Old Lea Graveyard Survey   

Lea Old graveyard is in the townland of Loughmansland Glebe which is in the Electoral Division of Kilmullen, in Civil Parish of Lea, in the Barony of Portnahinch, in the County of Laois. In consultation with the Lea Castle Conservation Project.

The work was funded through the Community Monuments Fund 2020 and is being organised by the Department of Housing, Local Government & Heritage, through Laois County Council Heritage Office. The works were requested by Lea Castle Conservation Project group.
The works initially focussed on the mortuary monuments but the biodiversity elements of the heritage site emerged as a key characteristic of the site.

Significance of the structure

It is a key element of our county heritage plan to protect and promote active conservation of the heritage of Laois.

This graveyard is one of a group in our parish. It had become neglected because the older county council system of having local caretakers who cut the grass in the graveyard changed in the 1960s. Our new engagement is designed to prevent the place from deteriorating and to build up a greater appreciation for the heritage of our parish.

As a group interested in our heritage, we believe this project will give us the solid foundations needed to keep looking after the site in a well-informed, positive manner.

Our community has been involved in the Lea Castle project since 2012. We have a published conservation report (2014), a vegetation management report, a geophysical report, (2015) and a conservation plan (2017) all in liaison with the county council heritage office. We are listed in the Laois Heritage Plan 2014-2019 – Objective 3 Number 33. We have applied to the Heritage Council in 2020 for funding for creating a wheelchair accessible laneway to the graveyard. We now wish to do a survey of the mortuary monuments in the graveyard. 

We believe this survey will provide key foundation data for our longer-term care and conservation works in the graveyard. We also believe it is a means to encourage local community support for our heritage project as many people have family members buried in Lea Graveyard.

Aims & Objectives 

The original aims of the project were to run a community training project recording the mortuary monuments found within Lea Old graveyard. The graveyard is approx. 400m E of Lea Castle and the adjacent River Barrow. It was intended that a two-day training survey would be attended by local volunteers and that the resulting dataset would be published to www.historicgraves.com, an online heritage platform used by over 500 community groups in Ireland.

However, due to Covid-19 restrictions and a move to Level 5 in the national framework a revised methodological approach was submitted to the local heritage group. This same methodology was approved by the Heritage Council for similar graveyard surveys and it involved members of the Historic Graves Project team surveying the graveyard and publishing the dataset online. It was originally intended that much of the digital data entry would be done by the local community group but training for these works was not possible within the Covid-19 constraints.

The revised aims were to survey the mortuary monuments, publish them to historicgraves.com and subsequently allow the community group to continue research into the local history, genealogy and archaeological issues which arose from the survey.


A drone survey of the site was conducted by a team from Western  Aerial Surveys. The measured drone survey involves producing a measured, record  orthophotograph which can subsequently be used for archaeological survey. This work was done and  the resulting survey data can be used for ecological surveys as well as for producing a map of the  location of the mortuary monuments in the site. 

The survey methodology was threefold. 

1. All mortuary monuments were numbered and photographed 

2. All mortuary monuments were mapped – we usually conduct low precision mapping by relative location sketch plan and use of GPS camera for the survey. In this case, we  further processed the site surveys to incorporate the higher accuracy geolocations from the measured drone survey. 

3. A record sheet was followed out for each mortuary monument recording names and dates and full or partial inscriptions from every identified mortuary monument. Due to the conservation issues identified during the survey a condition survey was conducted for the monument also. 

The field data was digitally process and published to historic graves.  The survey is presented in groups of 25 mortuary monuments. Each monument has 1-2 names  and dates entered into the person database while the inscriptions have also been typed into the  dataset. The condition survey data was entered into the notes section. 


A total of 82 mortuary monuments were identified, cleaned, recorded, digitised and published online  over a 2 week period. 

A map of the gravestones has also be published to the website and can be used to find the location  of each numbered gravestone. This map forms the basis for an A2 sized map of the site which the local group can use in their future research on the site.  Thereafter the gravestones are published in batches of 25. Clicking  the gravestone number opens the individual database record and within that then the inscription, names and dates can be read and the condition notes can also be seen. 

The graveyard has an interesting assemblage of gravestones ranging from the 1760s up to the early 20th century. A mixture of Catholic and Protestant families appear to be represented and further research in this graveyard should allow us to test the hypothesis that iconography is traceable to one faith or another eg. the 18th century  IHS stones are hypothesised to be Catholic – local research should be able to test this hypothesis. 


Our initial concern upon commencing the survey was that the dense secondary woodland which has grown over the site would hamper our usual survey approach. Indeed the measured drone survey did  not show us the graveyard floor as we usually require rather it served better to map the primary and secondary tree growth on the site.   Quickly though we realised that Old Lea graveyard is not the typical  Irish rural historic graveyard. The dense secondary woodland which appears to have grown from 4-5 intentionally planted sycamore, ash, and lime trees on the site and as such have developed a very unusual woodland habitat in an Irish graveyard. Similar woodland habits can be found in some urban graveyards in England, eg. Abney Park in London, but we are aware of only a handful of similar sites in Ireland. The condition of the monuments needs quantitively analysis based on the published records but for this report suffice it to say that many mortuary monuments have fallen apart due to pressure from coppiced sycamore stools. However, we are more analysis rather than a ‘clean up’ felling of the trees. We feel there is a lot to learn from the secondary woodland development here for investigating the role of heritage in climate change and biodiversity particularly in the industrialised farming landscape which prevails in much of Ireland today.


Despite Level 5 restrictions the Community Monument Fund project continued and achieved the aims of surveying the graveyard and building a better understanding of the site. The site has been  recognised as a key case study in the role of built heritage in biodiversity and this should be explored further. 

A relatively short programme of local history research commences this weekend with the community group using Zoom and from this, we aim to continue research into the built and natural heritage of the site. 

If you have an interest in helping with more research on any of the graves in Old Lea Graveyard, please contact the committee at info@leacastle.ie.

This blog content was supplied by John Tierney of Historic Graves