A pyra­mid by the Avoca, not the Nile


Wicklow People (West Edition) - - INTERVIEW -

THE re­cent Na­tional Her­itage Week pro­gramme was packed with all man­ner of il­lu­mi­nat­ing and en­ter­tain­ing events, from whale watch­ing to bee-keep­ing. Ex­perts and en­thu­si­asts ap­peared at venues all over County Wick­low, the list in­clud­ing Quaker farm­houses, heath­ery hill­sides and public li­braries.

The public was in­vited to take a dip in a pool of knowl­edge, ex­plor­ing his­tory, the en­vi­ron­ment, ecol­ogy and cul­ture in its widest sense. Among the scores of items on the calendar, per­haps the most un­usual of all was the list­ing for Old Kil­bride grave­yard in Ark­low. Where ev­ery other en­try on the list had phone de­tails or, at the very least, an email ad­dress, Old Kil­bride grave­yard came with no con­tact name or num­ber.

The list­ing on the her­itage week bumf came with no sales pitch be­yond stat­ing that the site boasts a pyra­mid which dates back to 1785. The two-line ad­vert fur­ther stated that this is where Vis­count Wick­low and 18 mem­bers of his fam­ily are buried. Po­ten­tial vis­i­tors were warned that they need not ex­pect a car park and were ad­vised that the grave­yard would be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.

It was shortly af­ter 3 p.m. on a breezy af­ter­noon when your re­porter pulled up as the soul­less voice on Google Maps an­nounced: ‘Your des­ti­na­tion is on your left’. I pulled promptly off the road at the gate­way to a field – there re­ally is no proper park­ing place - and looked left as sug­gested. All I could see at first was a field

full of spring wheat rustling in the breeze – no pyra­mid, no grave­stones.

It was only when I climbed out of the car that I re­alised I had over­shot the mark by a few me­tres and that this was a re­mark­able place. Op­po­site a mushroom farm and a self-stor­age cen­tre, two mod­ern en­ter­prises guarded by an un-lovely fence, was the grave­yard. Even in sum­mer day­light, it re­sem­bled a set from an old hor­ror film, with its cracked grave­stones and rick­ety stone crosses.

And there in­deed was the pyra­mid, about eight me­tres square, raised above the level of the road on a small grassy hillock. Mo­torists head­ing north along the M11 may be fa­mil­iar with this most pe­cu­liar of land­marks – if they are not con­cen­trat­ing fully on the traf­fic. Pulling up the stiff slope af­ter cross­ing the bridge over the Avoca river, the pyra­mid is in plain sight to the right of the mo­tor­way.

In sun­light this most dis­tinc­tive of land­marks may ap­pear from far range to be cov­ered in shiny patches of mother-of-pearl. Up close, it be­comes ev­i­dent that the grey of the slates on the pyra­mid is light­ened by rings of lichen which are re­spon­si­ble for this lurid ef­fect.

The ar­rival of the re­porter co­in­cided with the on­set of a sharp shower, though at least there was an ob­vi­ous place to shel­ter. An im­pres­sive gran­ite façade, com­plete with columns be­fit­ting some Ro­man tem­ple, wel­comes the visi­tor who comes through the gate­way and walks up the short drive lined by mag­nif­i­cent ma­ture trees.

As I waited there for the rain to pass, I was joined by Mary and Lor­raine (no sur­names of­fered) who ar­rived on foot no more than a minute later. Lor­raine, res­i­dent in Lon­don for many years, was be­ing given the guided tour by her friend who played here around the pyra­mid as a child.


Now in her six­ties, Mary re­called that the clas­si­cal façade used to have a cou­ple of doors, which have ev­i­dently since been closed off. The doors led into a pas­sage­way, per­haps 10 me­tres long, run­ning un­der the hillock and into the space be­neath the pyra­mid where the bod­ies were in­terred.

The tech­ni­cal term for such a struc­ture is mau­soleum – the word de­rived from an­cient Greek in mem­ory of a Per­sian king called Mau­so­los. His wid­owed wife thought so much of her de­parted spouse that she had a mag­nif­i­cent tomb built in his mem­ory.

In Kil­bride it was the Earls of Wick­low who de­cided to leave pos­ter­ity a re­minder that they were the king­pins of this neigh­bour­hood in the 18th cen­tury. The Na­tional In­ven­tory of Ar­chi­tec­tural Her­itage (NIAH), whose ex­perts have a way with such words, de­scribe it on their bril­liant web-site as a free­stand­ing sin­gle-bay sin­gle-stage mau­soleum on a square plan, set in land­scaped grounds of a slightly el­e­vated site.

‘When I was a girl, you could en­ter it,’ Mary in­sisted. ‘The coffins, the boxes, were there on shelves.’ She pointed to where one of the doors has been con­creted up, while its twin is blocked off in gran­ite, un­der a stone plaque which bears the date 1785. A win­dow set in the wall at the base of the pyra­mid has also been closed up since she peeked along the pas­sage­way.

The win­dow must have pro­vided the light by which she per­ceived those ghostly boxes on their ghostly shelves, though they are no longer there. She reck­oned it was close to half a cen­tury ago that the coffins were moved out, per­haps out of a con­cern that this spooky cham­ber might be a fo­cus for anti-so­cial be­hav­iour.

Her mem­o­ries are of more in­no­cent, child­ish ac­tiv­ity: ‘I was reared in Bar­niskey so we would come across the fields to play here. We used to roll down the bank.’

One day, she sum­moned up the nerve to ven­ture through one of the twin en­trances but bolted like a hare when a boy threat­ened to shut the door with her inside.

She ob­served that it re­mains a reg­u­lar at­trac­tion, though the last burial in the grave­yard which sur­rounds the eye-catch­ing pyra­mid prob­a­bly took place more than a cen­tury ago. The site has an off­beat charm and it is blessed with rich views across the corn to the town of Ark­low and the sea be­yond. To the west, Wick­low Moun­tains, nowa­days en­livened by wind tur­bines, may be ad­mired.

The NIAH as­sess­ment con­firms that the land­mark burial cham­ber in Old Kil­bride grave­yard was cre­ated at the be­hest of Ralph Howard (1726-86), first Vis­count Wick­low. The vis­count placed the pyra­mid project in the hands of a man called Si­mon Vier­pyl, whose rep­u­ta­tion was high ei­ther side of the Ir­ish Sea. The Howards beat their fel­low grandees, the Strat­fords in the west of the county, who also adopted four-sided, pointed de­sign for the Ald­bor­ough mau­soleum at St Mary’s church in Balt­in­glass, which is dated 1832.

On the day I came to call, we were joined in Old Kil­bride by a cou­ple from Dublin who re­vealed that they make a habit of calling to ceme­ter­ies dur­ing their trav­els.

‘This is one of the most spec­tac­u­lar of all,’ they de­cided. The pair of them were of the opin­ion that County Wick­low is blessed with some of the most finely carved head­stones in all of Ire­land. Such memo­ri­als are worth con­sid­er­ing not only as re­minders of the dead but also as ver­nac­u­lar art.

The old grave­yard boasts plenty of ex­am­ples of the art-form though many are cracked and the scripts on most are il­leg­i­ble.

Take a memo: if you wish to be im­mor­talised then do not or­der a lime­stone head­stone be­cause lime­stone tends to melt. Gran­ite or mar­ble are prob­a­bly best though let­ter­ing nev­er­the­less tends to be­come blurred by weath­er­ing.

We made out one in­scrip­tion which called to mind the life of Mary White, who died in 1796. Here’s one even ear­lier – ‘here li­eth the body of Nathaniel Stringer’ who died in May of 1779. Fam­i­lies who brought their de­ceased here in­cluded the Dick­en­sons, the Richard­sons and the Gib­sons. It is pos­si­ble too to make out the names Prestage, Sherwood, Hig­gin­botham and Kearon, all guarded by the sen­tinel yew trees which ring the burial ground.

The rem­nants of a ru­ined wall sug­gest that there was once a small chapel among the plots. The grass has been kept cut and a dodgy look­ing hole in the ground where a grave has col­lapsed has been fenced off.

So spare a prayer for ‘Dorothea Howard other­wise Has­sels Relict of John Howard Esq. Who De­parted this Life at Shelton in De­cem­ber 1684 to Whose Mem­ory and that of their De­scen­dants and as a place of Burial for his Fam­ily Ralph Vis­count Wick­low has caused this Mon­u­ment to be Erected in the year of our Lord 1785.’ - but the Howards have been moved…

A cou­ple of kilo­me­tres away is the Church of Ire­land church of Kil­bride and En­nereilly, of sturdy 19th cen­tury con­struc­tion. The Howards are rep­re­sented at the rear the grounds by a very im­pos­ing mar­ble me­mo­rial presided over by the statue of an an­gel hold­ing a scroll. Here is the fi­nal rest­ing place of Ralph Franks, sev­enth Earl of Wick­low (1877 to 1945).

A less showy me­mo­rial is sit­u­ated in front of the church with a chunk of old gran­ite car­ry­ing the fol­low­ing: ‘To the glory of God and in lov­ing mem­ory of the Wick­low and Howard fam­ily mem­bers in­terred in this vault.’ But there is no vault, so the ob­vi­ous con­clu­sion is that this piece of stone was con­veyed to here from Old Kil­bride along with the de­ceased in the pyra­mid.

Some of the head­stones in the grave­yard at Kil­bride.

The pyra­mid at Kil­bride grave­yard in Ark­low.

Re­porter David Med­calf with his dog in the grave­yard in Kil­bride.

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