Howard Mausoleum, Kilbride, Co. Wicklow
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.
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Is this graveyard still in use?
The article states the pyramid is “about 10 meters in height”, but as the meter was not the unit of measurement in 1785, we must use feet, and 10 meters converted to feet is 32.97 feet. It is more than likely the real height of the pyramid is 33′. The structure is also 27′ square and contains 33 burial niches- it is clearly Masonic.
I have discovered a similar but smaller pyramid in Garvagh, Co. Derry and I’m trying to get more information about it, such as, was it used for interment. Watch this space.
They’re from a visit. I have visited the site countless times since the early 1960s, first seeing it when I was eight or nine years old. It is about a mile from my house. Pat Power and I wrote a report on the pyramid (and the graveyard in general) in 1986, when we were allowed access to the interior. While the height is more guestimated than measured, it is fairly accurate, but all interior measurements are accurate.
Thanks for this article Jim. The dimensions of the crypt and possible masonic connection are intriguing. Do these dimensions come from a plan or a visit?
Yes, Ken, they were. Many symbols of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome were used by Freemasons in this way – pyramids, obelisks, draed urns, etc. All the number of coffin speaces has, I’m told, masonic overtones. You’ll find a fuller description of the background to the Kilbride pyramid in ‘Arklow – the story of a town’.
where these people freemasons by any chance? The pyramids have a special significance in freemason lore. A similar structure built by the same fella is the Swift mausoleum in castlerickard, meath. godwin swift was the uncle and benefactor of jonathen swift and a noted freemason
Hi Rosemary Apologies for not replying sooner. The other graveyard you mention is ‘New’ Kilbride and later earls of Wicklow were buried there (i.e. post 1820). In fact, the removal of the child’s body mentioned in the article was to New Kilbride. Also buried in New Kilbride was Neville Wilkinson who was married to a Howard (I think). He created the wonderful masterpirce called ‘Titania’s Palace’.
This is an extremely interesting site, of which I only became aware recently through http://www.buildingsofireland.ie/PlacesToSee/Wicklow/Name,2090,en.html Your article adds a great deal to the information there – thank you. I noticed later Earls of Wicklow were buried in a churchyard just a mile or so away – do you have any details of that memorial?
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