On November 18, 1884, as reported by the York Herald, Jane Jemima Bogie brought a complaint against a bailiff named John Winter for assault. He had entered the widow’s two-room dwelling for non-payment of rent. As he seized all her goods and effects, Bogie begged to be allowed to keep her husband’s memorial card and his pillow. When he refused, she attempted to grab the card from him, at which point he struck her and knocked her against a wall. The tenacity with which she was willing to defend such a small artefact illustrates the significance so often attached to these items.
I came upon this account while researching the early history of memorial cards in Britain and Ireland for a lockdown project in my native parish of Dunkerrin, Co Offaly. The Dunkerrin Reachingout Heritage Group issued a call to parishioners for the submission of memorial cards that would be scanned and gathered in a publication titled In Loving Memory. Over 2,200 images of memorial cards were collated, and I offered to write an introduction about the evolution of this part of our material culture.
The collection includes a card “in affectionate remembrance of Sarah Anne, the beloved wife of James Healy, Esq, Rathmoyle” who died on January 18, 1877. The card came from Henry Healy, one of her descendants, and more famously, Barack Obama’s eighth cousin.
Many will be familiar with the sight of prayerbooks bursting at the binding from years of being stuffed with memorial cards. For most, they were keepsakes and reminders to pray for the dead. Yet, despite their near ubiquity in Ireland, little has been written about them.
Although memorial cards in Ireland are most often associated with the Roman Catholic tradition, this was not exclusively the case. While relatively rare, they were also printed for Church of Ireland families, and the In Loving Memory collection features some important examples. The key distinction, of course, was that the holder was not invited to pray for the departed loved one, whereas Roman Catholic cards reflected a belief in purgatory.
One was also more likely to find excerpts from a favourite hymn, or poem, and also some scriptural verse in cards from the Anglican tradition. Catholic examples often included images of saints, and prayers with various indulgences attached, complete with their numerical value, a feature that lasted until just after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
The Victorian period in Britain saw a huge rise in the use of funeral stationery, which included the mass production of memorial cards by various firms before being passed on to a printer who would add the deceased’s details. Undertakers often provided them for free, with their contact details included so they doubled up as business cards.
Memorial cards begin to be advertised in Ireland from the early 1870s, with France and Germany their major suppliers.
These cards were not only for one’s immediate relatives. From the beginning, there was demand for cards of public figures, or victims of disasters such as the Titanic. Examples exist of cards commemorating pets.
In November 1867, The Telegraph reported how mourning cards on the death of the Manchester Martyrs “had been sold by a boy near the church in the early forenoon”. With the stock selling out rapidly, the newspaper’s correspondent accosted three Irishwomen in the street, one of whom possessed a copy of the prized artefact. Asked if she might give it to him, she hesitated, saying “as she drew it from under her shawl that she would not, for a hundred pounds, part with it, if she thought she could not get another”.
Change in focus
On November 9, 1881, PW Nally, a noted athlete and member of the Land League and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, died in Mountjoy Prison. By December, The Sligo Champion was advertising his memorial card, which was available, with portrait included, from a Charlestown photographer for 2d.
The potency of these humble items can be seen in a report by the Nenagh Guardian on November 10, 1917 about how Athlone police had seized and destroyed memorial cards of Thomas Ashe, the founding member of the Irish Volunteers who died after being force-fed in Mountjoy Prison.
In recent times, the images on some cards have moved away from religious iconography, instead depicting the deceased surrounded by natural settings, often a scenic backdrop, or engaged in doing what he or she loved best. The focus has shifted from a concern with safe passage to the next life to a celebration of the one that has just ended.
Some weeks ago, a social media discussion of memorial cards caught my attention. The comments captured the affection in which they continue to be held, still laden with meaning and memory.
One in particular made me smile: “Oh, the dresser at home is full of them! ... every time I go home, I say hello to everyone in the ‘dead press’... my own name for it. ‘How are ye all there in the dead press?’ might sound a bit insensitive, but it’s my way of keeping that connection with all the people/family I know who have passed... Sure we have to remember the good times with the good people.”
Salvador Ryan is professor of ecclesiastical history at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth