The custom of placing dead erect was general among all northern European natives

In 1790 the Rev. William Beauford of Athy, and a member of the Royal Irish Academy, submitted a paper to the Academy titled A memoir respecting the antiquities of the church of Killossy, in the Co. Kildare, with some conjectures on the origin of the ancient Irish church.

He was describing the ancient parish church at Killashee, Naas, which he considered important “on account of its singular construction of steeple merited the attention of the curious in antiquities.”
He believed that “the present church was modern, but on the foundations of an ancient one, and that the tower, attached to the church was probably was probably unique, being the only one of the kind yet discovered in this Kingdom, if not in the British Isles.”

The tower he described as “round, and founded on a square base, nearly half of the present height, each side terminating in a pediment on a triangle of equal altitude, from one of which grounded the stone roof of the old church.”

Two years after Beauford’s visit to Killashee Lieut. Daniel Grose went there and commissioned a drawing for the building from J. Newton (with a house in the background which appears similar to the present dwelling there).

He described the steeple as “very singular, not being paralleled, as far as I know, by anything, by anything exactly similar in this Kingdome, except at St.Kevin’s Kitchen, where the round tower makes part of the fabrick.

There are such structures at Halling in Kent, and Little Saxham in Suffolk.”

Just a century after those excursions to Killashee another man of the cloth, and who was also a Member of the Royal Irish Academy, went there and wrote an account of the building.

Rev. Denis Murphy S.J., in the Journal of the county Kildare Archeological Society, gave considerable attention to the history of the site from its foundation by St Auxillius in the 5th century.

His comment on the tower was that “it was much older than the present church; it belonged to an earlier building,as may be seen by the drip-stones which mark the height and pitch of the former roof. But to determine the date of its erection with any sort of precision is not an easy task.”

Beauford’s paper on Killossy was not his first learned discourse: in 1786 he had published an Essay on the political accents of the Irish an another on Druidism Revived & the Origin and Language of the Irish, and he made another submission to the Royal Irish Academy.

It was an account of an ancient sepulchre discovered in 1788. He described how in February of that year “some peasants were digging in a garden at Calverstown, near Kilcullen, and when one of them dropped a sack or spade in a hole he found a stone box.”

The men broke the lid of the box to see “a skeleton sitting inside facing south, and an urn. This is the only one yet discovered where the body was placed in a sitting position, indeed a short time since some small earthen tumuli were opened on the Curragh of Kildare, under which skeletons were found standing upright on their feet, and in their hands or near them, spears with iron heads. The custom of placing dead erect was general among all the northern natives, and is still retained in Lapland and some parts of Norway, and the natives of North America bury their dead sitting in a hole in the ground, and cover them with a mound of earth.”

A graphic drawing of the Calverstown skeleton illustrated that report in the Transactions of the RIA. Beauford, who sometimes signed himself Beaufort, may have been a member of the latter Huguenot family settled in Ireland since about 1745.

John O’Donovan, who was engaged in the Ordnance Survey of Co. Kildare in 1837, having received a good Letter they would lay a foundation for philosophical and honest research, but instead of this they have made bold assertions and vague references, which will now expose them to the censure and ridicule of the learned world.”

Later, when writing about the Curragh, O’Donovan was again critical of the Athy clergyman: “It is shameful to see men (such as Beauford) thus impose their own fancies on the world as true written history.”

Another detractor of the Athy clergyman was Lennox Barrow, who wrote a paper on Killashee Church tower in the Journal of the Co. Kildare Archeological Society thirty years ago. He described Beauford as “that pioneering but not always reliable antiquary.”

Courtesy of the Leinster Leader
February 2003