21 July 2021

A Lily By Any Other Name

A regular problem when researching cemetery symbology is the proliferation of websites repeating the exact same assertions, often copied and pasted from one another, that this flower represents 'truth and beauty' and that flower symbolises 'fascination', and this other one means 'innocence', etc. These are of course rather vague qualities that have been in circulation for a long time, and while some flowers have folkloric and religious meanings going back to ancient civilisations, the 19th century 'Language of Flowers' seemed to demand that every single flower suddenly have some particular meaning associated with it.
Sometimes, however, it pays to think about if the symbol on a headstone has a more specific association with the person in the grave.

The calla lilies of South Brisbane Cemetery are a good example. My colleague Tracey Olivieri and I are compiling a record of the symbols to be found on the headstones in that cemetery, and we found a couple of depictions of these distinctive southern African flowers. This makes the calla lily a rare symbol in that cemetery, with the two very similar examples being created by the business of W. Batstone and Sons around the same 1920-ish period.

Calla lily.

They were named from the Greek calla, meaning ‘beauty’, but other less endearing names include ‘pig lily’ and ‘trumpet lily’. It is also the national flower of the island nation of Saint Helena, where it grows widely. They are not, however, true lilies, and were actually misnamed by the famous Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (the ‘father of modern taxonomy’) but the name has stuck over time.

Onomatology aside, initial research indicated that these flowers have standard run-of-the-mill meanings such as 'purity and innocence', and also 'marriage and fidelity'. Typical Victorian-era 'language of flowers' stuff. Like many other flowers, they can also refer to resurrection, due to their seasonal association with spring and Easter. 

However, they also have a very real 20th-century association with Irish republicanism. Since at least 1926 they have been used to commemorate the Irish dead of the 1916 Easter Rising, when Irish republicans tried to take advantage of the British being stuck in the quagmire of the First World War and rose up against them with the aim of establishing an independent Irish Republic. This was the most serious Irish uprising since the rebellion of 1798, but it failed, with 16 Irish leaders being executed soon afterwards. 

In this context the calla lily is named the ‘Easter Lily’ (Lile na C├ísca). Badges depicting the flower were traditionally sold outside churches on Easter Sunday since 1926, with revenue going to organisations such as the Irish Republican Prisoners' Dependants Fund. These badges can still be bought today.

What caught my eye in South Brisbane is the fact that the calla lily symbol was used on the monuments of two Irish Catholics - Thomas Woodlark Brownlee (died 1922) and William O’Connor (died 1918). Their ethnic and religious associations were immediately obvious as both monuments are in the form of Celtic Crosses, which were used around that highly-sectarian time as a proud expression of Irish nationalism. Indeed, Protestants sometimes referred to these crosses as the 'Irish Cross'.

The ornate cross on the Brownlee grave (left) also features roses, passion flowers, and possibly flannel flowers. The O’Connor headstone (right) is similarly elaborate, with daisies, rosebuds and ivy. (C. Dawson)

Closer view of the Brownlee stone. (C. Dawson)

I have not yet found any record of either these men being involved in the nationalist cause - without a deep dive, the public details of their lives are scant - but the rarity of these symbols, the timing of their use just after the Easter Rising, and the Irish background of the deceased provide circumstantial evidence that the lilies might have some political significance. So the connection is at least a possibility worth exploring further, and an opportunity to highlight an interesting aspect of the symbology of the calla lily.

An example of the ongoing use of the Easter Lily badge.

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