No one is sure when a church was erected on this site, however we can presume that it was part of the Celtic Church prior to the arrival of the Normans. It remained a place of catholic worship until the collapse of the rebellion of 1581 when Lord Ormond and his English army signalled their victory over the Earl of Desmond by burning down the church.
In 1694 a protestant church was built on the walls of the old church. It remained a place of Protestant worship until 1815 when St. Mary’s Church was completed in the town (near Roches Row). The old church was then allowed to fall into ruins.
Around the old church is one of the most cosmopolitan graveyards in Ireland with people of many races and creeds buried here. Very many are seafaring men who found their last resting place in this quiet corner of the Great Island. For centuries wealth was a pre-requisite for burial within a church’s walls or to erect a memorial. “Ordinary” people were buried in the churchyard with only mounds of grass or pieces of wood to mark their graves. However by the late 1600’s the merchant classes had assumed the tradition of erecting stone memorials to their dead. The oldest remaining headstone in this cemetery dates to 1698. Many headstones are now worn and difficult to read, but an examination of them can be rewarding as they form an astonishing demonstration of the stonemason’s craft.
There is a marble tablet at the north-east corner of the church to the memory of George Rogers of Ashgrove ( a townland near Ballymore). In the vaults under the church lie the remains of the Rogers family.
The largest mass grave in the cemetery is that of the victims of the Lusitania, but there are many more. The grave of 17 of the crew of H.M.S. Lapwing is located close to the outside of the north wall of the church. They died from virulent dysentery between 13th December 1804 and 7th February 1805.
Many graves however are unmarked and the records of the Old Church cemetery merely state son, daughter or wife of a named person or “A drowned man”, “A Dutch sailor”, “A black man”.
As part of a Youth Employment Scheme in 1984 information concerning burials in this cemetery was gathered. Mr. Luke Cassidy, supervisor of the scheme published this information in a book “Clonmel (Old Church) Cemetery”. Copies of this book are available for inspection at Cobh Town Council offices and at Cobh Library.
Known graves are listed in alphabetical order and can be located by reference to a section letter, row number, position number and grave number. In another section of the book the inscriptions of all headstones are transcribed according to grave number. For burials which were fully recorded but where the grave position is now unknown, the year of death and alphabetical list is provided.