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  • Writer's pictureAlison and Donal

Forgotten stone shines light on Irish family's history

Meelick graveyard in County Galway, six miles from Brackloon Castle, is home to this small obscure carved headstone. It almost goes unnoticed among more modern memorials in the ruins of an old side chapel but it’s tiny size belies its significance. This stone and its chapel, are the only surviving physical evidence of the former status of the old Gaelic family of Larkin of East Galway and open the door to their forgotten story.

The Larkins of East Galway, whose surname was more commonly Anglicised as ‘Lorcan’ prior to the 1800s, share a common ancestor with the O’Madden chieftains who once ruled this most easterly region of County Galway. From generation to generation in the medieval period, leading members of the family appear to have served the O’Madden chieftain in some learned capacity. When Tomás Ó Lorcain died in 1490, he was described as ‘a potential Ollamh (a senior learned man) to the O’Madden’ but unfortunately his field of learning was not described.

Visible from the battlements of Brackloon Castle is the local height of Redmount Hill. Around and beyond that hill to the west lay the Lorcan’s ancestral lands. Despite Cromwellian confiscations in the 1650s and a lengthy legal dispute with the earls of Clanricarde, one senior family of the name managed to retain ownership of part of their ancestral lands in the parish of Kiltormer down to the early years of the 1800s. That family was the Lorcans of Graveshill (or, as it was also known alternatively, ‘Knockanehuohy’, from the Irish language ‘Cnocán na hUaighe’ or ‘hillock of the grave’), whose small estate lay between the villages of Kiltormer and Lawrencetown.

This Lorcan family were closely linked with the Franciscan friary at nearby Meelick, providing both patrons and priests. Sometime about 1688, Roger Lorcan had the small Lorcan side-chapel built or re-built as the burial place for his family, at a time when the friars were busy rebuilding their church at Meelick. The location of this carved stone today in the ruin of that chapel then is all the more significant.

Roger Lorcan served as a captain in the army of the Catholic King James II and survived the Jacobite-Williamite war. When he died in 1719, he was buried in this chapel alongside others of his family. Another of the family, Doctor Simon Lorcan, buried here in 1723, was among a small number of local Catholic landholders entrusted with the safe keeping of the friary’s valuables when the friars were ordered to leave Ireland in 1698. Despite the Penal Laws, the friars managed to maintain their presence locally and recorded in their obituary book many of the burials at Meelick. Among those was the burial in 1800 of Joseph Lorcan, one of the last of the family to reside at Graveshill. Not long thereafter, the friars began allocating plots in the chapel grounds to other families and it ceased to function primarily as the Lorcan burial place.

This small carved stone commemorates Anthony Lorcan who died in 1746, his wife and his immediate family. The stone’s coat of arms is primitively carved but in a style not uncommon for that period. In eighteenth century Ireland, a coats of arms was regarded as an attribute of gentility and a family’s social standing. Many minor families of Gaelic ancestry only acquired coats of arms in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the case of the Lorcans, there is no evidence of officially authorised arms in the records of the Chief Herald of Ireland, whose registers extend back to the middle of the sixteenth century. Either they never approached the heralds to have arms granted or, if they did, that record was lost. This obscure stone in the grounds of the family chapel is the only surviving evidence that a senior branch of the Lorcans claimed use of a coat of arms at any stage.

Today, the Lorcan house at Graveshill has disappeared and their lands long passed from the family. Their burial chapel is a ruin in the grounds of the restored Meelick church and it’s association with the family long-forgotten by the early twentieth century. With the passing of centuries, only the chapel’s few remaining stones and this headstone with its primitively carved coat of arms serves as a reminder of the former status of this once locally-important Gaelic family.

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May 31, 2021

In the 60s in Westport, Mayo, my parents had a friend by the name of Lorcan Gill. I have no idea, of course, but it would make sense that he was a descendant. He was a solicitor, which would fit with the ancient family tradition. A lovely, quiet, thoughtful man.

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