Restoring life to graveyards

Restored grave in St. Jame’s graveyard
photo credit: St.James’ Conservation Project

The Liberties is going through a complete overhaul recently – with the likes of the Tivoli going, and refurbishments elsewhere.

However, many people forget the key restoration of historical graveyards, something ongoing for years.

St James Graveyard is one of the most historical sites in all of Dublin, with a graveyard that, in their words, ‘connects nature to man’. Restoration began ten years ago, in 2009, when Dublin Council decided conserve the graveyard as a historical site.

Steeped in history, the graveyard has been burying for almost three hundred years, with 100,000 graves, before it closed officially in 1954. Since then, it has been abandoned, and closed off to the public. Over 1.5 acres in size, the graveyard features hundreds upon hundreds of graves, and the majority of the land is still not taken.

The plans are, according to the project managers Howley Hayes Architects, to restore into a park. They want the graveyard to resemble a park more than a graveyard, hoping to spruce up the scenery with a vibrant and lively colours. They have noted they will take care to preserve all gravestones and monuments, while also ‘finding ways to breath new life into buildings’

But, Howley Hayes explained it gets complicated with preservation of gravestones. It’s not just a matter of restoring the graves, they must be ‘protected’ from nature itself. “(We) devise a scope of works to ensure that the memorials are stable and protected from the effects of the weather or encroaching vegetation.”

They also interestingly explained their philosophy, and what ideas they are hoping to convey with their particular methods. ‘Memory and Amenity’ being the theme, they reiterated how they’d take care to build above, rather than below.

It follows their ‘guiding principle’, of “to reduce impacts on the archaeology of the site, by floating or building up above it, rather than inserting piles,”.

The less is more guidelines that Howley Hayes have followed is as painstaking as it sounds. It would be much simpler to just dispose of any stray rock, replacing it with new monuments. But, they will ensure they will do all they can for the graves. To the point, where they will ‘stitch’ broken stone back together. The process can be as simple, such as using mortars. Or, it can get complex, with the likes of stainless steel being used to weld the stone back together. If a grave or memorial is beyond absolute repair, they will be completely recast from mould.

St James is not only important for historical purposes, but for ecological too. The project managers have stated that the graveyard is a ‘refuge’ for wildlife. Most woodland creatures can be found in the graveyard, the likes of hedgehogs, foxes, red squirrels and blue tits all being found in the realms of the graveyard. In the depths of the darker parts, there has even been sightings of some bat species. The graveyard is also important for the tree life in the graveyard. There is a wide variety of tree types, from Sycamore and Ash to rarer trees like Wych Elm and Buddleja.

There is no word on when the restoration will be finished, but in a report, they revealed they are “three- quarters of the way through”. They only have ‘over 200’ memorials and graves left to restore, so the estimated time. But, they did explain that they will be finished this phase of work, or phase 1, by the end of March.

The next phase, will begin shortly after,  and includes landscape design and interpretation.

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