Saturday, 2 June 2018

Grave matters – Athgarvan Burial Ground

A recent visit to Ireland by a new-found cousin from the U.S. prompted the search for our mutual third great-grandfather's grave. Here's what we already knew about Andrew Byrne: Andrew married Anne Clinch/Clynch in Suncroft parish, Co. Kildare, in 1833. They then made their home in Athgarvan, five miles away, on the other side of the Curragh. Andrew remained in Athgarvan until his death on 25 October 1872, leaving Anne behind to mourn his passing.

Historically, burial registers were rarely maintained for Catholic graveyards in Ireland, and until the twentieth century, generally only well-off families could afford to place a permanent marker on their loved-one’s grave. So, it’s not as if I expected to ever find actual proof of Andrew’s burial. But, it would be nice to know his probable burial place.

Graveyard at Athgarvan, c.1837-42

Ordinance survey maps show there was a small graveyard in Athgarvan about 1840.[1] And, when Griffith's Valuation for the area was published in 1852, it confirmed the graveyard measured one rood (an old measure equal to a quarter of an acre). It was situated on land occupied by Joseph R. Reeves, who had by then built a large farmhouse between the Grave Yard and the Flour Mill. Andrew Byrne lived in one of the cottages shown on the left edge of the above map, so if this graveyard was still in use in 1872, it seems likely he was buried there.[2]

This was an ancient burial ground. A church stood on the site in 1640, when it was included in a list of parochial churches drawn up by the then Bishop of Kildare, Dr Roche MacGeoghegan.[3] It also appeared on a map of the county created in 1752, though it is unclear how well it was surviving the (anti-Catholic) Penal Laws.[4] There was certainly no trace of the church in 1840 (map above), when only the graveyard remained. It’s possible, numerous, as yet unknown, generations of my Kildare family were buried there.

Church at Athgarvan, 1752

In August 1888, the Local Government Board held an Inquiry to consider a petition by T.B. Reeves’ to close the Athgarvan graveyard. Sixty people claiming burial rights objected.[5] This all sounds very familiar. The same thing happened in Malahide, Co. Dublin, and, in that case, Peter Radcliffe, my fourth great-grandfather, was also forced to defend his burial rights through the courts. 

At the Inquiry, T.B. Reeves claimed the graveyard was full. This must have annoyed the locals. Several witnesses alleged the Reeves family had already appropriated a portion of the cemetery for their vegetable garden.[6] And, given the cemetery then measured only twenty-seven perches, when there were forty perches in a rood, this may have been true.

T.B. Reeves cited bad smells coming from the graveyard, with bones and skulls frequently being thrown up. Nothing like a bit of scaremongering to progress the cause!  But, medical doctors, the area sanitary officer, and even the court-appointed 'expert' disagreed with him. They concluded further burials would cause no 'threat to public health', nor 'insult to public decency', and the Inquiry adjourned to allow the people register their burial claims.[7]

It seems, there is every chance Andrew Byrne, his wife Anne, and as many of their children that so desired, were buried in this graveyard.

River Liffey, from Athgarvan Bridge, April 2018

In the above photograph, the cemetery is situated among the copse of trees, just behind the weir, on the right-hand banks of the River Liffey. Unfortunately, it remains on private property, with no access to the public. This may be as close as we’ll ever get to paying our last respects to Andrew and Anne Byrne. Still, as final resting places go, if they truly were buried here, theirs really is quite spectacular!

[1] Ordnance Survey Ireland, Historic map 6-inch Colour, c.1837-42 (GeoHive).
[2] Griffith’s Valuation, 1853, Blackrath and Athgarvan, Greatconnell, Co. Kildare (Ask about Ireland).
[3] Michael Comerford, Collections relating to the Dioceses of Kildare and Leighlin, vol. ii (Dublin, 1886). p. 296 (Ask about Ireland)
[4] J. Noble & J. Keenan, Map of county Kildare (Daniel Pomarede, Dublin, 1752) (
[5] Kildare Observer and Eastern Counties Advertiser, 28 July 1888, p. 5.
[6] Same, 4 August 1888, p. 5.
[7] Same.


  1. How fabulous you were able to collaborate with your cousin on this! Is there no chance of the owner permitting you access?

    1. Perhaps, Ellie, but I'm not good at knocking on doors, or rather ringing the bell at the end of their driveway.

  2. What an interesting history of a graveyard. I just love little private graveyards. In Greene County, Virginia, where many of ancestors were from, there are many homes with little cemeteries in the backyard. If I were to own such a property, I would tend those graves like they were my own. Just so amazing. Your family's resting place looks like it would be quite lovely and peaceful. Who wouldn't want to die there?

    1. Yes, it looks like a very peaceful place.

  3. It’s amazing that you even found it! I’m not a door-knocking kind of person either, but I think I would in this case. On my genealogy journey I find that most people like to be accommodating ...and the worst they can say is Bug Off!
    Where my ancestors lived in Ontario there was no church or formal graveyard for many years, so one guy let neighbours bury their loved ones on a corner if his property. Later when a formal and planned cemetery was made most of them were moved to the new cemetery. There are still quite a few left there and access is not easy, but it is possible and the owners of the land don’t mind.

    1. We seem to have a lot of old 'Catholic' graveyards on private grounds in Ireland, Dianne, perhaps a legacy of the Penal Laws, but it was never commonplace to move people, when a new cemetery opened. I imagine that might cause some confusion, unless good records were maintained.


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