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The Modest Man

September 22, 2011

A long holiday and a new job have kept me away from this blog for much longer than anticipated. I return though with something a bit different. Up until now the main focus of this blog has been on larger heritage sites. However for this blog I want to narrow that down and discuss something within one of the heritage sites I have blogged about before. I preciously wrote in regard to Triskel Christchurch but while doing so I neglected something very intriguing there. I felt it deserved it’s own post.

As I had mentioned before when writing about Triskel Christchurch, many of the important families of the city were buried there back when it was the main church for Cork city. Among these notables are a number of former mayors (the term Lord Mayor didn’t come into use until the time of Queen Victoria). For the majority no real trace remains. Time and various rebuildings of the church have hidden or destroyed their monuments. There is one very interesting gravestone that has survived and passed into local legend in Cork. It is often referred to as ‘The Modest Man of Christchurch’.


This is the gravestone of Thomas Ronan, twice mayor of Cork in 1537 and again in 1549. He died on August 13 1554. It is referred to as ‘The Modest Man’ because of the way one of the hands is positioned. If you look closely you will notice it is positioned to cover the ‘modesty’ of the central figure, which is a skeleton.

The gravestone is believed to have formed part of the floor of the old church before it’s demolition and rebuilding in 1720. It was rediscovered in 1815 buried beneath the crypt. By 1877 it had been moved outside near the cemetary gates.

The crypt of Christchurch

The graveyard as it is today

Presently the slab is viewable to the public at the front entrance to Christchurch

There is much more to the Modest Man than simply the way the hands are positioned. Looking closely at the slab reveals a number of very intriguing details. These can be seen much better on an illustrated version of the slab from the 1800s

The skeleton is wrapped in a shrowd. The practice of using coffins for burials only became common relatively recently. Before that the body was wrapped in a cloth shroud before being placed in the ground.

The gothic style lettering that goes all around the slab is in Latin and reads:

“In this tomb is covered by body of the gracious gentleman Thomas Ronan, formerly Mayor of this City of Cork, who died on
the day after Saint Jambert’s Day (13 August) in the year of our Lord 1554. With whom there also wises to be buried his wife Joan Tyrry, who died on the 1st December in the year of our Lord 1569: on whose souls may God have mercy. Amen. Pater, Ave and Credo. De profundis.”

This bit of biographical information is significant. Ronan (sometimes spelled Ronayne) is believed to have been a surname of Gaelic origin. This is interesting at a time when most of the nobility of Cork city were of Anglo-Norman descent. His wife was of the Tyrry (or Terry) family, one of those Anglo-Norman families. We have little information from this period so we don’t know much else about Thomas Ronan or the Ronan family. This was during the period of Henry VIII when there was a lot of upheaval among the established nobilities of Britain and Ireland. Perhaps the Ronan family gained land and wealth under the Tudors, so were able to make a match with one of the prestigious families of the city. This certainly doesn’t seem to have hurt Thomas Ronans position within society if he was elected Mayor twice. For all that there must have been some genuine feeling between them for his wife to add her name to the slab later on.

Looking at each of the corners we can see the symbol for one of the four Evangelists, the writers of the Gospels. The symbols for Matthew, Mark and John are present but the corner with Luke has been broken off.

The presence of a skeleton on a Christian burial from the 1500’s might also seem very strange. We are more used to seeing human representations. However this type of symbolism, known as memento mori, was very common from the later Medieval period right up until the beginnings of the Renaissance. The spread of plagues like the Black Death made people very aware of their mortality and of what sort of life they should lead in order to be accepted into heaven. This is emphasised in the final line of inscription “Man, be mindful, since Death does not tarry: for when he dies, you will inherit serpents and beasts worms.” Not particularly cheerful but it was meant to be a rejection of vanity and other wordly trappings. To remind people that they could not take their possessions with them.

There are also four other symbols surrounding the skeleton. A sun, a moon, a star and a rose. There are numerous interpretations for these symbols and I have yet to find a definitive answer as to what they may represent in this context. For instance, the rose could be a sign of marital devotion and love or a sign of loyalty to the Tudor dynasty, which had the rose as it’s emblem. We also see the initials TR by the feet of the skeleton.

This slab also raises a few questions about the ability of whoever carved the skeleton. Obviously there weren’t too good on human anatomy. One side of the skeleton has a few more ribs than the other.

It is certainly a fascinating and enigmatic carving. Thomas Ronan must have been a very well educated individual and wealthy to get a grave slab like this. It is only a pity we don’t know more about him, other than his rank. But I’m sure he would be pleased to know his memorial continues to draw interest and comment.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2011 10:56 pm

    This was a fascinating blog post, one of your best. I really enjoyed the detail on the grave slab. My friend Andy Neil bought me to a tour of Trinity college once where they had an exhibition on Anatomy, featuring among other things an exhibition on Vesalius (the founder of modern medicine). People believed in many errors about the human body until Vesalius dissected humans. One error was that man had one rib less then woman because of the story of God taking Adam’s rib in Genesis. PERHAPS this is a reason why he has one rib less on one side!

  2. September 24, 2011 10:59 pm

    Vaselius was doing his studies after this mans’s death, so these new discoveries probably weren’t known by then

    • September 25, 2011 12:57 am

      That is an interesting suggestion. Looking at the skeleton there does seem to be more than one extra rib but it wouldn’t be surprising that a sculptor wouldn’t be familiar with human anatomy in the 1500s.

  3. Tony Creed permalink
    October 5, 2011 4:41 pm

    As a child in the 1940’s/50’s I lived in the Grand Parade and was very close to the Bishop family who lived in the lodge in Christchurch Lane. Harry Bishop was the caretaker of the school and church. I used to play with his two daughters May and Olive Bishop in the graveyard. The gravestone of the modest man of Cork was upright and leaning against a wall that was the rear of a building in Tobins Lane. The grave stone was my stepping stone to get up onto the roofs and run along the same. It was as a child my way of adventure. We all who lived nearby knew of the modest man and somewhere I even have a photo of the gravestone in the position I always knew it to be in. Beautiful building Christchurch and such a shame the old lodge was pulled down.

    • October 8, 2011 3:08 pm

      That’s a great story. It is a shame that the buildings along Christ Church lane were pulled down but I guess we wouldn’t have the park otherwise. Are you still living in Cork and have you been into Christchurch since it’s renovation? I’m actually working in Triskel at the moment and my main job is research into the history of Christchurch. If you are ever around please feel free to drop in someday. It’s always great to hear more of peoples memories of Christchurch.

  4. Steve permalink
    November 23, 2011 9:00 pm

    After reading about “The Modest Man” in Murphy’s *Stone Mad,* I was delighted to find your recent post. We’ll look for the slab when next we visit Cork.

  5. March 8, 2013 9:02 am

    Thanks for this excellent blog post. I’m researching the Spearing’s who were a merchant family and also Mayors of Cork and were buried in the church. I hope to visit and look for any gravestones at some stage in the future. Family Tree at and

  6. February 16, 2015 11:32 pm

    Reblogged this on nancyeffingerwilson.

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