« Co. Kildare Online Electronic History Journal Home »


 A living monument – a topiary roadside memorial in County Kildare

James Eogan

Monument tree–A hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) bush c. 3.2m high and 2.7m wide, growing in a hedgerow on the west side of the former N9 Dublin to Waterford national road in the townland of Ballymount,[1] Co. Kildare. The tree has been clipped into the shape of an equal-armed cross. In September 2008 two fragments of a broken blue plastic rosary were suspended from some of its lower branches. This hawthorn bush is a living roadside memorial to Matthew Doyle, a local man who was knocked down at this spot on the evening of 2 September 1934.[2]

On the evening of the All-Ireland hurling final 1934 a man called Matt Doyle ... was walking towards Kilcullen from Ballymount Church to a shop (which was close by) to buy Afton cigarettes. He was walking on the grass margin. A Model T car travelling towards Dublin, driven by a sales rep. from Kilkenny, went on to the grass margin and killed him. His grandson felt that the lights were not able to be dipped and he was blinded by oncoming traffic. Matt Doyle was badly injured and was transferred to the county hospital in Kildare town and died ten days later (according to Matthew Doyle's grandson, Matt, he died on 10 September, eight days after the accident). A few days later a neighbour shaped the tree where he was knocked down into a cross using wire. Annually neighbours trimmed the tree to the shape of a cross. In recent years the Doyle family took on the responsibility. The cross is re-shaped each year around this time for the anniversary. (Breda Carroll, Ballymount, Co. Kildare, pers. comm., August 2008.)

Further details on the design, maintenance and care of the monument were recalled by Matt Doyle, Matthew's grandson:

The original young bush was tied into shape by James Maguire, of Usk and Robert O'Connor of Kilgowan, road workers with Kildare County Council at the time, so for many years afterwards they kept an eye on it during their work and saved it from small roadworks and so on ... All through my youth I assisted Robert ‘Bob’ O'Connor with the clipping of the cross ... he was very particular about the shape and scale proportions of the cross. I had a good instructor to whom a half leaf on or off made all the difference. (Matt Doyle, Blackrath, Colbinstown, Co. Kildare, pers. comm., December 2008.)

A variety of early medieval and medieval Irish historical sources and folklore collected in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries attest to the fact that certain trees and groups of trees 'were treated with a certain reverence which, normally, protected them from wilful damage' (Lucas 1963, 16). Lucas grouped these sacred trees into a number of loose categories. Some of them were large single trees notable for their size or form; a second category were trees that grew at tribal inauguration sites; others were associated with ecclesiastical sites and holy wells; a fourth category were trees growing at cillín sites; and the last group marked the place of sudden death of an individual (ibid.). Lucas cites an example of the latter category in a record collected by the Irish Folklore Commission about a tree growing at Cappanarrow [OS 6in. sh. 11], Co. Laois:

Long ago when a person would be killed in an accident there would be a small tree planted in that place. There is a monument tree over in Srahane. Usually it is a white-thorn tree is planted. Nobody ever touches a monument tree (ibid, 43).

The informant quoted in the original manuscript goes on to report that 'Nowadays they put up a cross.[3] Lucas cites further reports of monument trees from counties Longford, Westmeath and Galway. In all cases where the species of tree is recorded they were hawthorns.
A strong taboo associated with sacred trees, regardless of their context or categorisation, is the prohibition against cutting them or damaging them in any way or even touching the fruit. The records of the Irish Folklore Commission, however, contain references to a monument tree 'clipped in the shape of a cross' at Glebe townland (Upperwoods barony) [OS 6in. sh. 16], Co. Laois;[4] this example commemorated a man killed in 1908. There are references to other cross-shaped monument trees near Mountrath, Co. Laois,[5] and Multyfarnham, Co. Westmeath.[6]
The pruning and shaping of trees and bushes in Irish gardens can be traced to the seventeenth century (Reeves-Smyth 1999, 124ff), and the practice continued through the eighteenth century (Lamb and Bowe 1995, 25). The impetus for the development of topiary in Ireland was provided by contemporary international garden fashions, but at this period it seems that topiary was the preserve of the rich and powerful and was confined to formal gardens. There is no evidence that the foliage of trees or bushes was clipped for decorative effect before the seventeenth century in Ireland. By the twentieth century garden hedges and shrubs were commonly clipped into shape as a response to prevailing garden fashions and owing to the ready availability of the necessary tools.
A great variety of roadside memorials to the victims of road traffic accidents have been recorded in Ireland; the website Irish roadside memorials at sites of traffic fatalities (www.irishroadside.com) has records of over 700 such memorials from all 26 counties in the Irish Republic. Recently an article on roadside memorials along the N4 Dublin-Sligo road has considered the role of these monuments as part of the 'material culture of remembrance' (MacConville and McQuillan 2005).
Máire nic Néill (1946, 62) in her study of wayside death cairns ascribes the motivation for the construction of this type of monument to a manifestation of the 'peculiar influence which death has on the spot where it occurs ... It is not one dead person, but death itself, or some vague terrible power, which is feared at the death place'. The records of the Irish Folklore Commission indicate that the presence of a monument tree was a prompt to all who passed to remember the deceased person in prayer; if a monument tree was on the route followed by a funeral procession, the cortege stopped and the mourners recited a prayer such as the Our Father or the De Profundis (Psalm 129) in memory of the person commemorated by the tree. In this way these people who were marked out by the unusual or sudden manner of their death were drawn back into the community at the very place where their death had occurred. Matt Doyle is not aware that this practice was ever observed at the Ballymount monument tree, but he recalls occasions over the years when the family have found religious tokens in or at the tree, such as the rosary beads noted in 2008. These items were left by unknown third parties and indicate that the tree has a ritual significance for some people who pass by.
Recent archaeological research has focused on the prehistoric ritual significance of unaltered topographic features, such as rock outcrops, in the landscape (Bradley 1998; 2000). Little attention appears to have been paid, however, to the potential ritual significance that may have been ascribed to individual trees in the past, presumably because of the difficulty of demonstrating this phenomenon empirically. For archaeologists the memorial to Matt Doyle is a reminder that a landscape can be 'monumentalised' without the construction of durable structures of stone or earth. When the Ballymount monument tree reaches the end of its natural life there will be no physical trace of its presence above ground and no evidence of its previous, existence below ground-it will be archaeologically invisible.
The hawthorn bush clipped into a cross shape to commemorate the place where Matthew Doyle was knocked down is a modern example of the tradition of the monument tree. It seems that an existing tree in the roadside hedgerow was adapted for use as a memorial rather than a tree being planted, which, based on the folklore records, appears to have been the more usual practice. The available information suggests that the tree was trained using wire, indicating that James Maguire or Robert O'Connor had some knowledge of, or experience in, topiary. This is interesting, as MacConville and McQuillan (2005, 29) cite records from the Irish Folklore Commission that if a sudden death took place near the house of a carpenter he would furnish a wooden cross, while if it occurred close to the forge the smith would make a metal cross. County Council road-workers in twentieth century Ireland carried out a variety of tasks related to the maintenance and upkeep of the road network, including hedge-cutting. The creation of this monument tree can be interpreted as an expression of the 'craft' of these road-workers.
This memorial is a combination of the apparently long-established tradition of marking the place of sudden death with a hawthorn bush and the more recently introduced horticultural practice of clipping trees and bushes for decorative effect.
The hawthorn clipped into the shape of a cross marking the place where Matthew Doyle died is a distinctive roadside memorial that requires ongoing annual maintenance. For the Doyle family, clipping the bush in order to maintain its form has become an act of remembrance of a relative who died in tragic circumstances 75 years ago. For the author, who first noticed it from the window of a passing bus, the Ballymount monument tree has been transformed from a topiary curiosity to a striking manifestation of the human desire to perpetuate memories and mark the passage of time.

I would like to thank Matt Doyle and Breda Carroll for providing information on the origin of this memorial. Dr Críostóir Mac Cirtháigh, archivist, Bhéaloideas Cnuasach Ä’ireann, provided photocopies of relevant records from the files of the Folklore Commission. Mr John O'Flynn, Waterford County Engineer (retd.), provided information on Local Authority work practices.

Bradley, R. 1998. Ruined buildings, ruined stones: enclosures, tombs and natural places in the Neolithic of south-west England. In R. Bradley and H. Williams (eds), The 'past in the past: the reuse of ancient monuments, 13-22. World Archaeology 30 (1). Routledge, London.
Bradley, R. 2000 An archaeology of natural places. Routledge, London.
Lamb, J.D.G. and Bowe, P.T.P. 1995. A history of gardening in Ireland. The Stationery Office, Dublin.
Lucas, A.T. 1963. The sacred trees of Ireland. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 68, 16-54.
McConville, U. and McQuillan, R. 2005. Continuing the tradition: roadside memorials in Ireland. Archaeology Ireland 19 (1), 26-30.
McIlraith, D. 2001. Vehicle and traffic growth in Ireland in the 20th century. Unpublished manuscript, National Roads Authority.
Nic Néill, M. 1946 Wayside death cairns in Ireland. Béaloideas 16,49-63.
Reeves-Smyth, T. 1999. Irish gardens and gardening before Cromwell. The Barryscourt Lectures 4. The Barryscourt Trust, Carrigtwohill.

1. The tree is located at National Grid Reference 282243E, 201594N, Ballymount townland, Narragh & Reban East barony, Usk parish, Co. Kildare.
2. In 1934 there were 35,497 cars registered in the Irish Free State, and 195 road fatalities were recorded in that year (McIlraith 2001, tables 2 and 4). There are no figures for traffic volume on this route in 1934, but the extrapolation of 1928 figures suggests that in this year the average annual daily traffic on this stretch of road was around 280 vehicles, or twelve vehicles per hour in both directions.
3. National Folklore Collection MS 652: 84.
4. National Folklore Collection MS 652: 90-1.
5. National Folklore Collection MS 652: 86.
6. National Folklore Collection MS 652: 191.


A Grand Gallimaufry
collected in honour of Nick Maxwell

Edited by Mary Davies, Una MacConville and Gabriel Cooney

Word well
First published in 2010 by Word well Ltd
Media House, South County Business Park, Dublin 18
Copyright © The authors.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher. This book is sold subject to the conditions that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data are available for this book.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN 978 1905569458


A living monument – a topiary roadside memorial in County Kildare. Our thanks to James Eogan for permission to use this article. Re-typed by James Durney

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2