Instruments of the Passion in West Clare Graveyards

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By Donal De Barra
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The ‘Instruments of the Passion’ is a loose term used as a collective for a group of motifs or icons used to portray the Passion of Christ. Besides the crucified Christ, the most common motifs include: a ladder, thirty pieces of silver, a cock and pot, hammer, nails, pincers and sun moon and stars. An alternative term, in common use is ‘Arma Christi’. They may appear in print, such as illustrations attached to early religious manuscripts1, on wood carvings, such as penal crosses, which were popular in the eighteenth century and most especially on stone carvings for gravemarkers. Diarmuid O Keeffe has written a detailed article covering the history and social and political significance of the Instruments of the Passion2. The purpose of this article is to highlight their occurrence in West Clare and to give some detail of content and location.
The genre can be dated back as far as the fourth or fifth century3 but the earliest extant Clare example is from the old Friary in Ennis where the carving called ‘Ecce Homo’ or ‘Christ’s Pity’4  shows the risen Christ surrounded by a number of common icons. This carving is dated to the fifteenth century5  and it was believed that indulgences could be gained by meditation on images such as this. Like the Stations of the Cross these icons were ‘prayer-books’ to those who could not read.
The use of the Instruments of the Passion on tombstones in Ireland appears to have originated in the counties around Dublin about the fifteenth century. Ada Longfield began, during the 1940’s, to record  eighteenth century examples in Wicklow, Wexford, Carlow, Louth, Tipperary, Offaly and Roscommon6. Diarmuid O Keeffe expanded on Longfield’s work in Tipperary, and recorded many nineteenth century stones there. Examples are also common in Kilkenny7 and isolated instances (at least) occur in Waterford7, Limerick8 and Kerry9.
All the stones in West Clare date to the nineteenth century but they were very numerous and widespread, in that time.
Unfortunately very few of the stones are signed by the masons who carved them, exceptions are the Cusacks of Kilrush, whose surname, with different initials, appears over a wide geographical and chronological span. The Troy brothers from Bansha also signed some of the stones. ‘ Funny’ Haren of Letterkelly is also known to have worked on some, though his signature does not appear. In Kilofin an early example dated 1818 seems to be signed by Padraig O Nunán. It is very likely that the Doherty family, many of whom were masons, carved their own grave flags at least - Flags at Freagh, Kildimo and Killard, for that family have particularly high quality work. Amongst the others, compositional similarities make it possible to classify some as being by the same hand but the names of those craftsmen are not known to this author.
The mapshows an approximate distribution around North and West Clare, although the North of the county is mostly noted for its absences. The figures given must be read as indications only,  because there is no precise definition of the genre. For instance, a cross on its own or with, say, sun and moon has not been included in the figures. Although the general condition of the West Clare Graveyards is very good it is still all too easy to overlook important examples.
The Icons which I have observed in Clare are noted below and examples of  all of them can be seen in the attached photographs. It is, however, sometimes difficult to interpret the intentions of the sculptor and their designs are often further obscured by erosion.
Crucifix:  this is usually the centrepiece of the composition. Occasionally there is a cross without the figure of the crucified Christ and John Daly has suggested that this indicates that family involved were not Catholic. There are examples with neither Cross nor Crucifix and in  Killnagalliagh there is a stone which uses a ship as the centrepiece.
IHS and INRI: these are very common. The former is an abbreviation for ‘Jesus’ and the later stands forIesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, which translates as `Jesus of Nazareth, Kingof the Jews'.
30 Pieces of silver: the money received by Judas for betraying Christ. Usually divided into two columns of 15. (In other parts of the country the actual number of coins may be haphazard)
Spears: often there are two spears. In the story of the Passion Longinus pierced the side of Christ with a spear.
Hearts: often there are two hearts or a single heart maybe shown inverted.
Sun Moon and Stars: the sun and moon are very common, the stars somewhat less so.
Cock and Pot: a very common motif, representing the story of Peter telling his wife of the crucifixion and anticipated resurrection after three days, his wife replies, to the effect that the resurrection of Jesus is as likely as that the chicken which is boiling in a pot nearby will come back to life, whereupon the chicken flies up and crows from the top of the pot. Folklore tells us that what the cock actually said when he crew was ‘Mac na hÓighe slán’ the Son of the Virgin is saved and cocks have been saying this ever since, even though pedants might only hear it as cock-a-doodle-doo.
Scales: this could represent the scales of justice, although this is hardly directly relative to the passion. It could also refer to the belief that on the day of judgment St Michael will evaluate all our lives by putting our rights and wrongs on opposite sides of a balance and from the result decide our eternal destiny. The Doherty, 1884 stone in Freagh shows the scales being held by an angel. The dedication of the parish of Kilmihil to the Archangel Michael might help explain the prevalence of this icon in Clare, as it is rare elsewhere, one of the few other examples being a stone  in St Mullins, Carlow, which shows an angel, named as St. Michael, holding a scales in one hand, this stone, however, does not  have any of the ‘standard’ instruments of the passion.11
Ladder: used to take the body of Christ from the cross, this is very common.
Hammer, pincers and nails: the nails or one of them, are often in the jaws of the pincers.
Keys: the keys of the Kingdomof Heaven. As with the scales this icon seems to be exclusive to Clare.
Shovel: sometimes there are two, but they might seem inappropriate, as Christ was interred in a tomb and not buried. Possibly they represent tools used to dig the hole in which the cross was ‘planted’. They are not used in other parts of the country. It is also suggested that they are the working tools of the person who is being commemorated by the headstone but they are the tools of a labouring man and these were unlikely to be able to afford elaborate tombstones.
Herald Angels and Cherubs: these are commonly used for artistic balance.
Chalice and remonstrance: very common, probably because they were easier to carve. John Daly suggests that the positioning of the chalice on a dais indicates a non-catholic family
Urns: As with chalices, these were easy to carve. T J Westropp suggests that these “crept from the monuments of the gentry to the tombstones of the peasantry”12
Soldiers: representing Longinus and Stephaton, the former pierced Christ’s side with a lance and the later proffered a vinegar soaked sponge to Jesus on his lance.
Serpent: often enclosed within a circle or, the crucifix by its position, may be shown as triumphing over the serpent of evil.
Foliage: John Daly suggests that this may represent the plant, growing in the vicinity of the crucifixion, which yielded the vinegar-like substance used by Stephaton and/or a straw used to suck up the vinegar. Elsewhere representations of foliage have been interpreted as the sceptre of reeds which was placed in Christ’s hand, but the Clare examples are all in horizontal position, where vertical would seem more appropriate for a sceptre.
Tools of the trade of the deceased: these are sometimes incorporated, often in a separate section, for the trades of farmers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. At least one stone in Kilmurry Ibrickane incorporates the set square and compass symbol of free-masonry.
Borders:  are often elaborate and may be based on lozenge, scalloped, spiral or floral designs.
Other: a bird, presumably a dove of peace, and  heads at the four corners in the border are part of one particular design. Also candlesticks, The Blessed Virgin, a horse or donkey, a ship. The sword of St. Peter (and Malcus’  ear which Peter severed) occur only once in Clare but are more common in the east of the country.
Among the icons which are common elsewhere in the country but rare in Clare are: a representation of the tomb itself, temples, the cock on scourging pillar rather than on the pot, crown of thorns, seamless garment, dice (used by soldiers at the foot of the cross) and dice-box, the scourge, a flail (?), a piece of rope (used to tie Jesus to the scourging pillar?), the sponge for the vinegar is often shown on a stem of hyssop, and a lantern.
The pictures on the following pages illustrate the various icons. Such is the variety of stones across West Clare that it is not possible within the space available to give a representative cross section. A wider selection of photographs together with a more comprehensive bibliography is available to members on the website In addition to the photos here there are relevant illustrations by Hillary Gilmore in past editions of The Other Clare: 25(2001), Front cover; 13 (1989) p 30,31. If readers have further information about these stones or the masons who carved them, I would be very interested to hear from them (phone 065 7084156 or email
I am grateful to John Daly, Maura Egan and Treasa De Barra for valuable information and assistance.
1. Illustrations of the passion of Christ in the Seanchas Búrcach Manuscript.  Bernadette Cunningham, in Art And Devotion In Late Medieval Ireland. Editors: Moss, O Clabaigh & Ryan.
2. Instruments of the Passion on the Gravestones of South Tipperary, Diarmuid O Keeffe in Tipperary Historical Journal 2001
3. Ibid.
4. Irish Medieval Figure Sculpture, John Hunt, 1974, p111
5. The Franciscans in Ennis, Patrick Conlan OFM, p.17.
6. Ada Longfield (Mrs H.G.Leask) has written the following articles, all published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland:
                Some 18th Century Irish Tomb-stones. 1. Introduction. Dennis Cullen of Monaseed. JRSAI 73         (1943) p. 29-39.
                Some 18th Century Irish Tomb-stones. II. Miles Brien. JRSAI 74 (1944) p 63-72.
                Some 18th Century Irish Tomb-stones. III James Byrne and his School. JRSAI 75 (1945) p.76-88
                Some 18th Century Irish Tomb-stones. IV. J Butler, Hugh Rogan, David Doyle etc. JRSAI 76              (1946) p.81-88
                Some Late 18th and Early 19th Century Irish Tomb-stones. V. Subjects not related to the   Crucifixion. Saints and Scenes by Kehoe, at St Mullins, and by an unknown Carver, at   Termonfeckin. JRSAI 77 (1947) p. 1-4
                Some Late 18th and Early 19th Century Irish Tomb-stones. VI. EastCountyLouth. JRSAI 78               (1948) p. 170-174
                Some 18th Century Irish Tomb-stones VII. Clonmel, Kiltoom, Seir Keiran etc. JRSAI 84 (1954) p.      173-178
7. The O Kerin School of Monumental Sculpture in Ossory and its Environs in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century ,  Margaret M Phelan, in  JRSAI, 126 (1996) p.167-181.
8. MacCragh Tomb, Lismore Cathedral.
9. Ballyhea graveyard and Nantanan, near Rathkeal.
10. Lislaughtin, near Ballylongford.

11. Longfield (1947)  Op. Cit.
12. Ancient Remains Near Miltown,   T J Westropp, Journal of the Limerick Field Club  3(9)  1905
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