Headstones & Memorials – Ken Thompson
‘Some of the best things are secret and unregarded for years’ wrote Sir John Betjamin in a book on Irish Churchyard Sculpture. He refers, of course, to those stones (mostly 18 century) executed before 1830. After this date, churchyard sculpture and inscriptions lose their vigour, innate sense of design, inventiveness and humour. However, the skill and working traditions in the stone trade in Ireland survived up until the 1940s.
Seamus Murphy served his time in a stoneyard just before this tradition vanished. Ironically, his Art School education led him to discover that he belonged to a tradition which made no distinction between Art and Craft. Inscriptional work in stone, therefore, became a natural extension of his work as a sculptor. The country abounds with his inscriptions, especially on his innumerable headstones. Mostly these stones have a characteristic simplicity, finely proportioned and sympathetically worked, carrying a terse inscription in Roman lettering. Others have involved considerable work and include, for example, an intricate cross, a tender Mother and Child, or a poignant carving of the tools of the dead man’s trade. All bear witness to his concern for quality, his humour and his compassion. These headstones are signed and, although not dated, they were usually executed a year or two after the death of the person commemorated.
Seamus Murphy was essentially a stone carver, and many of his finest works went into our Churchyards. They belong to a venerable tradition and are among ‘some of the best things’.