Glasnevin Cemetery

glas2Picture, if you will, 19th century Dublin. Death plays a hefty role in working class life. Parents deny their children a comfortable existence so they can bury them in style, inner city churchyards overflow, body snatching is rife and the shallow graves provide fresh meat for scavenging animals.

Decaying matter increases the spread of disease as it enters the water supply, while rumours of cadavers being tossed into the newly-built sewage system gave Victorian Dubliners a genuine fear that they might end up in the sh*t while searching for the afterlife.

Not to mention that it was outright banned for Catholics to have their own cemetery. This was not a good time to believe in the resurrection.

Opened in 1832, Glasnevin Cemetery is now home to over one point one million corpses, of every and no religion, three quarters of which are buried in unmarked graves. Founded by Daniel O’Connell as a response to the repressive Penal Laws, which placed heavy restrictions on the public performance of Catholic services, it’s a stunning open public place, which in spite of its primary function, is a fun, informative, day out.

The Victorians were morbidly obsessed with death and Glasnevin was their Disneyland, with people coming from near and far to admire the decorative graves, the architecture and the sculpture.

Inspired by Père Lachaise Cemetery in France, Glasnevin is a garden cemetery, with a variety of trees found there, including Oak, Ash and Palm, as well as American Redwoods gifted by the Yanks (there are also thousands of grey squirrels).

It was normal practice up until the turn of the 20th century to ‘stall it down’ for a picnic on a sunny day and while many of the graves have fallen into disarray the Glasnevin Trust have set themselves the target of 2016, the centenary of the Rising, for restoring this great necropolis to the pristine glory of the early 1900s. Could this final resting place once more become the domain of the picnic basket?

It’s with the Rising or at least one of its precursors that the cemetery’s walking tour starts, with a recreation of Padraig Pearse’s oration at the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa which is said to have ‘struck the match’ for the events of April 1916.

None of the Proclamation’s signatories are buried in Glasnevin, rather cased in lime in Arbour Hill, as the British didn’t want similar inflammatory speeches to spark the funeral pyre of their rule in Ireland. They would do that themselves by executing the leaders of the Rising, inspiring hundreds more to take their place, who would lead Ireland first into a War of Independence, then a Civil War, the scars of which are seen in the geographic layout of the cemetery.

To this day, Fine Gaelers are buried near Michael Collins; his plot always covered in flowers and visited by women the world over. Fine Fáilers are interned near Dev’s grave, whose wife Sinéad sparked the present day popularity of the name (prior to that there was only two known Sinéad’s in the country). And Labour supporters, of course, are buried near big Jim Larkin.

One of the saddest plots in the cemetery is the Republican Plot, where the true horror of a civil war lies. Brother killed brother, best man fired upon best man. It is spelled out for all to see. It was only in 2010, just short of 100 years after they had passed on, that the sacrifice of those who fought in the First World War was recognized when the Glasnevin Trust and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission began the project of marking the graves.

There was much disdain for Charles Stewart Parnell in good old Catholic Ireland at the time of his death (for his adulterous affair with Kitty O’Shea).There was a genuine fear that his body would be dug up and desecrated. The year of his death, 1891, coincided with another outbreak of cholera in Dublin (a previous outbreak had led to the highest number of interments in Glasnevin in one year, 11,000 in 1849). By burying him close to the diseased, his body went untouched. His is now one of the most beautiful and scenic graves in Glasnevin, made of unhewn Wicklow granite, erected in 1940, with his family name in black paint.

The most obvious tomb in the cemetery is that of its founder O’Connell, lying as it does beneath a 170-foot round tower. Take the guided tour to get up close and personal. You can even touch his coffin and make a wish.

On the day I took the tour, fresh flowers had been left by Yoko Ono herself, although it was a little bit chilling to see the coffins of all his relatives stockpiled in a side room.

In the 1970s, in response to the IRA’s destruction of Nelson’s Pillar, some Loyalists tried to retaliate by blowing up the tomb. They managed to blow out the stairwell which leads to the top of the tower (which has one of the most spectacular views in the country,) but plans are afoot to replace it in the coming years. The question is, what’s taking them so long?

As well as all the icons of literature and politics, numerous heroes of less renown are interred at the cemetery, including Dr Thomas Addis Emmet, the pioneer of plastic surgery, who insisted his body be taken back to Ireland from America so he could be buried next to his ancestors. And be sure to check out the grave of the blind balladeer, Michael Moran (Zozimus) who, thanks to a lifelong fear of having his corpse stolen by robbers, was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, which was guarded day and night, by armed watchmen, tall towers and Cuban bloodhounds.

More can be found on this in the new museum recently opened in Glasnevin. Entrance to it and a spot on the walking tour costs just €5 on a Friday. You can also trace your genealogy and visit the semi-permanent exhibition to O’Connell. Later exhibitions are planned in aid of Parnell and other interred legends.
Even in death, money makes the world go round. Your typical plot in Glasnevin will cost you €3,000. However, should you want a plot next to Arthur Griffith, you’d want to have €30,000 set aside, €50,000 if you want to be near Mick Collins.

Be sure to stop off and visit the ‘paupers’ plot, maintained by Alone, who ensure that older people who die with no family or friend to claim them, are buried with dignity, giving them a full funeral, headstone and flowers.

By Caomhan Keane