A personal perspective on the use of
Cantwell's Memorials of the Dead for Irish research
Rachel Murphy, Eneclann
Between 1966 and 1990 Brian J. Cantwell was one of Ireland's most eminent transcribers of gravestone inscriptions. In compiling information from gravestones, Cantwell visited over 500 sites and recorded many thousands of memorials which include all of counties Wexford and Wicklow, large parts of South County Dublin, much of West Clare, as well as parts of Cork, Kildare, Galway and Sligo.
The data Cantwell collected (which is now available to subscribers of Irish Origins) includes information on 24,392 individual memorials that include the names of 67,297 people, making it a fantastic source for anyone researching a family in the counties mentioned above. As a researcher, I have found this source particularly useful for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the Memorials of the Dead are of great value to the Irish family historian or local historian because, as Cantwell recognised at the time he began his task, many of the memorials had deteriorated to the point of no return, and several decades later the inscriptions recorded on these gravestones are no longer legible. In the interim, renovation work in a churchyard, or even redevelopment, has meant that all the memorials or gravestones have been moved and are no longer 'on site'.
Cantwell's collection ensures that our own and future generations can access these inscriptions that are no longer legible or available on site. In my own research, I've had the experience of locating a family grave only to find that the inscription was so badly weathered that I could not make it out. However, when I consulted Cantwell's Memorials of the Dead, I found that he had transcribed the full inscription, and as a result I was able to bring my research back a further generation.
Secondly, in my research I have found that individuals were often buried in their family's traditional burial ground, which may not be the nearest graveyard to where they lived in life. In one instance, I used Cantwell's Memorials of the Dead to make a breakthrough in my own research. My ancestor had died prior to the start of Irish civil registration in 1864, and the surviving burial registers for the parish only started in 1882. Despite several visits to the graveyard I was unable to find any graves that corresponded to this individual. However, a perusal of Cantwell's records revealed this individual, along with his children and his parents. It turned out that the entire extended family was buried in a graveyard about ten miles from where the family lived, across the border in a neighbouring county. Although I might have found this information eventually after ploughing through many parish registers and searching among hundreds of graves, my research was expedited by Cantwell's work.
Finally, as a source, Cantwell's Memorials of the Dead can sometimes allow you to identify new family connections that you were previously unaware of.
There are a couple of points worth noting about Cantwell's work. Firstly, he included a cut-off point when transcribing the data, out of respect for those who had died more recently - so you won't find any graves mentioned beyond 1900. Secondly, if an older grave is not mentioned, it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist - Cantwell transcribed all those graves that were visible, but did not try to uncover graves that were obscured by overgrown vegetation or where the inscription had been weathered beyond the point of legibility.
Certainly if you have ancestors in Wexford and Wicklow, South County Dublin, West Clare, Cork, Kildare, Galway and Sligo it is worth taking a look at this important dataset.
Eneclann is an award-winning Trinity College Campus Company based in Dublin, Ireland. Founded in 1998, the company offers a wide range of history and heritage services through its three divisions: publications and digitisation, historical research, and archives and records management.
The research team is led by Director of Research, Fiona Fitzsimons, a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (APGI). The team has undertaken family history research for hundreds of clients since its inception in 1998. Some of their research that has attracted publicity includes tracing President Barack Obama's family tree back to the eighteenth century and acting as researchers on the Irish, British, Canadian and Australian versions of the hit TV series Who Do You Think You Are? They are currently working with NBC on Faces of America.