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16 October 2014
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History from Headstones:
Ardess, Fermanagh

As part of a series of special features, Breege McCusker visits the 1000 year old graveyard at St.Mary's, Ardess near Kesh...

Ardess Graveyard

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In this visit to Ardess, Breege McCusker spoke to William Roulston (Ulster Historical Foundation), Mae Glenn, Dorothy Pendry, Mary Beard & Johny Cunningham.

William Roulston feels that Fermanagh excels in the quality of craftsmanship of its gravestones. “There’s probably nowhere in Ireland where you will see better” he says. Ardess has a wonderful setting for its church and graveyard is surrounded by green fields. There’s an old school yard and a 17th century rectory nearby. The present day church, which has been renovated in quite recent times, stands on the site of a much earlier church which probably dates back at least a thousand years. In the early part of the 17thC the church was taken over by the church of Ireland and has been used by it ever since but the graveyard has been used by all denominations. The church of St. Mary's is known by different names by various parts of the local community and thus reflects all traditions. This parish has also been called by several different names. . A generation or so back it was known locally as Black Bog Parish. it was also known years ago as the Templemahery in the parish of Magheraculmoney in Ardess.

St. Mary's Church at Ardess

William believes that this churchyard has the earliest known example of sculpted headstones in Ireland. Not surprisingly then, it is here you will find the earliest sculpted headstone in N. Ireland Fashioned in the form of a Celtic cross, this stone is in memoriam of John McMulchan and bears the date 1679. There are about a dozen more headstones in this distinct style which clearly represents a school of masonry of that era. This particular style of stone can also be found in surrounding counties such as S Tyrone and even Donegal.

Audio Clip 1: William Roulston about the Church & Churchyard


Mae Glenn’s ancestors came to this part of the world from the English/Welsh borders towards the end of the 1600s. Many of them are buried here. The Earliest marked Phillips family grave dates to around 1800. May tells of how, a couple of generations ago, people would have either walked to church or travelled by pony and trap. She also recalls that when she was a child she and her friends would have gone to a particularly scary vault close to where her parents are now buried. “As children we were mesmerized by it…” she says. “…before we went to Sunday school we would go up there and peek in and we would see some bones”.

Many years ago when May was a teacher, the Duke of Westminster came here as a young student, to write down the inscriptions around the graveyard. She says that everyone else in this graveyard is buried facing towards the east but he is buried facing west.. to keep an eye on his flock!

Audio Clip 2: Mae Glenn - the scary Crypt



The Famine Grave, or "pit" at ArdessThere is one huge grave in the Ardess churchyard which is “The Famine Grave”. Dorothy Pendry was a member of the community association which was responsible for putting this memorial in place. It came about at a time when the community was looking back at 150 years since the famine. It had been known for a long time that this famine “pit” existed but the upper part of the graveyard where it is sited had fallen into a state of wilderness. She explains how a lot of hard work, along with some help from the Fermanagh Trust returned the famine grave to a cared for state. It now allows people to appreciate more what it means and the heritage it represents.


Large numbers of bodies were brought to this place from Irvinestown and the surrounding area. They were transported on funeral biers, which basically consisted of sheets with two poles to carry them with. The huge area of this mass grave is a very sobering sight and gives some sense of the large number of souls that perished. There is a vault here (which you can see in the above picture) which has been built in the style of a small cottage. This is to remind us of those typically small dwellings that the people of this community would have lived in back in the time of the famine.

Dorothy recounts a well known local story about Billy Mitchell from Ederney. Billy had the rather odious job of collecting bodies. Whilst perhaps an unpleasant task, this was a lucrative business. For every body he delivered, he was paid one shilling, which was a grand sum of money then. It is said that would sometimes have had one body on his cart and another on his back, thus doubling his pay for the journey. You might say he was a little greedy. The story tells how Billy had a lucky escape from what would have been a most unusual death. During the transporting of a body he decided to stop and take a rest at a bridge. While he was resting there, his barrow suddenly tipped up and the coffin it was carrying slipped off and almost carried Billy over the bridge to his death.

Audio Clip 3: Dorothy Pendry - the Famine Pit

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