Churches in County Down are replete with interesting ancient mausolea and tombs and this is especially true in the area around Lecale, most particularly amongst the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches, and the churchyard at Downpatrick, for instance, alone has eight or nine large tombs of different designs.
But the most celebrated Mausoleum of all is at Clough.
The Murland Mausoleum was built in about 1860 by a family who were closely connected to the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian congregation at Clough for generations. The Murland family were wealthy local mill owners, they lived at Ardnabannon and it is thought that the architect who designed their house also designed the family mausoleum. This was Thomas Turner, a Dublin-born architect who began his career as an assistant to Charles Lanyon in Belfast and who had a long and productive career designing buildings all over Ireland including Stormont Castle and Coleraine Town Hall.
But it is very clear when you look at the Murland Mausoleum that this was the work of someone steeped in the designs of classical architecture and particularly ancient funerary architecture. The inverted torch is used in Christian iconography to represent the resurrection and the eternal life of the soul. But it actually goes back to ancient Greece where it represented Thanatos the Greek god of death.
It is a very rich design.
Professor James Stevens Curl describes it as
something one might expect to find in the cemetery of Père-Lachaise or in one of the great American cemeteries, rather than in a small rural churchyard in the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne.
The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society list describes the mausoleum as ‘the phenomenal Murland vault of about 1860, furnished with all the pompe funebre of the classical manner, with trimmings.’
For local schoolchildren it is a place well-known for decades as somewhere where the bravest of them could stand near the open grill and peer in at the coffins resting in the dusty gloom.
As such an old structure the building was gradually becoming in need of restoration and to see this done the church was able to partner with the experience and expertise of the Follies Trust, a body set up in 2006 to help, in their own words, with ‘the conservation, preservation, restoration and protection, in their original setting, of mausolea and monuments; follies; grottoes; garden buildings and other structures of particular beauty or historic, environmental, architectural or industrial significance.’
At the church we were very pleased to welcome local expert Dr Finbar McCormick of Queen’s University, Belfast who gave a fascinating talk on the history and development of memorials to the dead in Ireland and beyond, looking at the influence of the Reformation and classical ideas.
This was a prelude to the work being done on the mausoleum. A number of specialists have looked at the building, and the job of restoring the structure was given to Noel Killen, noted for his work in restoring the nearby Mill at Ballydugan.
Generally, considering its great age, the building was in good shape but there was lots to be done to make the structure fully watertight and secure again for the future. Stonework that had crumbled had to be replaced. The iron work in the grills and the heavy door had to be conserved. They were also repainted in the original colour, which had largely long faded from view.
Work commenced in August 2019 and was completed within a few months. To mark the completion of this work and the collaboration that was involved we planned a special service of celebration with representatives of the Follies Trust and others, but this wasn’t to be. Like so many other plans it fell foul of the pandemic and couldn’t be held. But the important thing is that this striking and unique structure is now restored and fit to last for another 160 years.