I’ve been haunting St. Mary’s churchyard in Rathvilly on and off for the past few weeks. It’s surrounded almost entirely by houses, with the road to Tullow completing the circle, so it’s hard not to be seen. I’m sure people were wondering about the strange man returning every few days on his bicycle to crouch among the gravestones and scribble on pieces of paper. But on all my visits I only spoke to two people. One was a genial peer who came in his capacity as a parishioner to repair a capstone on a low wall. We discussed the strangeness of a ‘warped’ flat gravestone that has been sagging for nearly two centuries. The other was the friendly and helpful caretaker who also found the memorials interesting.
As you may have guessed, my haunting of the churchyard was for the purpose of transcribing the gravestone inscriptions. It was the conclusion of a small project I started exactly twenty years ago! In the summer of 1999, when I lived in Dublin, I was house-sitting for friends in my native Baltinglass. The weather was good and I felt like cycling. I decided to start transcribing the stones in Rathvilly Church of Ireland graveyard. I also toyed with following up with the Catholic graveyard in the heart of the village till I took a good look at its size and thought the better of it.
My work in 1999 progressed well. I put my notes away, thinking they should be typed up and published at some time. I mislaid them and periodically came across them, only to forget where they were, over and over. At one stage I suggested to the editors of the West Wicklow Historical Society Journal that I would submit the memorial transcriptions as an article. This year one of them reminded me of this. As I thought they would be the shortest route to a completed article and as I had recently rediscovered them, I promised the article. Incidentally, before you ask, Rathvilly is indeed in Co. Carlow, but it’s just over the border and the WWHS covers West Wicklow and environs. Besides, several Baltinglass parishioners are buried in Rathvilly.
It was only when I started typing up my notes that I realised that I hadn’t covered all the graves I had intended to. In any case, I knew there were many question marks that would have to be addressed. So back I cycled to the churchyard in the summer of 2019 and plodded about trying to make sense of my twenty-year-old findings. Many of the inscriptions were tricky and some downright impossible, so the project dragged on. I was back and forth to Rathvilly on relatively sunny days, eating my snacks on the Green like a cycling tourist, and latterly in the comfort of the newly opened Wild Flower Café. I have to admit that it was no real hardship. Transcribing gravestone inscriptions is fun for me and if I had the time I’d do it more often. But my clients’ reports are more pressing.
I remember once when I was in my early teens being in the cemetery in Baltinglass with my Dad. He walked on a bit but I was among the very old graves, standing on a flat stone, crouched down, intent on deciphering the wording. There was a yew tree to my left and I became aware of some activity near it. I rotated my downturned face to the left and there were two women crouching low to get a good look under the tree at what I might be doing. Once spotted, they straightened up quickly and went on their way. They were women well known for patrolling the town in search of trivial intelligence. I’m sure I gave an edge to their findings on that day. They certainly made me laugh!
So, today I celebrate the submission of my article on the Rathvilly church and churchyard memorials to the editors of the WWHSJ. The estimated publication date is in October. I must say thank you to Ger Clarke, caretaker of St. Mary’s, and Hazel Burgess, churchwarden, for their assistance in completing the project. And I hope that it gives more longevity to the memory of those buried at St. Mary’s.
What’s the oldest gravestone in St. Joseph’s graveyard in Baltinglass? I really don’t know. But I do know that it’s not the one with the earliest date on it. Am I confusing you? Well, there is a gravestone that includes ‘Michael Brophy who gave his life in Ireland’s cause at Baltinglass in 1798 aged 55 years’. The headstone and that inscription were put in place in the oldest part of the cemetery in about 1920 by Michael’s great-grandson, William Henry Brophy of Bisbee, Arizona, USA.
Michael Brophy was a prosperous farmer who lived in Rathmoon House (now Burke’s) but he was originally from north Kilkenny. He had twelve sons and one daughter. In the 1790s he was known to be involved in the United Irishmen. Family tradition suggested that he was at the Battle of Vinegar Hill in June 1798, after which he was captured and executed. Over a century later E.P. O’Kelly wrote that Brophy was hanged from a beam at the entrance to Tan Lane (on one side of Mill Street).
Michael’s son George, who was born in Kilkenny, attended Carlow College before training for the priesthood in Paris and Madrid. He returned to Paris and was ordained in 1798, the year of his father’s death. George spent decades in France before moving to the USA in 1843. He died in Davenport, Iowa, in 1880, reportedly at the age of 105. Rev. George Brophy moved in exalted circles and in his time met Napoleon Bonaparte and six American presidents, including Abraham Lincoln.
Another of Michael’s sons, William, was intended for the church but he decided it was not for him and emigrated to Canada where he practised law. His grandson Truman William Brophy, born in Illinois in 1848, became a dentist and then a medical doctor. In the late nineteenth century, based in Chicago, he pioneered surgical procedures to repair the cleft lip and palate. Truman Brophy travelled internationally performing operations and lecturing, and he published two books on the subject. His work alleviated the suffering of countless people born with the condition.
Another of Michael’s sons was James Brophy, who succeeded him in Rathmoon. In 1815 James married Catherine (‘Kitty’) Cullen of Prospect, Narraghmore, Co. Kildare. Kitty’s younger brother, Paul Cullen, became Ireland’s first cardinal in 1866. James and Kitty’s eldest son, Michael Brophy, succeeded to the Rathmoon property. He had married Matilda Lalor, from the Goresbridge area of Kilkenny. Michael and Matilda’s son William Henry (‘Billy’) Brophy was baptised in Baltinglass on 18 October 1863. He went to America when he was aged 17, arriving in New York with his cousin Hugh on 11 April 1881.
Billy Brophy gravitated to the mining settlement of Bisbee, Arizona, where his older brothers had already begun to work. A mercantile, mining and banking career ultimately made him a millionaire. When the USA entered the First World War in 1917, Brophy became a ‘Dollar-a-Year’ man. He was one of a number of high powered businessmen who gave their expertise for a token salary of $1 plus expenses. He was based in Paris for the duration.
It was shortly afterwards that he had the gravestone erected in Baltinglass to his grandparents, James and Kitty, and to his great-grandfather Michael Brophy, the 1798 rebel. In the early 1920s he moved to Los Angeles. In November 1922, while on a fishing trip in the Gulf of California, Billy Brophy was swept overboard in a storm and drowned. He was aged 59. Mass was celebrated for him in Baltinglass a few months later. In 1928 in his honour his widow, Ellen Amelia, founded Brophy College Preparatory, a Jesuit boys’ school, in Phoenix, Arizona. The stained glass windows of its Brophy Chapel were designed and executed by artists from Dublin’s An Túr Gloine.
2013 (when this post was first aired on Facebook) was the 150th anniversary of the birth in Baltinglass of William Henry Brophy, who erected the gravestone with the earliest date in the oldest part of St. Joseph’s graveyard. But it’s not the oldest gravestone.
One of the most recognisable structures in Baltinglass is the tower in St. Joseph’s Graveyard on Chapel Hill. Standing almost alone beside the central pathway, it evokes thoughts of times gone by. There is a haunting picturesque quality about it. Familiar as it is, many people have only a vague idea of how it came to be there. Is it the last remnant of the old church? Has it something to do with Catholic Emancipation? Is it part of an old castle?
Today, as you look up the central pathway, the tower is in the middle of the graveyard. Until 1938, when the graveyard was extended up the hill, the tower formed part of its upper boundary wall. Further back again, before the area to the left of the central pathway was added to the cemetery in 1903, the tower occupied the north-east corner of the much smaller cemetery. The lowest part to the right of the central pathway was not part of the grounds before that time either; small houses once stood there. Before 1903 you would have entered the graveyard through the gateway in what was the south-west corner. The gate still stands, but like a forgotten old favourite, above its rows of crooked granite steps. When that gate was in its heyday it was the entrance to the chapel yard. Directly inside it was the chapel and on the somewhat higher ground to the north was the small cemetery area. Standing in the corner above the graves and at some distance from the chapel was the tower. Beside the boundary wall, a narrow flight of steps ran up from the chapel towards the tower. The steps are still to be seen.
Before the end of the 1820s the tower was less conspicuous, partly because it was not as tall then but also because the chapel obscured its view. Chapel Hill got its name from this chapel. When it was built, possibly in the late eighteenth century, the term ‘church’ officially related to a Church of Ireland place of worship. All other denominations had chapels or meetinghouses. Throughout most of the eighteenth century the Penal Laws were in force in Ireland. They were aimed at bolstering the position of the Protestant ruling class and they restricted the religious practices of Roman Catholic and Protestant Non-Conformist denominations. One of these laws forbade priests from officiating in a chapel with a steeple or bell. Luke Gardiner’s second Catholic Relief Act, passed in 1782, removed many restrictions on priests and Catholic worship but retained the prohibition regarding a steeple or bell.
Throughout the period of the Penal Laws their enforcement depended very much on the attitude of those in power locally. By the late eighteenth century most of the laws had been dismantled and those that remained could be flouted in many cases. It is probably in these circumstances that our bell tower was first constructed. It was built several yards away from the chapel so that, technically, no law was being broken. Chapel Hill was an established place-name by 1802 but the chapel may not have been very old by then, as it was called ‘the new chapel’ in a deed of 1799. The tower may well have been built at the same time as the chapel.
When Catholic Emancipation was enacted in 1829 it removed all remaining restrictions on Catholic worship. Rev. Henry Young, a charismatic missionary priest, is said to have been responsible for raising funds locally for a new bell, made in Dublin that year. It is said that at the same time the tower was raised to its present height, with the castellated finish. The Parish Priest responsible for this was Rev. John Shea, who had been in Baltinglass for over twenty years.
At some stage, not necessarily in 1829, a rectangular plaque was placed on the tower. At its centre is a cross. Above that is an inscription in Greek which apparently translates as ‘Glory to God in the highest’. Below the cross is the very strange ‘Shea Mont Castle’ and below that ‘Anno Domini 1829’. What exactly was meant by the words ‘Shea Mont Castle’ is uncertain but the inscription is clearly in English and is not an abbreviation of a longer text. Presumably it relates to Father Shea’s building up of the tower, but it has given rise to the mistaken belief that the tower is that of a castle called ‘Shea Mont’.
In the 1850s, when the present St. Joseph’s church was ready for divine worship, the decaying chapel on Chapel Hill was abandoned. The clock tower of the new church was not completed until the 1890s. Up to that point the bell in the tower in the graveyard continued to be rung to summon parishioners to Mass. The 1829 bell was then transferred to the church in Stratford, where it remained in use until the 1930s.
[First published in The Review 2009: a year in the life of Baltinglass, Bigstone, Grangecon and Stratford]
I'm a genealogist by profession, with credentials from AGI. I also dabble in local history and the history of Irish golfers, and I'm always writing something!