Eighteenth-Century Funerals in Ireland

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There are, possibly, few of us who, making an early and painful acquaintance with Poetry, did not have to memorise these lines by the Rev. Charles Wolfe, descriptive of the burial of Sir John Moore after the battle of Corunna on 13th January, 1809 :

We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sod with our bayonets turning;
By the struggling moonbeam’s misty light,
And the lantern dimly burning.

Privately, we probably thought the “dead of night” and the “lantern” were part of the usual melodrama beloved by poets. To-day’s youth would accept them merely as part of an elementary “black-out” so much have we advanced on the paths of civilisation. Actually, though the burial took place early in the 19th century, it was merely carrying on a practice common in the 18th. Burial at night was, in fact, quite the customary thing. Richard Helsham, a celebrated Dublin physician, gave directions in his will, made in 1738, that he was to be buried at night, with only one attendant, bearing a taper, to be present.  Miss Grizel Steevens too, in her will, made in 1740, directed that she should be buried late at night in St. Peter’s Church. In point of fact, she was buried in Steeven’s Hospital, and not once only, but three times.(1) Dr. Kirkpatrick suggests that it was customary to exhume and rebury a coffin after the lapse of a week, and he proffers a rather unsavoury theory for this practice, though quite possibly it was to make sure that the body-snatchers had not been at work. In the case of” Madame Steevens,” the third interment took place when her remains were removed for burial in the Hospital Chapel.

The Flying Post of 13th March, 1733, gives a description of one of these night interments: “On Friday night last the late Chief Justice Doyne was interred in St. Nicholas’ Church, in a very private, though decent manner, his hearse being adorned with black plumes and velvet pall, and his bearers, who were some of the chief men in our Kingdom, with the attendants, wearing fine linen scarves and cambric hatbands.”

These scarves and hatbands, which are still worn in some country parts of Ireland, are also recorded as having been worn at the funeral in 17302 of a nephew of Dr. William King, Protestant Archbishop of Dublin. The scarves were described as being of Irish holland, and the hatbands of Irish cambric. Four years later, the cause of Irish industry was further allied to funerals by a law which stipulated that after 1st August, 1734, no corpse was to be buried in any garment made of or mingled with flax, hemp, silk, hair, gold or silver, or in any stuff or thing other than that made of sheep or lamb’s wool, nor was the coffin to be lined with anything save the same materials.3 The object was to encourage the woollen trade, and merely put into operation in Ireland a provision which had existed under English legislation since 1666.4 This enactment was repealed in 1814, but had fallen into disuse many years before; In fact, those who objected to the law (and they seem to have been many), ignored its ukase and paid the fine instead. In England the fine was to be divided equally between the informer and the Government, and it was not unusual, when the executors made up their minds to defy the law, for one member of the family to inform, which in effect reduced the fine on the family to one-half the prescribed penalty.4 That may have been the reason why the Irish Act, passed 68 years after the English one, is silent on the disposition of the fine of five pounds imposed for breach of the law.

References :

1, Kirkpatrick: History of Dr. Steevens’ Hospital
2. Dublin Gazette, 15 Aug., 1730
3. Statute: 7 Geo.II, c.13
4. Tate: The Parish Chest.

An extract from an article titled “An Eighteenth Century Miscellany” written by Thomas King Moylan  and published in the Dublin Historical Record, Vol. X, No. 2. June-Aug 1948

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