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Ardenew Church and Graveyard

 

Ardenew Church and GraveyardArdenew Church and Graveyard

Ardenew Church ruins and graveyard are situated in the Rathmolyon end of the parish, on the right-hand side of the road from Tanderagee crossroads to the New Line road.  Access to the graveyard is via a boreen, and across land owned at present by Colm O’Connor.

 

In 1999, Dair Ríoga Local History Group members first visited the graveyard on the fourth Sunday of July, not realizing at the time that this was a significant date in the pagan calendar, as it was on this Sunday that people traditionally walked to the highest point in their locality, looked down at the maturing crops and collected ripe berries and fruits (at the present time, one of the best known climbs on this Sunday is to the top of Croagh Patrick).  A favourite berry collected was the fraughan; hence this Sunday is called Fraughan Sunday.  The group, accompanied by local men, Mattie and Michael Higgins discovered that the graveyard was completely overgrown with ash, elder, nettles, scotch and briars and that the gable wall of a church was barely visible through ivy.  Mattie enlightened the group with much background information on the area.  The Kennedys of Rathcore had owned the surrounding land.  Some members of the family had been buried in Ardenew and part of the Kennedy headstone is still in the graveyard.  Mattie’s father had worked for them and he recalled walking cattle from Ardenew to other land owned by the Kennedys at Trim.  He recalled the last funeral in Ardenew, when a horse drawn hearse was used, and there was danger of the coffin falling off the hearse in the very rough field.

 

Dair Ríoga decided to restore the graveyard, and the entire group, with help from locals and family members worked on the project on many Sundays during the autumn of 1999 and the spring of 2000.  The entrance gate to the field in which the graveyard is situated, was cleared, as it was impassable due to briars and nettles.  Also cleared was the entrance gate to the graveyard itself, which was equally impassable.  The overgrowth in the graveyard was cleared; ivy on the wall of the church was nipped at the bud in the hope that the heavy umbrella of ivy would decay through time; the perimeter wall was cleared of ivy.  Gerry Brew and his son Declan removed a large, dangerous ash tree, and the perimeter wall was rebuilt where the tree had damaged the stonework.  Colm O’Connor collected the resulting considerable debris and disposed of it.  Michael Higgins re-hung the entrance gate.

 

All headstones were left in their original locations and all inscriptions were noted.  Initially, it was thought that the stones on the ground were lying at random, but in the course of time, it became apparent that they were in relatively straight lines and were marking the heads of grave mounds.  It was noted that the centre of the site is raised and it appears that the fallen ruins of the church are collected there.  Inspection revealed some very interesting stones, which have been shown to an archaeologist who gave his report, details of which are as follows:

 

The Octagonal Stone

This is by far the most exciting of the four stones discovered.  It dates from the later medieval era - probably between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries.  It is made from sandstone, which is not an indigenous rock in the local area.  It is octagonal in shape and shows evidence of the mason’s chisel markings along its side, but from having been in the ground for so many years, these markings have been almost completely obliterated. 

 

Originally when the stones were discovered, the group believed this stone to be a stoup (as used in modern churches to hold holy water).  It is, however, actually the base of a much more elaborate baptismal font.  As it is self-draining, it allowed for ceremonial baptism to be performed: water was poured over the individual and then allowed to drain away through the octagonal stone.  The shape is very important - the octagon has an extremely early origin dating right back to the advent of Christianity.  There is even the belief that it may have been an original pagan symbol that was assimilated into the Christian faith.  A lot of the earlier churches in the Mediterranean lands had octagonal baptismal chambers attached to the church and were used solely for Baptism, which was a very important sacrament in the early Church.  Perhaps this tradition explains why the octagonal stone was so well carved and decorated in comparison to the rest of the find.  The age of the stone and the fact that it is not a native rock of the area, together with the distinctive shape, seem to point to a very significant find.

 


Graveyard ArdenewGraveyard Ardenew

The Window Surround

This piece is believed to date from around 1500 and is a much less significant piece than the font.  It is a primitive, crude piece designed simply to perform a task rather than with any higher purpose in mind.  Originally, there would have been another identical piece attached to the back of it.  The walls of the church would have been eighty centimetres thick and the two window structures, back to back, would have been necessary to allow light to enter.  The apex of the window opening should have been a perfect ninety-degree angle (as was the custom of the time).  This, however, is not the case with the Ardenew stone.  Realistically, this was a rural parish church - the stonemason would not have been of the highest standard, and there would not have been many resources available for the decoration of the church.  The window surround is made from limestone, which is to be expected, considering that this is indigenous rock in this area.  Evidence remains on the back of the stone, of the mortar used to attach the two window pieces.  The mortar is lime mortar, white in colour and dates from this period.  The stone is pockmarked or harled, as was the chosen design of the late medieval era.

 

The Two Dressed Corner Stones

These stones also date from around 1500 and are believed to have formed the corner of a door or window.  These are a little more sophisticated that the window surround - the pointed corners of each piece are very correct and structured.  They are limestone and again, pockmarked, and are what are known as dressed stones i.e. they have a superior finish to the window surround.

 

Nothing is known of the origins of the church.  Apart from the archaeologist’s report, the earliest written record of its existence is from the Civil Survey of 1654 where it is described as an old chappell with some farme houses.  Reporting in the seventeenth century, Anthony Dopping, Protestant Bishop of Meath recorded the church as being the only Catholic church in the Protestant Parish of Rathmolyon in the 1680s (it was described as Ardnow alias Ardonrath), but there is no record as to its condition at the time.

 

In 1938, in an essay written for the Irish Folklore Commission, Peter Doyle, a native of the area, wrote that there was a headstone in the graveyard dedicated to the Walsh family Rathcoare Enfield dating from 1608.

 

A recognizable field system[i] covering ten acres surrounds the site of the church and graveyard.  The boundary of the graveyard may not always have been as it is now, as some of the labourers working for P.J. Kennedy, who were involved in clearing the adjoining fields, found human bones in the field immediately outside the walls.

 

As with many sites where there are little historical records in existence, many superstitions and tales have developed around it.  According to local tradition, it was originally a monastery but no records of its existence as such remain.  Mattie Higgins recalled the legend of the gold buried there.  When the monks in the monastery feared a raid, they decided to bury the gold, as was the custom.  This they did – on a bright moonlit night – the chosen spot was the point where the moon cast the shadow of the belfry in the field.  When the danger of the raid passed and the next generation of monks tried to retrieve the gold, there was a problem – no one had noted the time of year for the burial of the gold and as the shadow of the moon changes with the time of year, the exact spot could never again be found.  Mattie advises anyone with a metal detector not to bother looking for the gold – it’s only a story!

 

The records available on the use of the graveyard in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries come from headstones that are still legible, and from the parish Register of Deaths from 1879 to 1898, when twenty-eight burials in Ardenew were recorded.  Parish records then cease until 1920, when six burials were recorded from then until 1957.  The townlands recorded on the headstones include Rathcore and Johnstownbridge.  The last burials that took place in the graveyard would have been in the 1950s and are believed to be those of the Donegan sisters of Drummond Lodge, Enfield.

 

In the late 1940s, Meath County Council took responsibility for the upkeep of the graveyard.  Repairs were carried out on the surrounding wall and the grass was regularly cut.  This was saved as hay and sometimes made into hay ropes, which were used to protect council pumps from frost.

 

On August 16, 2000, Mass was celebrated in the graveyard, for the first time probably in centuries.  Over two hundred people attended the Mass, celebrated by Fr. Sean Fay, P.P.  Many of the people present were there mainly because they had heard from previous generations that their ancestors were buried in the graveyard.  Most had never visited it because of its previous inaccessibility.  Mass has been held annually since with the exception of 2001, when Foot and Mouth Disease restrictions prohibited access.  Dair Ríoga Local History Group, along with help from local people, continues to maintain the site.

 

Sources:

Robert C. Simington (Ed.), The Civil Survey, Co. Meath, 1654-56, Irish Manuscripts Commission, Dublin, 1940.

Dr. Tadhg O’Keeffe, Department of Archaeology, University College Dublin.

Conversations with local people, whose names are included under Acknowledgement to contributors.  

 



[i] Described by the Archaeological Survey of Ireland as defined by ditches centering on ridge where Church is situated.  Many field systems are associated with medieval earthworks and monuments while others have no associations and may well be post-medieval.