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Building of the Month - April 2013

Howard Mausoleum, KILBRIDE (Kilbride) Td., Arklow, County Wicklow

Howard Mausoleum, Wicklow 01 - Representative View

Figure 1: A view of the pyramid erected in 1785 as a mausoleum for the Howard family of nearby Shelton Abbey.  Described in 2001 as a valuable piece of heritage at risk of being lost through neglect and decay, the pyramid was adopted as a project by the Arklow Marine and Heritage Committee who, in partnership with TÚS, have begun a careful restoration of the mausoleum

Sitting on a small rise a mile north of Arklow, overlooking the river Avoca, is a monument described by Sir John Betjeman (1906-84) as the largest pyramid tomb 'beyond the banks of the Nile' (fig. 1).  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 (1726-86) of Shelton Abbey was made first 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 Athenian, Egyptian 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 (1728-99), fourth Viscount Charlemont, and soon became known for his designs based on ancient civilisations.  He worked closely with Sir William Chambers (1723-96) on the Casino (1758-76) at Marino; Castletown House (c.1760), County Kildare; and Charlemont House (1763-75) in Rutland Square [Parnell Square], Dublin.  According to The Dictionary of Irish Architects 1720-1940 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.

Howard Mausoleum, Wicklow 02 - Sarcophagus

Figure 2: A view of the sarcophagus inscribed: Within the walls of the adjoining Church lie interr'd the Remains of/M. Dorothea Howard otherwise Hassels Relict of John Howard Esq./Who Departed this Life at Shelton in December 1684 to Whose/Memory and that of their Descendants and as a place/of Burial for his Family Ralph Viscount Wicklow/has caused this Monument to be Erected/in the year of our Lord 1785

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 (fig. 2).  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 (fig. 3).

Howard Mausoleum, Wicklow 03 - Temple Front

Figure 3: Writing in Mausolea Hibernica (1999) Maurice Craig described the Howard Mausoleum as 'one of the most romantic and mysterious of Irish mausolea...  The mystery is that below and in front of [the pyramid] is the curious façade in granite with more than a whiff of the Egyptian taste about it, which must surely be later and is even perhaps of a different family'

Access to the inside 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 was 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 — Freemasonry 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.

Jim Rees teaches history and communications with County Wicklow VEC.  He and fellow local historian, Pat Power, were given access to the interior of the Howard Mausoleum in 1986


Craig, Maurice and Craig, Michael, Mausolea Hibernica (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1999)

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