Follow the trail to discover the hidden history of this fascinating site.
St Stephen’s graveyard and St Nicholas’s at the old bridge were used for the burial of the town plague victims between the 14th and 17th centuries. The choice to bury plague victims in these two sites may be because of the Saints names. Both St Stephen’s and St Nicholas’s are associated with medieval churches and hospitals that fight against plague and leprosy. One of the main plagues Clonmel suffered from was the Black Death, which arrived in 1349.
Large pits were dug to bury the victims quickly in the churches of St. Stephens and St. Nicholas. The ravages of the plague were economic as well, the town of Clonmel had to petition for tax relief and aid in 1351. Plagues, war and pestilence continued throughout the following centuries, in one document it was recorded that by 1608 Clonmel had suffered two years of plague and some of the townspeople had to burn their houses and were now living in poverty.
Information from ‘St Nicholas Church and Graveyard/ teampull na Plaighe: Our Irish heritage – national museum of Ireland website 9.7.21
Stephens was known as The Spittle or Lazars house. In 1640 it consisted of a 20 acres of land and meadow, it was worth 10 pounds per anum. Rev Burke describes St Stephens in 1640 as being situated about a quarter of a mile westwards from Clonmel wholly destroyed only some part of the wall standing (1).
In Sean O’Donnell’s book ‘Clonmel 1840-1900, Anatomy of an Irish Town’ St Stephen’s church is shown as a ruin in the 1832 map. O’Donnell notes public health was being impacted by water and sewage being affected by the quality of Clonmel town burial grounds.
(1) History of Clonmel, Rev William P Burke, pg 244.
In 1857 attempts to provide a new burial ground failed due to the high costs. By 1866 the rector of St Mary’s Clonmel, John Tempest Brady highlighted that the conditions of St Stephen’s and St Nicholas’s cemeteries was poor and they both should be closed. There was an unusually high rate of dysentery and diarrhoea propertied around residents living close to St Stephen’s. St Patrick’s cemetery Clonmel was opened 1886.
At this point St Stephen’s cemetery closed, at the time it covered an area of 4,305 square yards, the surface was irregular and uneven. It was greatly overcrowded and its soil was so shallow that some coffins were buried close to the surface. It was thought likely that the nearby public well was probably contaminated as a result. The workhouse in Clonmel which is located close by was operational at this time.
Clonmel Tidy Towns with the support of The Heritage Council are recording each headstone and mapping them on our website. We hope the digital map will be used as a genealogical resource and a learning tool. The earliest recorded headstone is dated 1720 with the latest dated 1919. With the help of a record of inscriptions from the early 1990's, we are clearing and documenting each headstone including its location, dimensions, stone type, symbolism and inscription.
Drone technology and digital photography are being used to aid the mapping process. Nighttime photography combined with torch light has been effective in highlighting the inscriptions and symbols that are most difficult to read. Clonmel Tidy Towns volunteers are committed to preserving this important historic site while continuing to encourage biodiversity.
With the help of independent historian Stephen Callaghan, we are uncovering stories and information about the people buried in the cemetery or with headstones erected in their memory. We are also looking into the various stonecutters who worked in the local area in the 1800's.
One of notable headstones was erected by a Captain of the Auckland Volunteer Rifles in memory of his mother and siblings. Captain Michael Keiley appears in the Daily Southern Cross newspaper in New Zealand on 15 May 1860 listed as "Lieut, Michael Keiley, to be Captain". He next appears in the Otago Witness newspaper on 8 September 1860 at the Opening of the General Assembly of New Zealand where he commanded the Guard of Honour. It is worth noting that, although the inscription on the headstone is dated 1831, it was likely erected many years later after Keiley became a Captain.