• A question of dating headstones

    In 1752 in Ireland and Britain the old Roman Julian Calander was replaced by the Gregorian calandar that we still use today. The main difference with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar was that the year started on January 1st, but before 1752 March 25th was legally the first day of the new year. This change in calendar is very clearly seen on a small number of purple slate headstones found throughout east Wicklow. For example, in Rathnew is a headstone to Else Byrne, who died aged 39; the date of her death is given as '7BER Ye 16 1732, i.e. September, which takes its name from the Latin septem, meaning seven, as this was the seventh month in the Julian calendar. However, the actual change in calendar that took place in 1752 is perfectly immortalised on a headstone in Arklow to Onour Edwards who died on 4th March '1752-3', i.e. the year after the change in calendar. At Newcastle is a headstone to William Roosk who died 'March ye 13 1749-50'. At first glance it may appear to the present-day onlooker that the stone cutter or the family who commissioned the stone actually forgot the year that the person died. This is not the case at all. This rendering of two years only occurs where the person died in the first three months of the Gregorian calendar, which according to the old Julian calendar were the last three months of the year. This was in fact an attempt to clarify to the contemporary viewer the actual year of death - both old and new. I like to compare this to more recently when we moved from the old Irish punt to euro, and for a brief time shops gave prices both in old and new money.

    This feature of the purple slate headstones in Wicklow is more than just a curiosity. It actually gives us a good idea of the length of time that it frequently took for a family to commission a headstone after the death of a loved one. For instance, there are a number of headstones with quite early examples of this switchover. At Trinity graveyard in Ballyhenry there is a stone to Peter Smith, who died aged 26 on January 18 1739-40. Similar examples occur at Wicklow (Michael Bryan, aged 82, Feb 7 1739-40) and Newcastle (John Byrn, aged 28, jan 20 1739-40). Here we have three examples of headstones where switchover in calendar is recorded some 12 years before it actually took place. Therefore, these headstones must have been commissioned by the relevant families at least 12 years after the deaths of these people. This is significant because it illustrates just how untrustworthy the date on a headstone is when it comes to dating the actual headstone itself.

    2 Comments

    • 1. Aug 23 2013 5:53PM by Rob Goodbody

      It is my understanding that as most of the rest of Europe was using the Gregorian calendar the system of using both years in the date during the first three months of the year in Britain and Ireland began long before the changeover. For instance, Swift wrote a note the day Stella died and gave the date as Sunday January 28, 1727-28. Swift himself died in 1745.

    • 2. Aug 28 2013 6:18PM by Fionnuala Parnell

      I have seen this also on late 17th century New England headstones in the Boston area. The influence of the settlers carried over.

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