St. Finbarre’s Cemetery, Cork City, is a very beautiful space.
Cemeteries are often forgotten about in the study of settlement. Despite their silent and reflective atmosphere, the varied architectural forms of graves and tombs can reflect how old a cemetery is, change and continuity of burial styles, and do illustrate indirectly changing cultural and political environments. Cemeteries are monuments of parochial identity and the varied cemetery and grave architecture depict people’s values and beliefs.
Richard Henchion in his history of Bishopstown, Wilton and Glasheen writes of very interesting history of St. Finbarre’s Cemetry. In the 1860s, 2,500 people died every year in Cork City and the search for a new burial place itself arose out of two main reasons; firstly, the city cemeteries were full with victims of cholera and fever epidemics and secondly, city graveyards possessed a public health crisis in the form of poisonous miasma or noxious exhalations from decomposing matter (Henchion, 2001).
To combat these problems, in 1860, a decision taken by Cork Corporation to attain land under acts enacted by Queen Victoria. Subsequently, a committee was set up but their initial search for burial space failed and the committee. Three years later, the Corporation teamed up with the Poor Law Guardians in an attempt to solve the problem. In addition, a group known as the Cork Cemeteries Co. Ltd. was established who wished to make money out of selling grave plots. Both the latter groups failed in their search for land, primarily due to local opposition in proposed areas for a new graveyard. The Corporation also objected to the financial objectives of the Cork Cemeteries Co. and in particular, Thomas Jennings on the city council condemned the company’s plans. Jennings suggested a site on Fair Hill, quite a distant away from his own property on the college Road. Sir John Arnott disagreed with this location outlining that this location was too open and desolate. During the debate, it was revealed that 444 internments had taken place in the city’s seven cemeteries, the previous year.
In May 1864, a public meeting was called by John Francis Maguire, the Mayor in an attempt to compromise on a site for a new graveyard. He highlighted that a place for 100,000 people was needed. Sir John Arnott suggested that a suitable site existed on twenty acres on the old college Road, to the rear of the Old County Gaol. Fees were a major issue and discussion was centred about the price of been buried within the new graveyard. However, another problem which arose from this proposes site were the objections by the Jenning family and residents in Wellington Square. They argued that a well or pump supplied 31 houses in Wellington Square and 55 other adjacent houses along with Queen’s College Cork (now University College Cork). The end result of this public meeting in 1864 was the setting up of a new committee headed by the Mayor; Sir John Arnott; C.J. Cantillon of Arbutus Lodge, Glamire Road; J.B. Booth, a corn merchant; Alderman Jameson; Ald. Cornelius Keller, miller; Alderman William Hegarty, tanner; Thomas Jennings, mineral water manufacturer; Mr. Scott and M. Collins (Henchion, 2001).
In 1866, this committee under the chair of the Mayor, Francis Lyons recommended that 23 acres on the Glasheen Road was a suitable area for burial plots. The boundaries of this land were regular, the land itself was level and the soil was sandy, rich and dry and nearly four metres in depth. The cost would be £600 to the occupying lease-holder and £125 to the tenant who was growing crops on the site. The land was bought and in April 1867, the corner stones of two of the mortuary chapels were laid by the Mayor in the centre of the cemetery to be known as St. FinBarre’s Cemetery. Costing £1000 each, the chapels were constructed from basalt from adjacent to the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim. One would serve Catholics while the other, Protestants of the city. Sir John Benson and Mr. Hunter were to be the architects of the chapel and the overall project was overseen by Richard R. Brash. Interestingly, in each corner stone, a cavity stone existed, in which a parchment was placed with the names of the Mayor and the City Council. The surrounding walls were constructed with stone from the surrounding quarries. In addition, a courtyard was proposed just outside the entrance to the graveyard in order to accommodate funeral carriages and this also would have gates and be designed by Sir John Benson.
In November 1867, Bishop John Gregg of St. FinBarre’s Cemetery consecrated the Mortuary chapel and the Protestant section. in December, the initial three internments took place; George Hayes, Blarney Street, Augustine Hurley, Dean Street and Florence Guy of Shanakiel. Both Hayes (aged 53) and Hurley (aged 16 died of consumption. Guy was the only one who attained a headstone. The first Catholic recorded as been buried in the graveyard was Mary Quinn, a widow residing at 7 Austin’s Lane. She died aged 76 and was buried on 15 January 1868 (Hennchion, 2001).
To supply water, an iron fountain was installed, which was designed by William Harris of Great Georges Street (now Washington Street). His other notable work in the city included lamp standards on the nineteenth century swivel structure of Parnell Bridge and the fountains in the English Market. Of course, with any development tribulations with financing the development itself arise. In April 1869, it was observed at a Corporation meeting that the income of the cemetery was not meeting the outgoings. One alderman who was also the treasurer did note that people cannot be compelled to die. The issue of water lodging was also brought up at this meeting and Richard Brash argued that drainage would be fixed. He did add that Catholics and Protestants were buried in the best ground. In another meeting, the question of employing a Catholic or a Protestant as a permanent registrar was a major issue. The choice lay between William Walsh, a Protestant who had occupied the post temporarily or John Saunders, a Catholic. The decision was solved through a vote; john Saunders won the post, 22 votes to 17
The deficiency of income continued in the winter of 1869. £11,000 had been spent on improving the drainage of the site with very little burials. Many Catholics were still buried within the overcrowded city graveyards leaving the majority of internments, Protestant in nature. When it was suggested by the Corporation that these should be closed, objections were rife, in particular complaining about the drainage of the cemetery, which at this stage had been sorted out. For the next twenty years, St. FinBarre’s Cemetery continued to operate but always under the shadow of financial debt. Indeed, in 1879, the gross receipts were £543, £491 of this came from burial fees. Gross expenditure came to £577, £500 of this was expended on the initial capital outlay (Henchion, 2001).
The total cost of the cemetery was £10,000 and this was paid for through a mortgage. This was to be repaid over twenty years at total cost of £15,250 which would also be paid for by increasing municipal rates by 1d. and 2d. It was envisaged that over time the sale of plots and the opening of plots would cause the rate levy to be disestablished. At the debates on the expenditure, there were for and against arguments to leave the cemetery. However, as one councillor suggested, the keeping open of the cemetery was an “unavoidable necessity”. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, financial debt was a problem and by 1890, the deficit was averaging £365 per annum. It was to be well into the twentieth century before the debt was cleared (Henchion, 2001).
Henchion, R., 2001, Bishopstown, Wilton and Glasheen, A picture of life in the three western suburbs of Cork from early days to modern times, Dahadore Publications, Cork.