Building of the Month - January 2011

Dennis Mausoleum in Clonbern Graveyard, CLONBERN Td., County Galway

Máirín Doddy describes the history of, and the myriad potential design sources for, the eye-catching Dennis Mausoleum in Clonbern Graveyard

Figure 1: Dennis Mausoleum, Clonbern Graveyard, County Galway, following its restoration in 2011.  The mausoleum has long attracted admiration and was described in The Tuam Herald (1st May 1869) as ‘a singularly beautiful mausoleum oval shaped and composed of cast iron…  The whole, with the exception of the scrolls and devices…is painted white’.  Damaged by lightning in the later twentieth century, and thereafter the victim of vandalism, the urn had been toppled, the inscription had largely detached, and the railing, supported by slender uprights, had been bent out of shape

One of the most remarkable structures in County Galway is the cast-iron mausoleum located in the Clonbern Graveyard (fig. 1).  It was erected by Elizabeth Dennis (née Eyre) (d. 1897) of Bermingham House to house the remains of her husband, Colonel Maurice Griffin Dennis (d. 1863), and his brother John Irwin Dennis (d. 1869).

In erecting the mausoleum, Elizabeth followed the Victorian custom for Classical funerary monuments dominating their ancient graveyard settings: the nearby Egan Mausoleum (1861), by comparison, resembles a diminutive chapel.  The body of the structure, cylindrical in plan, is approximately 3.5 metres tall, 2 metres in diameter, and is constructed of cast-iron panels bolted together, four panels tall and twelve in the round.  A draped urn, toppled by lightning in the later twentieth century, has been restored to its position crowning the apex of the roof.  Draped urns are a familiar feature in Victorian mausolea and symbolise the ancient practice of using an urn to hold the ashes of the cremated dead: the cloth guards the ashes or signifies the separation between life and death.

Figure 2: A detail of the Dennis coat of arms which appears to be a variation on the Dennis of Holcombe arms with three pistols taking the place of the traditional three Danish battle axes.  The shield is topped by a griffin’s head erased while the banner, given a sense of realism with cast folds and wrinkles, carries the motto TOUJOURS FIDELE [Always Faithful]
The door architrave and Dennis coat of arms overhead are riveted on to the cylinder, as is the inscription, previously in fragments, which reads: “SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF/MAURICE GRIFFIN DENNIS/LATE COLONEL/1ST BATTALION 60TH KINGS ROYAL RIFLES/WHO FELL ASLEEP IN JESUS/THIS MAUSOLEUM IS [ERECTED BY HIS WIFE]/ELIZABETH DENNIS OTHERWISE EYRE” (figs. 2-3).  Around the cylinder are the remains of biblical text, much of which has become detached.  Each of the panels also appears to have had a wreath.

Figure 3: Much of the inscription had detached over time and lay scattered on the ground below.  Recovered pieces were placed in storage for safe keeping and were reaffixed as part of the restoration of the mausoleum in 2011

The mausoleum appears to have been modelled on the ancient Choragic Monument of Lysicrates (335/334 BC) erected by the choreogos, Lysicrates, near the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.  Choreogos was an honorary title given to Athenian citizens who sponsored dramatic productions.  Prizes were awarded jointly to the playwright and the choregos responsible for the best production and the Choragic Monument was erected by Lysicrates to celebrate the victory of a performance he sponsored at the Theatre of Dionysus.  Regarded as the one of the first examples of the Corinthian Order in Greek monumental architecture, the Choragic Monument was illustrated by James Stuart (1713-88) and Nicholas Revett (1720-1804) in The Antiquities of Athens (1762) and it has continued to inspire the artist, and more recently the photographer, ever since.

Similar structures scattered around the world illustrate how the Choragic Monument emerged as a source of inspiration for architects into the nineteenth century.  The Dugald Stewart Monument (1831), overlooking the city of Edinburgh from its elevated setting on Calton Hill, was designed by William Henry Playfair (1879-1857) as a memorial to Professor Dugald Stewart (1753-1828).  Further afield, the monument served as the model for the cupola of the Merchants’ Exchange Building (1834), Philidelphia, by William Strickland (1788-1854); and for the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse (1855), Maine, by Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-87).  The latter, originally a timber structure, was reconstructed in 1875 employing curved cast-iron plates and the similarities to Clonbern cannot be ignored.

Extensive research of old pattern books has to date uncovered no clues as to the manufacturer of the Dennis Mausoleum and there are no apparent identifying marks on the structure itself.  Perhaps it was imported to Ireland in kit form and assembled on site.  Maurice Craig in Mausolea Hibernica (1999) suggests that it was probably cast in Scotland by the Carron Iron Works (founded 1759), near Falkirk, or some such firm.  On the other hand, Paul Walsh in Clonbern Graveyard: It‘s Monuments and People (2011) argues that the mausoleum may well have been manufactured by the James Stephens Foundry in Galway, its distinctive profile modelled on a diving bell used in the repair of Galway Dock in 1844.

The mausoleum was struck by lightning some years ago and was thereafter the victim of vandalism.  However, Galway County Council Conservation Office has recently undertaken a restoration project with financial assistance from the Civic Structures Conservation Grant Scheme and a Maintenance Grant from The Heritage Council.  The project was also supported by the Clonbern Community Development Council and the Follies Trust.

Máirín Doddy, Architectural Conservation Officer, Galway County Council, with research by Megan Reese, US ICOMOS Intern


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

Mullally, Evelyn (ed.), Clonbern Graveyard: It‘s Monuments and People (Belfast: The Follies Trust, 2011)

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