Sunday, 6 October 2013

Peter Radcliffe and the Abbey Graveyard, Malahide

In the early 1870s, the then Lord Talbot de Malahide petitioned to close the Abbey graveyard, adjacent Malahide Castle, stirring up much resentment and anger in the parish of Malahide.  A court case taken by my maternal g-g-g-g grandfather, Peter Radcliffe, to stop the closure is still  remembered by my family today.  Here’s the full story.

© Dara Mcgivern, 2013,
Abbey Graveyard, Malahide Demesne, September 2013

Peter buried his wife of over forty years, Anne Radcliffe, in the graveyard in 1866, as well as his son, Christopher, in 1872.[1] Lord Talbot was both Peter’s landlord and his employer, yet Peter still played a leading role through the courts, so as to be permitted to be buried near his wife and son. Court records mostly perished during the civil war in Ireland, however, nineteenth-century court cases received extensive coverage in the newspapers, often being quoted word for word.

In February 1874, an inspector from the Local Government Board opened a public inquiry in the Royal Hotel in Malahide, to hear Lord Talbot’s petition. Talbot wanted to close the graveyard, believing it to be over-crowded and detrimental to the health of the castle residents.

Thirty-four local men brought a counter-memorial.

The inquiry heard talk of unpleasant smells and disease in the graveyard. One of the butlers at the castle, William Littleton, claimed to have seen ‘five skulls thrown up from one grave’ while the gatekeeper, Patrick Egan, contradicted, saying that the mourners were always ‘very particular’ in digging the graves. Medical doctors gave evidence of the overcrowded condition of the graveyard and its detrimental effects.  Other doctors argued that the graveyard was properly kept, not overcrowded and on the basis of eight or nine burials a year, it was not prejudicial to the health of the castle’s inhabitants.[2]

After consideration, the Board ordered the graveyard be closed, but the order was subsequently set aside by the Court of Queen’s Bench.

A new inquiry opened in November 1874 and heard basically the same evidence as before.[3] In December 1874, the Board told the solicitor acting for the locals that ‘they would not feel justified in closing the burial ground upon the conflicting evidence’ and that ‘they would not… proceed further in the case’. Public opinion, or certainly the opinion of the editor of the Freeman’s Journal was that a just victory had been won by the locals.[4]

It must have come as a great shock and disappointment to Peter Radcliffe and his neighbours, when, without further public inquiry, the Board issued an order, effective 1 June 1875, to close the graveyard. The Board had received a report from an analytical chemist and concluded that no further inquiry was necessary. Peter Radcliffe immediately took the case to the Court of Queen’s Bench and on 29 April 1875 he also wrote the following letter to the Editor of the Freeman’s Journal:[5]
Letter from Peter Ratcliffe, Freeman’s Journal, 30 April 1875

Agents for Lord Talbot responded immediately that ‘it would have been more consistent with propriety and good taste to have abstained from addressing and seeking to influence the public on a subject which is to be again brought before the tribunals of the country’.[6]

In May 1875, the Court of Queen’s Bench granted a conditional order setting aside the Board’s decision to close the graveyard. In June 1875, in a further case taken by Peter Radcliffe, the Court of Queen’s Bench made their order absolute. However, this was not the end of the matter and in October 1876, Lord Talbot again tried to have the graveyard closed. Another new inquiry reheard all the evidence. Peter Radcliffe was one of the witnesses deposed:[7]
Peter Radcliffe’s deposition, 
Irish Times, 7 October 1876
Peter Radcliffe deposed that he had lived at Malahide all his life. He had been at several burials. He knew the average number of persons buried there yearly from 1853 to 1873. The average number was between seven and eight. He had helped to make some of the graves, and generally speaking they were from five to six feet in depth. Once more were buried in the graveyard than there are now, because the population of Malahide has greatly decreased in numbers, thirty-seven families having become extinct. There are about forty-one families who have the right of interment in the burial ground. He had worked all his life – seventy years – at the Castle as a painter and plasterer. During that time about six persons died there, and he never experienced or heard a complaint of any bad smell arising from the graveyard. There was frequently a difficulty in opening the graves, and a pickaxe had often to be used.

Mr. Shekleton – Who consecrated the burial ground?

Witness – Father King did it roughly and Father Keeran put the gloss on it. (Laughter) There should be a space of about three feet six inches from the top of the coffin. He never heard that a coffin was buried at a depth of fourteen inches.

The Board concluded that from 1 January 1877 only eight burials a year could take place in the graveyard.[8]

Peter Radcliffe died on St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1887, aged about 90 years, and I’d like to think he is buried in the Abbey Graveyard with his wife, Anne. His name was never added to the headstone.


  1. Memorials of the Dead, no. 9, 1996, p. 153.
  2. Freeman’s Journal, 11 Feb. 1874.
  3. Freeman’s Journal, 17 Nov. 1874.
  4. Freeman’s Journal, 14 Dec. 1874.
  5. Freeman’s Journal, 3 May 1875; 30 Apr. 1875.
  6. Freeman's Journal, 3 May 1875.
  7. Irish Times, 7 Oct. 1876.
  8. Notice from Lord Talbot’s agent, 29 May 1877, in Roger Greene, Old Malahide, 2012, p. 126.

© 2013 Black Raven Genealogy


  1. Kudos to Peter Radcliffe for standing up for his rights, and for the rights of other families to have their loved ones buried in the Abbey graveyard. It is a shame it had to come to that. As well, kudos to him for making the facts of his plight known to the press. Hopefully 'kinder counsels' did prevail and his right to be interred with his wife was respected.

  2. My family were Morans and had the right to be buried in the graveyard. My great grand uncle Jem Moran (the village postman) was one of the final burials there. Well done to your ancestor. I know that it was very important to Jem to be buried there.


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