Howard Mausoleum, Kilbride., Arklow, County Wicklow

Figure 1: A view of the pyramid erected in 1785 as a mausoleum for the Howard family of nearby Shelton Abbey.  Described in 2001 as a valuable piece of heritage at risk of being lost through neglect and decay, the pyramid was adopted as a project by the Arklow Marine and Heritage Committee who, in partnership with TÚS, have begun a careful restoration of the mausoleum

Figure 1: A view of the pyramid erected in 1785 as a mausoleum for the Howard family of nearby Shelton Abbey. Described in 2001 as a valuable piece of heritage at risk of being lost through neglect and decay, the pyramid was adopted as a project by the Arklow Marine and Heritage Committee who, in partnership with TÚS, have begun a careful restoration of the mausoleum

Sitting on a small rise a mile north of Arklow, overlooking the river Avoca, is a monument described by Sir John Betjeman (1906-84) as the largest pyramid tomb ‘beyond the banks of the Nile’ (fig. 1).  It stands on the highest position in the ancient cemetery of Kilbride, dwarfing the ruins of the adjacent medieval church, and is easily seen from most points within a two-mile radius.

When Ralph Howard (1726-86) of Shelton Abbey was made first Viscount Wicklow in 1785, he decided that no longer would a departed Howard be buried in cold clay; their bodies would be housed in an edifice more befitting aristocracy.  Philosophical Enlightenment was at its height and to speak of Athenian, Egyptian or Roman architecture was to display not only education but good taste.  The new mausoleum, Howard decided, would be a pyramid.

The design is believed to be the work of an English sculptor and stonecutter, Simon Vierpyl (c.1725–1810).  Vierpyl was well acquainted with Enlightenment taste having spent almost a decade in Rome producing souvenir copies of ancient sculpture for the well-heeled on their Grand Tour.  He was brought to Ireland by James Caulfield (1728-99), fourth Viscount Charlemont, and soon became known for his designs based on ancient civilisations.  He worked closely with Sir William Chambers (1723-96) on the Casino (1758-76) at Marino; Castletown House (c.1760), County Kildare; and Charlemont House (1763-75) in Rutland Square [Parnell Square], Dublin.  According to The Dictionary of Irish Architects 1720-1940 he appears to ‘have done relatively little purely sculptural work’ in Ireland, being employed chiefly as a stone-carver, mason and clerk of works.  The Howard Mausoleum does not appear in the list of works accredited to him.

Figure 2: A view of the sarcophagus inscribed: Within the walls of the adjoining Church lie interr'd the Remains of/M. Dorothea Howard otherwise Hassels Relict of John Howard Esq./Who Departed this Life at Shelton in December 1684 to Whose/Memory and that of their Descendants and as a place/of Burial for his Family Ralph Viscount Wicklow/has caused this Monument to be Erected/in the year of our Lord 1785

Figure 2: A view of the sarcophagus inscribed: Within the walls of the adjoining Church lie interr’d the Remains of/M. Dorothea Howard otherwise Hassels Relict of John Howard Esq./Who Departed this Life at Shelton in December 1684 to Whose/Memory and that of their Descendants and as a place/of Burial for his Family Ralph Viscount Wicklow/has caused this Monument to be Erected/in the year of our Lord 1785

The pyramid’s outer cladding is granite blocks.  The base is approximately twenty-seven feet square, the walls are perpendicular to the height of six feet, at which level the slopes begin, meeting at the pinnacle some thirty feet above ground level.  A sarcophagus on the north side records that the monument was erected in memory of an earlier Howard and as a place of burial for the family (fig. 2).  North of the pyramid is a small Egyptian-style structure with a temple front that is often taken for part of the mausoleum, but this leads to a second chamber that houses a minor branch of the Howard family (fig. 3).

Access to the inside was gained by a small door in the north wall — now sealed — from which a narrow corridor of about eight or nine feet leads to a chamber ten feet square.  This has a curved brick roof, about fifteen feet from the floor at its highest point.  The wall facing the short corridor and the walls to the right and left each contain nine niches for coffins, three rows of three.

The coffins were inserted lengthwise so that each niche opening is only two feet six inches square, receding about seven feet.  A slab, on which the biographical details of the interred was carved as on ordinary headstones, was fitted to seal the niche.  The fourth wall has only six niches, three placed vertically either side of the chamber entrance, making a total of thirty-three coffin spaces in all — Freemasonry symbolism or just a handy number?  The strange thing is, only eighteen are occupied.

Figure 3: Writing in Mausolea Hibernica (1999) Maurice Craig described the Howard Mausoleum as 'one of the most romantic and mysterious of Irish mausolea...  The mystery is that below and in front of [the pyramid] is the curious façade in granite with more than a whiff of the Egyptian taste about it, which must surely be later and is even perhaps of a different family'

Figure 3: Writing in Mausolea Hibernica (1999) Maurice Craig described the Howard Mausoleum as ‘one of the most romantic and mysterious of Irish mausolea… The mystery is that below and in front of [the pyramid] is the curious façade in granite with more than a whiff of the Egyptian taste about it, which must surely be later and is even perhaps of a different family’

The first interment was of Ralph Howard’s daughter Isabella.  She was nineteen when she died in December 1784.  As the pyramid was not built until the following year, it is reasonable to assume that Isabella was buried in the graveyard and re-interred in the mausoleum when it was ready.  The last interment of which we have a record took place in 1823, but folklore states that there was another.  For weeks following the interment of an infant family member, tenants living at Kilbride reported the sound of a child crying at night.  The body was, we are told, removed and interred elsewhere after which the crying is said to have stopped.  The pyramid was sealed and never used again.

Jim Rees teaches history and communications with County Wicklow VEC.  He and fellow local historian, Pat Power, were given access to the interior of the Howard Mausoleum in 1986

‘Giza on the Avoca’

By Jim Rees

Sitting on a small rise a mile north of Arklow, overlooking the river Avoca, is a monument described by John Betjeman as the largest pyramid tomb ‘beyond the banks of the Nile’. It stands on the highest position in the ancient cemetery of Kilbride, dwarfing the ruins of the adjacent medieval church, and is easily seen from most points within a two-mile radius.

When Ralph Howard of Shelton Abbey was made 1st Viscount Wicklow in 1785, he decided that no longer would a departed Howard be buried in cold clay; their bodies would be housed in an edifice more befitting aristocracy. Philosophical Enlightenment was at its height and to speak of Egyptian, Athenian or Roman architecture was to display not only education but good taste. The new mausoleum, Howard decided, would be a pyramid.

The design is believed to be the work of an English sculptor and stonecutter, Simon Vierpyl (c. 1725–1810). Vierpyl was well acquainted with Enlightenment taste having spent almost a decade in Rome producing souvenir copies of ancient sculpture for the well-heeled on their Grand Tour. He was brought to Ireland by James Caulfield, 4th Viscount Charlemont (1728–99), and soon became known for his designs based on ancient civilisations. He worked closely with architect William Chambers on Castletown House, Charlemont House in Rutland (now Parnell) Square in Dublin, and the Casino at Marino. According to The dictionary of Irish architects(http://www.dia.ie/architects/view/5439) he appears to ‘have done relatively little purely sculptural work’ in Ireland, being employed chiefly as a stone-carver, mason and clerk of works. The Howard mausoleum does not appear in the list of works accredited to him.

The pyramid’s outer cladding is granite blocks. The base is approximately twenty-seven feet square, the walls are perpendicular to the height of six feet, at which level the slopes begin, meeting at the pinnacle some thirty feet above ground level. A sarcophagus on the north side records that the monument was erected in memory of an earlier Howard and as a place of burial for the family. North of the pyramid is a small Egyptian-style structure with a temple front that is often taken for part of the mausoleum, but this leads to a second chamber that houses a minor branch of the Howard family.

Access to the inside of the pyramid was gained by a small door in the north wall — now sealed — from which a narrow corridor of about eight or nine feet leads to a chamber ten feet square. This has a curved brick roof, about fifteen feet from the floor at its highest point. The wall facing the short corridor and the walls to the right and left each contain nine niches for coffins, three rows of three.

The coffins were inserted lengthwise so that each niche opening is only two feet six inches square, receding about seven feet. A slab, on which the biographical details of the interred were carved as on ordinary headstones, was fitted to seal the niche. The fourth wall has only six niches, three placed vertically either side of the chamber entrance, making a total of thirty-three coffin spaces in all — masonic symbolism or just a handy number? The strange thing is, only eighteen are occupied.

The first interment was of Ralph Howard’s daughter Isabella. She was nineteen when she died in December 1784. As the pyramid was not built until the following year, it is reasonable to assume that Isabella was buried in the graveyard and re-interred in the mausoleum when it was ready. The last interment of which we have a record took place in 1823, but folklore states that there was another. For weeks following the interment of an infant family member, tenants living at Kilbride reported the sound of a child crying at night. The body was, we are told, removed and interred elsewhere after which the crying is said to have stopped. The pyramid was sealed and never used again.

From A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837

KILBRIDE, a parish, in the barony of ARKLOW, county of WICKLOW, and province of LEINSTER, 2 miles (N. by W.) from Arklow, on the river Ovoca, and the road to Wicklow; containing 1192 inhabitants. It lies on the coast, and is generally under a good state of cultivation. Shelton Abbey, the splendid seat of the Earl of Wicklow, described in the article on Arklow, is partly within its limits; and there are several good residences, of which the principal are Sheepwalk, that of T. Murray, Esq.; Seabank, of R. Hudson, Esq.; Ballymoney, of the Rev. M. J. Mayers; and Killiniskyduff, of M. Hudson, Esq. Near the mouth of the Ovoca is a coastguard station. The living is a vicarage, in the diocese of Dublin and Glendalough, previously to 1833 a part of the union of Arklow, and now united with the vicarages of Enorely and Templemichael; together constituting the union of Kilbride, in the patronage of the Archbishop. The tithes of the parish amount to £200. 6. 2. The church, erected in 1834, at the expense of the Earl of Wicklow, is a handsome structure, in the later English style, with a square embattled tower crowned with pinnacles. In the R. C. divisions the parish forms part of the union or district of Newbridge and Baranisky; the chapel is a neat and spacious edifice. About 210 children are taught, in the public schools, of which the parochial male and female schools are supported by the Earl and Countess of Wicklow; and there are two infants’ schools, one supported by the Countess, and the other by the Rev. M. J. Mayers, the present incumbent; also a Sunday school. The ruins of the old church are on an eminence commanding a fine view of the town and bridge of Arklow, a great expanse of sea, the demesne of Shelton Abbey, and the woods of Glenart, In the churchyard is a mausoleum of the Howard family; there is also an ancient burial-place at Templereeny.

Our hidden pyramid is revealed by DEBORAH COLEMAN

A CLEAN-UP operation is revealing a long-hidden face in the countryside around Arklow as a pyramid literally emerges from the undergrowth following years of neglect.

Few people in Arklow and the wider county are even aware of the existence of the pyramid at the old Kilbride Cemetery on the outskirts of the town.

The monolith was commissioned by Ralph Howard, 1st Viscount Wicklow in the 1780s, as a burial site for him and his family is situated in and dominates the old cemetery.

It is the final resting place of 18 of his family members

More than 500 people are believed to be buried in the cemetery which had become overgrown and neglected in recent years with the pyramid itself covered in ivy and tree growth.

The Arklow Marine and Heritage Committee, chaired by Cllr. Sylvester Bourke was formed with a view to getting some preservation work carried out at the site and following a successful application to County Wicklow Partnership (CWP) participants on the TÚS Project were assigned to commence the work.

Prior to this, the committee commissioned a conservation report to ensure that works would be carried out appropriately and in keeping with the requirements for any such historical site.

The two-year project makes manpower available to the committee and has already made vast improvements inside the site with much of the overgrowth cut back and removed.

‘It is a countywide programme which assigns participants to various schemes for 19.5 hours per week,’ explained Dermot Byrne of CWP.

‘ TÚS covers three areas: caretaking/maintenance, administration and social care.

‘Funding, however is limited to the public are asked to donate tools or equipment where possible by contacting the partnership offices in Arklow,’ he added.

Visitors to Arklow are to this day taken aback at the sight of a perfectly formed and quite large pyramid in the distance along the local landscape and are astounded by its existence.

‘In those days it was very important for the gentry of the 18th century to put down their markers and those who had a heavy enough purse to allow them to take a couple of years off would take what was known as ‘ The Grand Tour’,’ explained local Historian Pat Power.

‘ Those such as Ralph Howard, a few years before he became Viscount Wicklow, would travel to Italy, France and Greece if they could get there.

‘ The Grecian and Roman architecture was heavily influenced by the mysticism of the pyramids which was adapted into funereal art.

‘Howard was very much into freemasonry and in part adapted this type of building into the pyramid and mausoleum at Kilbride, on quite a large scale,’ he added.

History buffs will be intrigued to learn that the Howard pyramid isn’t the only one in Co. Wicklow as the Stratford family built a similar structure in Baltinglass which is still there today.

As the work continues at the old Kilbride Cemetery it is envisaged that a new boundary fence will be installed and that a gate and floodlighting, funding permitted, will complete the project.

According to the Dictionary of Irish Architects 1720-1940, the pyramid and mausoleum were built by Simon Vierpyl who has spent nine years in Rome in the mid-1740s making copies of antique sculpture for grand tourists.

FURTHER READING

Craig, Maurice and Craig, Michael, Mausolea Hibernica (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1999)

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