At a committee meeting of the Craigavon Historical Society, it was felt that if members could undertake to record the inscriptions on pre-1900 gravestones in County Armagh, it would be a useful exercise. The authors chose St. Marks Church, Ballymore Tandragee. It proved to be a fascinating and absorbing subject.
In 1610, James I gave to Oliver St. John a large area of land, including Ballymore. On it St. John built a castle, and bawn, (most likely on the site of the present Tandragee Castle) and in 1622 he erected a church.
This building served both as a place of worship and a fortress. Its walls were four feet thick and it was mounted with cannon. In the 1641 rebellion, this church was burnt down. It was repaired in 1670 and a tower added. In 1812 the church was not deemed to be large enough, so it was demolished and the present St. Marks, Ballymore was erected. In 1846 the transepts and chancel were added.
The Reverend J. B. Leslie writing in 1911 says the St. John vault was in front of the pulpit. As no trace of it can be found it seems likely it was covered when the sandstone flags in the church were replaced in 1926. However the vault was opened in 1812 and in a box was found a paper sealed in a bottle which read:
'This box contains the bones of Henry St. John Esq., Lord of this manor of Ballymore and of his daughter. He rebuilt the church of Tandragee and built this vault'.
He was murdered by a party of banditti called Tories at Drumlyn Hill, near Knockbridge on Tuesday the 9th day of September, 1679 by being shot through the forehead and was buried in this vault. By tradition of the old inhabitants of this Parish, it appears that upon opening this vault for his interment, the body of his daughter who died some time before, was found lying near the entrance and out of her coffin, having it is supposed, revived after being locked up there.
The Dukes of Manchester, who inherited the St. John estates by marriage, were buried in England. The exception being the 8th Duke - George Victor Drogo who is buried in Ballymore. There is also a window to his memory in the South transept. An interesting plaque with carved figures in the wall of the same transept was erected in 1910 to the memory of the 8th Duke's twin daughters who were very beautiful but died young.
The oldest recorded gravestone in Ballymore which was copied by Robert Pillow - Archaeologist - in 1871 reads:
'Here lyeth ye body of Nicholas Marks who departed this life ye 9th of June 1675 aged 85 years and Mary his daughter who departed this life ye 1st of April 1721 aged 72 years and William Marks who departed this life ye 15th of January 1729 aged 97 years and John Marks departed ye 26th November 1741 aged 74 years.'
Unfortunately no trace was found of this gravestone or of the other one recorded by Mr. Pillow which reads:
'Here lyeth ye body of William Glenn who departed this life ye 31st of October 1713 aged 95 years.'
Later members of both the Glenn and Marks family lie buried in Ballymore, so it is possible the stones are still in existence. However there are many old gravestones to be seen in Ballymore. We found two dates 1729 and 1736 but the surnames in both cases are obliterated in part.
Professor R. S. J. Clarke has recorded the gravestone inscriptions in County Down and elsewhere. When he spoke to the Historical Society, he mentioned it was unusual to find the cause of death on gravestones. In Ballymore the gravestone of James Glenn says he fell victim to cholera, unfortunately the date is obliterated. Another stone reads: - 'Sacred to the memory of James Grant of Tandragee who died of cholera the 8th of November 1833 aged 41 years. This tomb was erected by his disconsolate widow as a tribute of respect to an affectionate husband.
Among the mural tablets in the church there is one to William Loftie J.P. agent to the Manchester Family, who succumbed to the same cholera epidemic and died on November 7th 1833.
A tombstone to the Matthews family of Tandragee records the death from smallpox in 1840 of Mary Ann Matthews aged 2 years. A sad little poem on the stone reads:
'Lo the smallpox whose horrid glare
Levelled its terrors at the fair
And rifling every youthful grace
Left but the remnant of a face.
In 1903 Samuel Greer, Town Surveyor, made a detailed map of Ballymore graveyard. It is a most interesting and historic record, particularly in view of the fact that so many of the graves listed have disappeared. St. Marks, Ballymore is fortunate, also, because its burial records dated from 1783. They were not sent to Dublin and so were not burnt in the Four Courts in 1922.
'I like that ancient Saxon phrase which calls the burial ground God's Acre' writes Longfellow. Certainly there is an atmosphere of peace in an old graveyard with its grassy mounds and fine wrought iron railings. The tombstones with their varied and interesting shapes and inscriptions are a pleasure, and in some cases, a challenge to read.
However, for those who have the care of old graveyards, there are problems too: That of maintenance and coping with the ever increasing need for burial plots. While recording the inscriptions on older stones ensures that historical records are kept, succeeding generations will be the poorer, if we do not look after the many magnificent examples of craftsmanship that are in our graveyards today. They bear witness to a less hurried and more thoughtful age than our own, and the finer stones should be preserved.