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‘A clash of cultures’: Irish opinion split over Travellers’ elaborate headstones

<span>Headstones in Ballyhaunis cemetery, County Mayo.</span><span>Photograph: Patrick Bolger/The Guardian</span>
Headstones in Ballyhaunis cemetery, County Mayo.Photograph: Patrick Bolger/The Guardian

The latest addition to Ballyhaunis cemetery in Ireland’s County Mayo towers over neighbouring headstones in a blaze of white marble and ornamentation. Rose-wreathed pillars frame a tableau of statues showing Jesus, angels, cherubim and biblical scenes, including an engraving of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Marble tablets express bereavement in gold letters, a photo of the deceased gazes from a carved stone bench and lanterns with diamond-shaped bulbs and electric sensors flank the central slab.

It is the headstone of a beloved wife and mother – and the latest flashpoint in a dispute over aesthetics, culture and tolerance that has split public opinion in Ireland.

Members of the Traveller community have in recent years erected large, elaborate headstones that, depending on perspective, are moving testaments to grief and loss or garish spectacles of one-upmanship.

Some sprout flags and have fake jukeboxes, others have marble depictions of vehicles, football jerseys, pets, beer bottles, boxing gloves and dartboards.

Such displays were expressions of love from a marginalised community with shockingly high mortality rates, said Martin Collins, a co-director of Pavee Point, which represents Travellers and Roma. “They are remembering the person who has just passed. It really is important that Travellers are seen to be given a good sendoff. It’s not a materialistic thing, it’s a very religious, holy thing.”

The monument in Ballyhaunis has set a precedent of sorts by becoming a tourist attraction. “We heard about it in the pub and couldn’t leave without seeing it,” said Paul Walsh, 34, who braved icy winds to visit the cemetery last week. “I was in the Vatican recently and this is giving me a Vatican vibe.”

His friend Niall Prenty, 34, said it was impressive. “Certainly more extravagant than I had expected. It’s over the top and there’s something outrageous about it but it doesn’t bother me. Fair play to them.”

Detractors, however, say extra-large headstones violate planning rules, overshadow other graves and introduce an element of competition.

“They’re getting bigger and bigger,” said Michael McCullough, 84, who has objected to Galway county council over headstones in Creagh cemetery outside Ballinasloe, about an hour’s drive from Ballyhaunis. “The Ballinasloe graveyard is not an exhibition centre. It’s a serene place, a sacred place for our ancestors. Once we’re under the ground, we’re all equal.”

McCullough’s daughter, parents and grandparents are buried at Creagh and he has a plot earmarked for himself and his wife. “Is the suggestion of that edifice,” he said, indicating a black marble headstone with swirling pillars, “that they have more love for their dead than we do?” The auctioneer said he had no animus against Travellers but that some headstones verged on “monstrous”.

Some recent monuments were reputedly installed with cranes at night. Galway county council said it received 11 complaints about one at Creagh and wished to question the contractor.

Controversy has extended to Sheffield in England where the city council is under pressure to remove a 37-tonne mausoleum erected in Shiregreen cemetery in 2022 to honour Willy Collins, an Irish Traveller “king” and bareknuckle boxing champion who died in 2020 at the age of 49.

His widow, Kathleen, told reporters: “There have been vicious comments on social media from those who hate the Traveller community and they have left the whole family feeling very hurt and angry. People are threatening to pull the monument down or damage it, while the council is saying we may have to change it, but if that happens there’s going to be war.”

Martin Collins, the Traveller representative, said Traveller families should respect planning rules but urged the settled community to show tolerance and understanding. “What’s happening here is a clash of cultures and cultural values. There has to be some accommodation to respect everyone’s traditions.”

He said prehistoric burial sites such as the famous Newgrange monument and tombs of illustrious figures at Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery dwarfed Traveller headstones.

At Ballyhaunis graveyard, one woman said she had no objection to big monuments as long as they did not come too close to her son’s grave. Fahed Kezze, 39, who was visiting the Muslim section, said families should be able to erect large monuments, though that was not his family’s preference. “My mother is in a simple grave but we built two wells in India that are named after her,” he said.