A pyramid by the Avoca, not the Nile
THE CURIOSITY OF REPORTER DAVID MEDCALF WAS STIRRED BY THE NATIONAL HERITAGE WEEK PROGRAMME TO VISIT A CEMETERY IN ARKLOW WHICH BOASTS A STRIKING LANDMARK - THE PYRAMID ERECTED BY THE HOWARD FAMILY.
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.
A FREE STANDING SINGLE-BAY SINGLE-STAGE MAUSOLEUM ON A SQUARE PLAN, SET IN LANDSCAPED GROUNDS
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.