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History from Headstones

History from Headstones Online was an exciting project from the Ulster Historical Foundation the aim of which was to encourage people to take an interest in the graveyards of Northern Ireland and to provide an online resource for those searching for their ancestors. Graveyards are open air museums where it is possible to walk among the exhibits – the tombstones – and examine at first hand art and sculpture from a bygone age. There are over 1,200 burial grounds in Northern Ireland and they form an integral part of the Irish landscape. Because there are so many of them we can often take them for granted. However, each graveyard is unique. Each was created in its own particular set of circumstances. Each will have its own unique collection of headstones.

Graveyards are a wonderful place to find out more about our heritage. A graveyard is the most accessible source for the study of the history of a local community. Because of the detailed information they contain, gravestones provide an ideal launch pad for any genealogical investigation. Our searchable graveyard database contains over 50,000 inscriptions from around 800 graveyards in counties Antrim, Armagh, Down, Londonderry, Fermanagh and Tyrone.

Gravestone inscriptions have long been valued by historians and genealogists. The information recorded on gravestones varies considerably. Some will bear the name of the family interred beneath the stone and nothing else. Others may contain detailed information about several generations of one family. A date of death will usually be given for each person named on the gravestone. Ages will be frequently given. This allows for a year of birth to be estimated. The relationship between the individuals recorded on the gravestone will often be indicated: ‘son of’, ‘husband of ’, ‘sister of ’ etc.

The carvings on gravestones have deep symbolic importance. Mortality symbols, for examples, represent a desire to emphasise the fact that all will die and feature prominently on many gravestones. The symbols used include the skull and crossed bones representing death, the bell, which was rung at funerals, the coffin and the hourglass, which was used to represent time running out. Sometimes the hourglass was carved with wings to represent the flight of time.

One of the central aims of this website is to highlight the importance of gravestone inscriptions as historical sources that can be used to study the past. With this in mind we commissioned local historians to write about graveyards familiar to them. Their histories can be read in the case studies section. The graveyards covered include Bonamargy, Carmavy, Lambeg and Templecorran in County Antrim, Donaghadee in County Down, the Jewish section in Belfast City Cemetery and Grange and Leckpatrick in County Tyrone. Many inscriptions have an overseas dimension reflecting the importance of migration in Irish history. Other inscriptions record the occupation of the deceased or the circumstances in which he or she died. These can be explored in more detail in a section on gravestone themes.

The website can be found at: historyfromheadstones.com

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