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16 October 2014
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History from Headstones

As part of a series of special features, Teresa McKeogh visits the 1000 year old graveyard at Pubble, near Tempo...

Pubble Graveyard

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Just a couple of miles from Tempo on the main road from Enniskillen, you will find The Pubble Graveyard. This place has been in use as a burial ground for over 1000 years and it is thought that many ancient graves lie outside the present boundary wall. Over the past 100 years or so some very curious and interesting headstones have been uncovered.

As part of a special series, Teresa McKeogh spends some time in the Pubble graveyard with William Roulston (Ulster Historical Foundation), Johnny McKeagney (Historian) and Seamus McCanney (Historian).

The word Pubble actually means "people". It is believed that St. Patrick preached to a multitude of people right here at this place. Some 200 years later a wooden church was built. That was eventually replaced by a new stone building with a thatched roof. Then, towards the end of the 18th Century, a new church was built in the village of Tempo and the church here at Pubble fell into ruins. Burials continued here however until around 1930.

Headstone showing Mortality Symbols, found in the Pubble Graveyard in Co. Fermanagh
Headstone showing Mortality Symbols, found in the Pubble Graveyard in Co. Fermanagh
Headstone showing Mortality Symbols, found in the Pubble Graveyard in Co. Fermanagh
Headstone showing Mortality Symbols, found in the Pubble Graveyard in Co. Fermanagh
Headstone showing Mortality Symbols, found in the Pubble Graveyard in Co. Fermanagh
Headstone showing Mortality Symbols, found in the Pubble Graveyard in Co. Fermanagh

Examples of the 'Mortality symbols' found in the graveyard.
Derived from Johnny McKeagney's own stone rubbings.

The earliest legible headstones to be found in the graveyard today date back to 1707. Therefore this burial place carries a form of written record of 300 years of the local community. It is possible to understand something about the lives they led from the headstones here.

William Roulston explains the meaning of the strange pictures known as 'Mortailty Symbols' on some of the headstones in the graveyard. See the examples above which are replications of Johnny McKeagney's own rubbings... The skull and cross-bones is a well known symbol for death. The coffin and the bell represent a funeral. The hour glass represents the time running out. These symbols tell us a lot about how people felt about life and death at that time. Headstones like these can be found around Fermanagh and in parts of Monaghan. William suggests that these symbols may have been imported into Ireland by Scottish settlers during the 17th Century.

Audio Clip 1: William Roulston & Johnny McKeagney - about these symbols



Johnny McKeagney has spent years researching and etching in this graveyard. He says that this place is of great importance to the people of the local community who are direct descendants of those who rest here.

Graves have been discovered in this area which have been dated as far back as 4,000 years. In the late 1800s the cairn on Topped Mountain was opened up and inside was discovered a chieftain, buried sitting upright, with a bowl of food and a dagger to hand!

Johnny has uncovered hidden graves himself in the recent past. He was working in the graveyard one day and came across a slab buried in soil and undergrowth. when he finally managed to clean off the covering, taking great care not to break the headstone, he found it to be in commemoration of MS Macafry. Although the spelling may have changed a little through the years, the McCaffrey's are a well know family of this area. The stone Johnny found had been erected by the wife of the deceased in the year 1739 and bore no less than 16 lines of words all in praise of him.

Seamus McCanney is another local historian who has also spent many hours probing into the secrets of this place. He describes his passion for etching ancient gravestones as a 'labour of love' and stresses that great care has to be taken not to do damage to the headstones in the process of etching from them. He says that removing the moss and plant-life from an old headstone is 'like scraping off layers of time'. He talks about two Enniskillen ladies who came here to record the inscriptions in the beginning of the 20th Century. They were Lady Edyth and Lady Dorothy Lowry-Corry and they were writing an article for "The Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland" !

Audio Clip 2: 'Scraping away the layers of time'



The Friar's Headstone - One notable headstone in the Pubble graveyard depicts a man on horseback and a sheep. All of this is surrounded by a floral design. The reason why this headstone is so unusual is that the picture it carries tells us the story of how the person actually died.

In the year 1761 a priest was out riding on his horse 'doing his rounds'. As the horse was jumping over a pool of water a sheep suddenly darted out and startled it. The horse shied and reared up, toppling over backwards, killing the priest.

Around Fermanagh, there are numerous headstones to be found which have a pictorial story etched on them but this one is very rare in that the story tells how the death took place.

The Friar's Headstone at PUbble Graveyard
Graphic derived from a rubbing of the Friar's Headstone

Audio Clip 3: The Friar's Headstone


Johnny feels that the graveyard here at Pubble is not so much a sombre place but "serene" He feels that the atmosphere is in keeping with the thought that those buried here are at their final rest. Rather than being creepy or frightening, he considers it a very homely place to be.

He also thinks that the graveyard extends well beyond the wall that now surrounds it. The wall was built in 1787. It is his firm hope that Pubble graveyard, which is cared for by the local council, will never be allowed to fall into ruin.

His son Gabriel, who emigrated from Northern Ireland to California, was home when these recordings were made. He feels that it's most important to return to Tempo and loves to 'soak in' the atmosphere of Fermanagh with its wildlife, weather and standing stones etc. Although he enjoys the fresh challenge of living in the USA, he knows that this is home and he says that he would like to be buried in Ireland. The audio clip below finishes with a piece of music played by Gabriel, in the graveyard, on the Uilleann pipes.

Audio Clip 4: Gabriel McKeagney - The importance of coming home


If you enjoyed this article you may like to read some of the others in this series, exploring community history through headstones... click here


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