Corpse House, Donegore Parish Church Donegore, Co. Antrim

Location: Approx 0.5km north of the M2, 3km north east of Antrim town.

The 1832 Anatomy Act allowed the bodies of paupers in workhouses and hospitals to be confiscated and used for dissection by students in anatomy classes. Prior to this the shortage of bodies led to the rise of body-snatching where bodies were stolen from graves and sold on the black market to medical schools. The demand for such corpses was especially great in Edinburgh and Glasgow and graveyards along the eastern cost of Ireland, particularly those in east Antrim, were frequently raided by the notorious ‘carcass merchants’ in order to supply this lucrative market. Bodies were of little use after they had started to putrefy so watches were often kept over graves for several weeks after a burial. According to the report of one nineteenth-century observer, the isolated graveyard at Donegore appears to have experienced the threat of this unwanted attention: ‘The last time that I was in Donegore churchyard, I heard an old man say that in the year 1829 he was engaged two nights a week during a month watching a corpse, others performing the duty when absent’ (quoted in Bell 1988, 64). Sitting out in a graveyard at night for weeks on end guarding a grave was no doubt a cold and tedious task, so in 1829 the Vestry Minute book at Donegore records that £20 was set aside to erect two vaults, or corpse houses, one at Donegore and the second at Kilbride (ibid). A corpse house was essentially a secure building in which the coffin could be locked for a few weeks until the body began to decompose after which burial could take place safe in the knowledge that the body would be useless for anatomical purposes. The corpse house at Donegore still stands today with its original iron gate and stone roof. It is in urgent need of repair and we are pleased that the church will shortly be addressing the problems. A plaque on wall records that the building was ‘Erected by public subscription, 1832’, the same year as the Anatomy Act which saw an end to the body-snatcher’s trade.

Refs: Bell M., ‘A history of St John’s Church at Donegore’, Antrim, 1988

Fleetwood J., ‘The Irish body snatchers’, Dublin, 1988