Some people have a hard time passing shoe shops or pubs or art galleries. Me, I find it difficult to pass a cemetery. I’ve never visited one yet that wasn’t worth stopping for. Tea Lane Graveyard in Celbridge, although exceptional, was no exception. If that makes sense.
The gate was locked when we stopped by, but luckily for us the keeper of the keys was inside and let us in. The Maunsell chapel, first remodelled by a nineteenth-century family of bankers and politicians, is undergoing renovation and while work is going on, visits are supervised. For once I was grateful for the insurers and their fine print because we got the history of the place from the very knowledgeable Breda, a woman whose love of cemeteries might just edge out my own. And that’s saying something.
I hadn’t known that Ireland once had five great roads – Slighe Asail, Slighe Midhluachra, Slighe Cualann, Slighe Mhór, Slighe Dala. Nor did I know that Slighe Mhór passed through Celbridge on its way towards Galway Bay. On that route lies Tea Lane, so called because of the Yorkshiremen who came to work at the local mill. They were tea drinkers and had a habit of throwing their tea leaves out onto the street. So the locals took to calling it Tae Lane, tae being Irish for tea and pronounced tay – hence Tay Lane.
St Mochua (whose feast day is my birthday, and is not to be confused with any of the other 57 St Mochuas of Irish fame) set up a monastery on Tea Lane back in the sixth century (Tay and Tea are used interchangeably throughout the cemetery). There’s still an annual pilgrim walk along the Grand Canal on the first Sunday in August after his feast day. He built a wooden church, which was replaced with a stone church, of which the east gable wall still stands. Interestingly (for me at any rate), the east wall window faces Jerusalem.
Those buried here rank among the Who’s Who of Irish history. For such a small, relatively unknown place, it’s a little gem.
The Dongans, formerly of Castletown Estate, are present in all their former glory. William, the first Earl of Limerick and his son Walter, who fought at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, are both buried here. William’s brother Thomas, the second Earl of Limerick, was perhaps a tad more famous. As former Governor of New York, his memory lives on in Castleton and Dongan Conner, both neighbourhoods on Staten Island. He notably fell foul of William Penn when William was negotiating with the Iroquois for the purchase of the upper Susquehanna Valley.
When Thomas sold Castletown Estate, the Conollys moved in. The Conolly family death house (another term for a mausoleum*) still stands in the graveyard. There’s a fabulous altar built by Katherine Conolly with a letter in Latin testifying to her husband’s (William ‘Speaker’ Conolly) good character. Of he who had ‘[lived] long enough to satisfy the claims of nature and his fame’, she said:
He made a modest though splendid use of the great riches he had honestly acquired.
The reclining statues of himself and herself are now in safekeeping in Castletown House. If I ever win the lottery, I’d be happy to commission some replicas. I was seriously impressed with this place. Lady Louisa (her of the print room I so envy), was buried there on my birthday in 1821. Another connection.
As if the Dongans and the Conollys weren’t enough, this little graveyard is also home to the Grattans – Henry Grattan Jnr, his wife, and their five children. Although a politician, an MP, and a friend of the great Daniel O’Connell, Grattan Jnr may well have lived his life in the shadow of his more famous father, the great orator after whom he was named. Junior published a four-volume set of his father’s speeches, now available online. Dad even gets a mention on the marker. I wonder if that rankled.
What I loved about it though is that it’s looked after. It’s cared for. For those in charge, it’s a vocation, not a job. In the shade of the big yew trees, other tombstones tilt towards the sun. Some are half their former selves, few are ostentatious, most are simple. The moss has done its work.
A few detailed explanations show the effort that’s gone into finding out who has been buried where and what their story is. There’s a wealth of history in these graves. I wondered at William Lumley and the Yorkshire connection with Castletown. Is he perhaps related to the Earl of Scarborough?
For others, the search is still on. It’s known they have been buried in Tea Lane but the exact spot remains a mystery.
It truly is a beautiful spot. The acoustics in the chapel are such that intimate music recitals are held there on occasion. There are plans for more events, plans to make this repository of history a living space where the dead can rest peacefully knowing they’re still contributing to life in Ireland.
If you’re in the vicinity, make an appointment to go see it. Check them out on Facebook, too.
*Mausoleum derives from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (near modern-day Bodrum in Turkey), the grave of King Mausolus, the Persian satrap of Caria, whose large tomb was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.