Treatment of St Mary's Churchyard, Dublin
Architectural conservation, as one should never tire of pointing out, is about preserving as much as possible of the old, consistent with the need to create new buildings and spaces. Of course, nearly everyone agrees that there should be some preservation of our built heritage, the problem lies in defining just how much is to be kept. Dublin City is very much a case in point, being subject to a frenetic pace of new building courtesy of the 'Celtic Tiger' economy these past number of years. Inevitably, some fine old buildings have been viewed as surplus to requirements by the impatient cubs of the said Tiger, and have been reduced to rubble as a result.
There are exceptions to this trend, it must be said, where some attempt is made to preserve an old building and put it to new use. One example is that of St Mary's Church in Dublin, which having been closed for many years due to the decline of its Church of Ireland congregation, was in a seriously deteriorating condition. St Mary's has now been refurbished for use as a pub and restaurant, and while hardly ideal and somewhat flash, this use is preferable to the alternative of continued decay. However, it is not the church building which primarily concerns us here, but the adjoining churchyard and its gravestones, which have recently been subject to radical overhaul by Dublin City Council (characteristically, this is a modern replacement of the centuries old name 'Dublin Corporation').
St Mary's Churchyard, now called Wolfe Tone Park, was the burial place of a number of famous individuals, including the United Irishman Archibald Hamilton Rowan, the founder of Mercer's Hospital Mary Mercer, the philosopher Francis Hutcheson and the hanging judge Lord Norbury (though apparently not the actor and theatre manager Thomas Sheridan, as is indicated on a wall plaque erected by the City Parks Department). In keeping with the modern mania for windswept open urban spaces, the old churchyard railings have been eradicated, and a desert-like dust covers some of the pathways.
The above photograph of stacked gravestones in a corner of St Mary's Churchyard illustrates a past method of dealing with old memorials of the dead in Dublin burial places, the result being that the stones are preserved but most of the inscriptions simply cannot be read. The city fathers obviously considered that a different approach was required today, but alas what they have chosen to do is much worse. Numbers of the old gravestones in St Mary's have been laid out flat in the manner of paving stones, so that visitors may walk freely over them. Leaving aside the matter of disrespect to the dead, it can be considered how this will accelerate the already established process of wearing away of inscriptions. Historians, and genealogists in particular, value the information to be found in these archives in stone, and it is difficult to believe that any experts in these disciplines would have given their approval to the way in which gravestones have been treated in St Mary's (characteristically, they probably were not consulted).
Over the years hundreds of old gravestones have been stacked or removed entirely in order to facilitate the creation of 'pocket' parks in Dublin City. In the past the present writer has endeavoured to remonstrate with the Dublin civic authorities with regard to the mistreatment of city churchyards, for example, St Catherine's, Thomas Street, but to little or no effect. There is a mania in Ireland today for tearing out old fabric and replacing it with tawdry modern materials, and indeed to the perpetrators of such vandalism the expression 'patina of age' probably connotes some sort of disease worthy of eradication. While not optimistic that anything will be done, the writer nonetheless calls on the relevant authorities to place the surviving tombstones in St Mary's in a protected enclosure and to arrange for the recording of their inscriptions.
Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies
4 April 2006