Chapple, R. M. 2012 St. Patrick’s gravestone: a Bigger fake! Blogspot post
St. Patrick’s Gravestone: A Bigger fake!
Originally posted online on 15 March 2012 at rmchapple.blogspot.com
St. Patrick's gravestone in 1900
I hadn’t intended to write anything for this blog specifically about St. Patrick or St.
Patrick’s Day. However, I happened to read the rather excellent post about the death
and burial of ‘Ireland’s Patron Saint’ by Cultural Heritage Ireland [Facebook
Page | Twitter]. The post quotes the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of the Four
Masters’ account of the death, burial, and battle over the body of Patrick, followed by its
eventual burial at Dun-da-leth-glas (Fortress of the Two Broken Fetters),
modern Downpatrick. It is well worth a read! The post even includes a photograph of St.
Patrick’s grave. Specifically, it is the photograph of the grave that prompted me to write,
as it reminded me of my own first encounter with the Saint on his home turf.
Ceremony at the graveside in 1998
For many inhabitants of Northern Ireland, and the Downpatrick area in particular,
‘Paddy’s Day’ will not be complete without a visit to the saint’s grave. In 1998, with this
in mind, I tagged along with a QUB Archaeology Society tour that visited the site – the
only time I have managed to get to Downpatrick on the day. By the time we got to the
town and climbed the hill to the Cathedral there was a religious ceremony was in
progress at the grave. On a slight eminence in the graveyard, to the south of the
Cathedral building there was an assembley of clerics and dignitaries, dressed in their
robes and finery, being filmed for the local news. Eventually, this group dispersed and
we got to examine the graveslab for ourselves. Although still strewn with rather wilted
daffodils, the name "Patric" was clearly visible as was the Latin cross with decorated, D-
shaped terminals. This stone exuded Early Christianity. Like, perhaps thousands, of
visitors before me, standing there I experienced a tangible frisson of connection between
myself and the distant past.
This was seriously cool.
This was the place where St. Patrick was buried.
This was …
… nearly heartbreaking to discover that it’s a fake!
St. Patrick's gravestone in 1998
Yes, folks … it’s a fake! Even now I find it slightly shocking that the grave of St. Patrick is
not what it appears to be. Admittedly, it is not a ‘fake’ in the sense that it cynically sets
out to deceive, but it is a ‘fake’ nonetheless. It does not originate in any century even
approximating to the death of the saint. Nor can it be said to definitely mark the exact
location of his final resting place. As I found out later, this ‘fraud’ was perpetrated by no
less a figure than Francis Joseph Bigger (1863-1926) [see also: here and here], Belfast-
born lawyer, antiquarian and promoter of all things Irish. In January 1900, as editor of
the revived second series of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, he published the
F. J. Bigger
“The editor is pleased to be able to state that all arrangements have now been made for
placing a suitable monument over the reputed grave of Saint Patrick in the cathedral
yard at Downpatrick. Thousands of people visit this spot every year, and view with
regret its neglected condition. This will now be remedied. The memorial takes the shape
of a large natural slab of granite from the Mourne mountains, which will completely
cover the site. Upon its surface will be incised an early Celtic cross, and the name
"Patric" in Irish characters. This will be in keeping with the century in which the saint
died. All parties are contributing to the work, which will entail considerable expense.
Subscriptions for this object should be sent to the editor, who will give a full account and
a sketch of the slab, together with a list of the contributors, in a subsequent number of
this journal. When the town cross of Downpatrick was restored, a few years ago, the
necessary sum was subscribed and expended by the editor, and he feels assured a
similar result will ensue in the present instance, although a much larger sum is
required.” (Bigger 1900a).
Design for carving on gravestone
Things must have moved swiftly indeed, as in April of the same year, Bigger was able to
report that “The monument over the reputed grave of our National Saint at Downpatrick
has now been completed.” (Bigger 1900b). The paper goes on to report that a stone,
weighing several tons, was moved from Stieve-na-Iargie, near Castlewellan, Co. Down.
The cross carved on the flat, upper surface of the stone was modelled on one from a 6th
or 7th century gravestone, discovered by Bigger at Inchcleraun Island, on Lough Ree in
the river Shannon. Only the name ‘Patric’ was added as there are no definite dates of
birth or death for the Saint. Even moving the block was no small task. Bigger notes that
it took twelve men fourteen days to move the stone “from its original site to the country
road.” The whole operation, including moving the stone, setting it in concrete, and
having it carved, cost £45. While he was initially worried that the public subscription to
the fund would not meet this amount, the final total raised was £47 14s 0d. Bigger was
also keen to acknowledge that the sources of the money came from ‘all creeds and
classes and many different quarters’ – a true cross-community endeavour. Architectural
advice was provided by W. J. Fennell, and the Downpatrick building firm, S. & T.
Hastings, carried out the work. During the preparation of the ‘grave site’ three
fragments of a broken cross were recovered. Although searches were carried out to
recover further portions of the cross, they were in vain. Bigger notes that the fragments
were placed in the cathedral for safe-keeping, until such time as more pieces could be
located and a reconstruction attempted.
Portions of cross found during clean-up
While Bigger was involved in many aspects of, what we would now term, cultural
heritage, his involvement with the grave of St. Patrick appears to have left a lasting
impression in the minds of his contemporaries. In his lifetime, he was a committee
member of the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club; he revived and edited the 2nd series of
the Ulster Journal of Archaeology; he sat on the Executive Committee of the Gaelic
League; he founded the Belfast College of Irish; he was a member of the Royal Irish
Academy, to name but a few. However, in his obituary in the Journal of the County
Louth Archaeological Society, it is the erection of St. Patrick’s gravestone that the
anonymous writer chose to mention first.
This St. Patrick’s Day, if you can’t stay away from the green beer, raise a glass to St.
Paddy himself. But spare a thought, too, for the man who helped promote and protect
the Saint’s possible last resting place: here’s to Francis Joseph Bigger – may his ‘fake’
gravestone continue to stand as a timeless and eloquent memorial to Ireland’s patron
Saint, and may it continue to inspire and touch future generations, filling them with an
appreciation of our shared heritage.
Bigger, F. J. 1900a ‘Miscellanea: grave of Saint Patrick’ Ulster Journal of Archaeology
6.1 (2nd Series), 59.
Bigger, F. J. 1900b ‘The grave of Saint Patrick’ Ulster Journal of Archaeology 6.2 (2nd
Volume 6 of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology is available, along with most of the 1st
and 2nd series, to download as a PDF from Archive.org. Similarly, the Annals of the
Four Masters and the Annals of Ulster are also available. A slightly annotated catalogue
of the 1st series of UJA is also available on my personal website: here. It is hoped to add
similar resources for the 2nd and 3rd series in the near future.
There is another blog post by Cultural Heritage Ireland on one of the earliest
representations of St. Patrick on the cover of the Domhnach Airgid: here. I also
recommend the article in the Irish Times on the botanical problems and
historical vicissitudes of the shamrock. Know Thy Place have a post about Croagh
Patrick, Co. Mayo, and its place in both Christian and Pagan observance. Finally, there's
an interesting piece by Rt. W. Bro. Robert T Bashford on the importance of St. Patrick as
a symbol and inspiration within Irish Freemasonry.