, around the same time as the work on the oratory. The remaining features in the old church include a 12th century window in the east gable, which also had a 16th century cut limestone re-construction, and another narrow window in the south facing wall. This church was used as a school in the early 1800s and the gable was raised a little at that time to increase the slope of a thatched roof.
There is a large stone archway of later construction which was attached to the south wall of the church. A number of theories are suggested as to its purpose. The most plausible being, that it was the doorway of a small house attached to the church and used to retain a coffin overnight prior to a funeral. The reason being, that funeral wakes were traditional held over two days, but the Catholic Church issued a decree that the wake in the home should be confined to one day only; thereafter it should be brought to the church and graveyard for burial. A custom still remains, of carrying the coffin through this arch before proceeding to the grave for burial. Also, the coffin must be left momentary on the ground on the outside of the arch before again raising it on the shoulders of the bearers to pass through.
The outline of the old graveyard was irregular as shown by the green line on the
image map This line followed the natural contour of the drier ground and includes a garden beside the church. Some stone rubble is buried in this area; also there is evidence of another building that once stood at the northeast corner of the old boundary. Every available space was occupied when laying out the old graves, the foot of one row of graves was joining the head of the next row, and no provision was allowed for erecting headstones or tombstones as they were traditionally called. This created no problem in the 18th and 19th century when the recumbent limestone slab was popular. Practically all of the older monuments are of this kind. The difficulty with them was, they were heavy to remove for grave digging, and they became very slippery when wet. In later times as the vertical tombstone with its large base became popular and many of the older graves were abandoned, it was usual to erect the tombstone back on top of the grave in the previous row, and so, where there were three rows of graves once there are now only two rows.
The oldest inscription in the graveyard is dated 1758, and five others ranging from 1776 to 1779. The graveyard was extended in 1840 on the south side. The east end was extended by one row of graves in the 1850s following the making of the new road to the graveyard as part of a government post famine relief scheme. In former times the funeral would follow a route past Meelick House and wind its way along a farm track to approach the graveyard from the west side. Funerals coming from a distance from the eastern side of the parish and from Mountshannon were brought by boat, and the stile in the south wall was to accommodate their arrival. There was also a stile midway in the north wall. Mid to late 19th century vaults were constructed in the extended ground, There are four table monuments of different designs, one resting on four large stone balls, which allowed the heavy slab on top to be rolled aside during grave digging. One other table monument which was erected over four drowning victims is described in another article on this website. The graveyard was extended again in 1995 by the Parish Council.