In the parish of Kilmore, in the very south of Co. Wexford, persists a peculiar funerary custom that may have medieval origins. It involves members of the funeral cortege leaving a cross, traditionally fashioned from left-over coffin wood, at a specific tree. Overtime this custom has led to many crosses collecting around the ‘sacred’ tree, which is normally a hawthorn bush located close to a crossroads.
The area around Kilmore was heavily settled during the Anlgo-Norman invasion of Ireland and it maintained a distinctive identity right down to the early modern period. Centred on the baronies of Forth and Bargy, it had its own dialect, known as Yola, which was based on Old/Middle English (with Irish and French loan words incorporated). Although the Yola language became extinct in the 19th century, many of the unique customs of this region persisted, including placing wooden crosses beneath certain trees.
This funerary tradition was also once popular in the regions of Normandy and Picardy in France (J.H 1925, p.42), which has led some historians to speculate that it may have been introduced to Wexford by the Anglo-Normans (see Colfer 2008). Although this remains uncertain, the custom was certainly practised in the early 19th century, when the antiquarian artist, George Victor du Noyer sketched the Kilmore crosses (see image below). More information on the custom can be gleamed from the National Folklore Commission’s collections, which include a number of descriptions of the practise, including:
This custom has been commonly practised at Brandycross, Sarshill and Tenacre all in the neighbourhood of the old churches of Kilturk, Tomhaggard and Kilmore and also at Barrow in Wexford. In all these places the pieces of wood remaining over from the boards out of which the coffin has been made were fashioned into crosses a couple of feet high and painted in various colours. These were then carried by the chief mourners and placed on or at the foot of a hawthorn or ash tree convenient to the cross roads nearest to the graveyard towards which the funeral wends its sorrowful way (as told by Mr Thomas Doyle, Aged 53, from Ballyask, Kilmore in 1938)
It is reassuring to see that this old tradition is still honoured today, long may it continue (the photo of the crosses at the top of the blog post and the sketch below show the same location, but separated by 168 years).
Colfer, B. (2008) Wexford : A Town and it’s Landscape, Cork University Press
J. H. (1925) ‘Ancient Funeral Custom in Kilmore Parish’ in The Past: The Organ of the Uí Cinsealaigh Historical Society, No. 3, pp. 41-46