Kilmokea

John Flynn

When I was in my early teens my friends and I would cycle miles to pick strawberries. In the evenings if we were passing an old graveyard on our way home we would go in and look for the oldest dated headstone or an unusual inscription. One evening one of the lads said that he had heard that there was a pirates grave in the graveyard in Great Island. Of course, we had to go to look for it.

After a short search we found it, an old headstone dated 1789 with a skull and crossbones on the back. That was my first visit to Kilmokea cemetery, little did I know that years later I would be passing it every day in my job as a postman. As it happens it is not a pirates grave but a frequently used depiction inscribed on headstones to remind us of our mortality.

The “pirates” grave. Photo courtesy of John Flynn

Between 2012 and 2016, as a member of the Sliabh Coillte Heritage Group, I took part in a series of geophysical surveys in the Kilmokea Enclosure which surrounds the cemetery. It is recorded as an Ecclesiastical Enclosure dating from the Early Medieval Period. If anybody called to see our progress while we were conducting the surveys I would enjoy bringing them into the cemetery to show them the various historical artefacts that can be seen there. In particular, it has the smallest high cross in Ireland at just 56cm high. Also there are Bullan stones/Holy water fonts, the base of a standard high cross, some cut and dressed stones from old buildings along with the base of a small medieval church. There is one grave marker that is very interesting. It is shaped like the lid of a coffin with the widest part turned down.  The edges are chamfered and apart from that, there is no inscription or carvings on it. I sometimes wonder where did it come from or who decided to place it there.

Irelands smallest High Cross. Photo courtesy of John Flynn
The unusual grave marker. Photo courtesy of John Flynn

During Heritage Week in 2019, I met geologist Dr. Bill Sheppard who has a particular interest in relating local rock to the building stone used in National Monuments.  Subsequently I showed him around the area of Great Island including a visit to the Kilmokea Graveyard.  While we were looking around the cemetery Bill noted the range of rock used in the gravestones and artefacts.  These included granite, various limestones some with trace fossil trails, local shale rock and, of particular interest, two eighteenth century-dated headstones of rock not found in southeast Ireland.  These two were of metamorphic schist rock with a characteristic shiny texture.  One of these contained a mineral thought likely to be kyanite.  The year of interment on this stone was 1784 in the family name of Foley and on the other stone were engraved the years 1794, 1841 and 1855 with the family name of Kent.  The source of such rock is very limited in Ireland and restricted to Co Mayo, the Ox Mountains or close to the main Donegal granite, for example near Cresslough.  Further afield, no such rock is known to occur in England or Wales, however, they do occur in Scotland.

The Kent and Foley headstones. Photo courtesy of John Flynn

 I think that it’s remarkable that around 250 years ago there was a such trade in headstones that they would be transported hundreds of miles and end up in a small country graveyard like Kilmokea. It is certainly possible, if not probable that they journeyed here via the Three Sisters. To me that fortunate meeting with Bill is a typical example of no matter how familiar you are with a place something really interesting and exciting can be in full view and you won’t see it until the right person comes along and points it out to you.

I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Dr Bill Sheppard in the writing of this piece.

Submitted by John as part of our Three Sister Placenames project for Heritage Week 2020