Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Jumping Church of Kildemock. Speculations on Catholics & Freemasons in 18th century Co. Louth

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The other day I was reading a blog post on the Historic Graves site by Shane Lehane about the mysterious and miraculous movement of the graveyard at Loughane, Co. Cork. The local legend holds that the resident corpses so objected to the body of a murderous priest-hunter being laid to rest among them that they uprooted themselves (and took their gravestones with them) to an adjacent location at Matehy (pronounced maw-te-ha, but that’s another story). While it is an interesting story, I remain to be convinced about all the facts of the case.

Top: Interior of the west wall of Kildemock Church. Bottom: Exterior of the west wall of Kildemock Church.

Around the same time I restarted a personal project, in hibernation over the summer, to share selections of my slide collection on Facebook. For anyone not familiar with the project, the short story is that I’ve been taking archaeological photographs since my first excavation (1989) and had amassed a collection of over 3,000 transparencies when I gave up on the format about 10 years ago. Most of them have never been seen by anyone but me. While I’ve been given dire warnings that anything posted on Facebook becomes the instant property of Mr. Zuckerberg (not true), my feeling was that it’s better that SOMEONE sees them, rather than letting the moulder on my shelf. Right now there are four albums available for public view, containing just under 800 photos.

General view of Kildemock church and graveyard.

As I was uploading the latest tranche, I was struck by a number of shots taken in Kildemock, Co. Louth, and the parallel they provided to the Loughane/Matehy story. The images were taken one evening in 2001 when I was working on one of the Northern Motorway excavations. The site is like many in rural Ireland in that it contains a (well tended) collection of gravestones old and new surrounding a ruinous church. The site is dedicated to St. Diomoc/Modiomoc, who is alleged to have been an early follower of St. Patrick and have hailed from the Dál gCais. Built into the walls of the church are a bullaun stone and a piscina. The bullaun could be of any date, but the piscina is broadly medieval – I’d say 15th to 16th century at a guess.

Top: Bullaun stone built into the wall of the church. Bottom: Piscina built into the wall of the church.

What sets this little church apart from the ordinary is the legend associated with the site. The story goes that someone buried an apostate of the Catholic Church just inside the wall of the building (some of the stories claim that the man had been excommunicated) … and the church didn’t like it. The building so rejected the presence of this individual that it shore off its own west wall and ‘jumped’ it back three feet so that the 'sinner' lay outside the building. The other story is that there was a terrible storm in 1715 and the wall fell over. Although the latter seems to me to be the more likely story, there appears to be great local adherence to the mythology. I am sure that there is a fertile field of research in the exploration of the psychology that drives an individual to embrace a supernatural over the more rational, if mundane, explanation – though it is not my objective to delve into that here. Indeed, the author of the piece used in the Irish Identity web page goes to some length to elevate the supernatural explanation over the prosaic explanation that the wall just fell over, albeit in an (apparently) unlikely and unusual position.

While I may take issue with the means by which the church ‘jumped’, the Irish Identity page does include a detail that I was previously unaware of – the man had been a mason and had converted from Catholicism to Protestantism and had fallen to his death from the scaffolding at Stabannon church, then under construction. While the context given here is of the stone mason kind (or ‘operative mason’), I cannot help thinking that this is a muddled reference to the burial of a Freemason (or ‘speculative mason’) in the graveyard. My reasoning is simple – there is the grave of a freemason just outside the west wall of the church!

The photograph below shows an 18th century gravestone with the quite typical arrangement of an IHS monogram with a cross over the ‘H’. Below this are a pair of winged cherub heads, and while they look slightly surly, they are still typical of the period and Catholic gravestones in particular. What is less typical in this context is the clearly identifiable square-and-compass to the left of the IHS and what is probably a plumb, to the right. Both are Masonic symbols indicating that the individual buried here was a Freemason and had attained the rank of, at least, Junior Warden (indicated by the plumb), if not Worshipful Master of the lodge (indicated by the square-and-compass).

Gravestone for Morgan, died 1791 with Catholic and Masonic symbolism.

While my research is hardly exhaustive, I am aware of no other gravestone where the emblems of Catholicism and Freemasonry are so clearly joined in harmony. The stone is dedicated to a Mr. Morgan who died in 1791. This may be 76 years after the fateful storm of 1715, but I wonder if there is not a kernel of truth wrapped up in all this mythology. I do not claim to be definitive, but I think I may have spotted something that others have missed. 

The first ban by the Papacy on Catholic membership of the Masonic Order was promulgated in 1737. This ban was reiterated in later years in 1884 and 1917 and contained provision of the automatic excommunication of any Catholic who became a Freemason (it should be pointed out that there has never been a ban on Catholics becoming Freemasons enacted by the Order itself). My suggestion is that when Mr. Morgan died in 1791 he may have been sufficiently proud of his Masonic and Catholic heritage to have the symbols of both carved on his gravestone … but perhaps other people in the locality were less enthusiastic about his affiliations. To them, he would have been automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church when he joined the Masonic fraternity, and would have had no place within the consecrated ground of the graveyard. Perhaps, just perhaps, this story of someone allegedly undeserving of the burial rites of his church got intertwined with a story of the church wall being blown down in a storm. The result could just be the tale we have today of the ‘Jumping Church of Kildemock’. As I say, I make no claims to veracity; I am just proposing an alternate theory. It may have some merit, but then again, it may not.

As an aside, I might add that the Catholic Church no longer automatically excommunicates their followers who elect to join a Masonic lodge. Since 1985 such people are considered to be in a position of Grave Sin, and may not partake of communion. However, the open welcome of the Masonic Order to all monotheists, regardless of creed or confession, remains in place to this day.

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