Helping The Dead Find Their Voices: Q&A With Historic Graves’ John Tierney

The Dominican Priory - Athenry
John Tierney is the director of the Historic Graves project in Ireland, taking place in historic graveyards across Ireland.  With a combination of GPS, smart phone, and Internet technology, local community groups are documenting individual graves, and creating links between those graves and the stories of their occupants on the project’s website.

John and his partners at Eachtra Archaeological Projects provide the technology and training for local community groups to do the groundwork, a hi-tech meld of archaeology and genealogy research.  Tierney hopes the new technology will enrich the experience of historical tourism in Ireland.

The Wild Geese’s Daniel
e-mailed a few questions to Tierney about his work with the Historic Graves project.

The Wild Geese
What inspired you to take this project on, John, and how did it get started?

Tierney (left):
We have been working on historic graveyards as field archaeologists for the last 15 years, but we felt that conventional surveys were missing the rich oral histories of each graveyard. We built the historic graves website to connect surveys with rich, hyperlocal heritage media.

A geo-located headstone photograph is uploaded to the website and associated
stories (audio or video) can be attached to that grave memorial. People have been recording and publishing Irish graveyard memorials for the last 300 years, and we have applied modern technologies to that tradition. We see ourselves as following in the footsteps of those previous researchers -- but digitally enabled. A 5 MP digital photograph of a headstone is a very detailed record: Imagine it also geotagged as searchable within a database!

We are field archaeologists and we apply the techniques we have learned over the years to community training and community surveys. Some people love the project because of its local history benefits; others love the genealogy or the archaeology. We leverage modern technology to benefit each community and at the same time build a scientifically rigorous database.

The project is a collaboration between field archaeologists, local communities, local authorities and local development agencies throughout Ireland. Community groups have long been engaged in recording and caring for their local graveyards, and we provide them with training and digital tool-sets for achieving their goals.

Ardmore, Waterford

WG: When is a grave considered historic?  Are there any graves that  would not be historic?

Tierney: Irish historic graveyards are considered to predate the early 20th century. Many of the graveyards we work in are medieval in origin – in some cases encapsulating over 1,000 years of continuous usage. (My own neighboring graveyard in Ardmore, County Waterford, is one of those, and the small graveyard we worked on today in Killea, north Tipperary, may be another.)

Other graveyards we work in may have only been founded in the late 19th century, but headstones from the 1860 to 1920s can tell us a lot about our recent history. We study those also -- in one graveyard we had an Old IRA member buried alongside an officer in the Royal Navy -- these reflect the geopolitical complexities of Irish history. Many Irish graveyards were closed in the 1930s, and we will survey those also. In some graveyards, a modern graveyard exists alongside an historic graveyard and we do not survey the modern graveyard.

Kilmacduagh, Co. Galway 

WG: The information on the graves and the stories of their occupants are openly available online.  Given that some people get uptight about even their homes being viewable on Google Earth, I'd imagine there could be even greater sensitivity about such public information about their dead relations. Is the research always being done by friends/relatives of the deceased?  If not, is there any risk of families seeing a violation of privacy in putting this information online? 

Tierney: The surveys are done by the local communities themselves. We address issues of sensitivity by relying upon the judgment and knowledge of the local community groups. Most of the memorials we record are well over 100 years old.  If newer headstones are recorded, it is because they represent the modern usage of an ancient site. We regularly have family members recording their own family graves and telling stories of their ancestors. In the last one-and-a-half years, we have had no complaints about privacy, but if asked to unpublish individual headstones it can be done in an instant.

WG: Can you tell me anymore about the headstone you were led to of an apparently 219-year old man in St. John's Graveyard in Knockainey?

Knockainey graveyard

Tierney: Knockainey graveyard (has been the subject of an excellent survey led by a retired school teacher and field archaeologist named Michael Quinlan. Michael led us to the wonder of the oldest man in Ireland.

People in south Limerick have a reputation for longevity, and maybe this man was the kingpin of longevity. Alternatively, the stonecarver was given bad information or even made a mistake in the carving. Mistakes in headstone carvings are a fascinating side-issue of the project.

WG: John, good luck with the project and thanks for your time!  More information on the Historic Graves project, including links to Irish historic graves, maps and stories, is all available at .

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Tags: "John, Historic Graves, Preservation, Tierney, graves

Comment by Bit Devine on April 3, 2013 at 4:28pm


Quite interesting , this project. Will it cover all 32 counties, eventually?

I am always at photographing headstones in graveyards. I have waded through bramble and briar to get to some amazing stones. I photograph them more to document the carvings. However, I have had folk request that I look for a specific headstone to aid in their genealogy research.  One of my favorite graveyards to photograph is in St Mullins. It is so jam packed with modern and ancient headstones. including, I believe,  headstones for the Kings of Leinster dating back in to teh mid 1700 period.


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