Donnybrook Cemetery

By Eoin Meegan

Photos: Eoin Meegan

One of the little unknown gems of Donnybrook is an ancient cemetery, situated on Morehampton Road, beside the Garda Station, opposite Arthur Maine’s pub. The cemetery dates back to 800 AD and was the final resting place for many prominent families in the professional and mercantile industries of Dublin during the 17th and early 18th centuries.

The cemetery stands on the site of an old Celtic church and convent founded by Saint Broc in the early eighth century. Broc was one of seven daughters of Dallbronach from Deece in Co. Meath. She is mentioned in the book of Leacan from the 8th century.

The granite base of a cross from that time discovered during restoration work on the cemetery confirms it as the site of Broc’s convent. The adjacent Sisters of Charity is not part of Broc’s original convent.

Domhnach Broc, which means the Church of Broc is the origin of the name Donnybrook. The inaccurate designation that it means a ‘brawl’ derives from the supposedly riotous behaviour at the famed (or ill-famed!) Donnybrook Fair. That event gave rise to the term ‘having a donnybrook’, and sadly the definition has stuck.

Following the Anglo Norman incursion into Ireland, stricter Roman form was imposed on the Church in Ireland. And so by the late 12th and early 13th century St Broc’s became St Mary’s Church. It was later incorporated into the Church of Ireland. The church was rebuilt by Archbishop William King in 1720.

By 1827 the congregation of Donnybrook had outgrown the small St Mary’s and as there was no room for expansion a new church was proposed. This became St. Mary’s Church on the corner of Anglesea Road and Simmonscourt Road, dedicated in 1830. Sadly, the old church was demolished and only a small wall, reportedly part of the original, in the middle of the cemetery remains.

In 1787 a church for Roman Catholics (also called St Mary’s) was erected beside the existing one (between the Reformation and 1787 there was no Catholic Church in Donnybrook). This church remained in use until it was replaced by the present day Sacred Heart Church south of the Dodder in 1866. Then in 1931 the site was sold to the Board of Works and the Garda station was built there. Part of the wall dividing the graveyard from the Garda station is said to be the remains of this 1787 church.

In 1879 when new town houses were being constructed by the well known builder Thomas Wardrop in Seaview Terrace, near Ailsbury Road, a mass grave containing some 600-700 bodies was discovered. The circular mound almost a hundred feet in circumference consisted of several burial layers.

The Ordinance Survey of the 1830’s to 1840s appears to have no knowledge of this burial site as it went unrecorded on their maps. In addition to human remains, the grave contained animal remains, jewellery, cooking utensils, and a large sword of Scandinavian origin. Upon examination, the remains were found to be of Celtic ethnicity, with many showing signs of having met a violent death, possibly from decapitation. Included in the find were many very young children.

The find was supervised by Professor of Anatomy and Zoology, Alexander Macalister of Trinity College, Dublin, and William Hellier Baily, paleontologist with the Royal Geographical Survey.

Contemporary thought was that the grave dated from the tenth century and seemed to be the ghoulish relic of the Viking era. It should be added, however, that some modern scholars dispute this. Most of the artefacts unearthed ended up in the hands of foreign collectors (the site’s most important find, the Scandinavian sword, currently resides in the Castle Museum of Nottingham), while the remains were gathered up and re-interred in Donnybrook Cemetery. It is not unreasonable to speculate that many of Broc’s religious congregation were part of the massacre.

In 1931 another mass grave was unearthed when the entrance to the cemetery was moved back, in order to widen the road. These bodies were re-interred in the south of the graveyard.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the gruesome, and by its nature furtive, practice of grave robbing, or ‘body snatching’ as it was called, was all too common. Indeed by the 19th century it had become something of an epidemic. The Royal College of Surgeons and other Dublin Anatomical Schools paid a premium for corpses; according to some reports up to £2 for an adult, and children were sold by the inch.

Donnybrook cemetery sadly did not escape this scourge. The story is told that following the death of a young child a group of surgeons came to steal the body. However, the child’s father got wind of it, assembled a few of his mates and they confronted the grave robbers in the act. A bloody confrontation ensued, but in the end the child’s remains were rescued and the perpetrators reportedly received a good trashing.

This was prior to the 1832 Anatomy Act which provided a legal source of cadavers.

Some notable people interred in Donnybrook Cemetery:

The Fitzwilliam family, who had their seat in Merrion, including Sir Richard Fitzwilliam, (1595), Nicholas Fitzwilliam (1635), and Oliver Fitzwilliam (1667) Second Viscount Fitzwilliam, and First Earl of Tyrconnell.

The Rev. Richard Graves (1763-1829), a noted theologian and classicist, and Professor of Greek and Divinity at Trinity. He was the author of many works, including Graves of the Pentateuch, a commentary on the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as well as being the father of the famous surgeon Robert Graves who discovered Graves’s Disease, an autoimmune disease of the thyroid. Also his cousin John Crosbie Graves (1776-1835), the first Commissioner of Police in Dublin, and great-grandfather of Robert Graves, poet and author of The White Goddess, I Claudius, and Goodbye To All That.

Robert Clayton (1695-1758), author of An Essay On Spirit. Clayton was successively Bishop of Killala, Cork and Clogher, but failed to become Archbishop of Tuam because of his extreme unorthodox views. He was a supporter of Arianism and in the House of Lords he called for the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed to be expunged from the Common Book of Prayer.

Architect Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (1699-1733), the most prominent exponent of Palladianism (following the style formulated by Venetian architect Andrea Palladio) in Ireland. He’s most famously known for the Houses of Parliament at College Green. His other works include Bellamont House in Cavan, and Castletown House, Kildare, the latter a excellent example of the Palladian style. The obelisk of Stillorgan, dedicated to those who died in the famine of 1727, is also attributed to Pearce. He has been described as the father of Irish Palladian architecture and Georgian Dublin.

Bartholomew Mosse (1712-1759), a famous surgeon and impresario who founded the Rotunda hospital (1745), or Rotunda Lying-in Hospital, as it was known at the time. Apparently, it was the first of its kind in Europe.

Dr. Richard Robert Madden (1798-1886), an ardent Abolitionist who fought against the slave trade in the West Indies, and particularly Britain’s involvement in it. He was also a doctor and historian of the United Irishmen.

The Rev. George Wogan, a curate in Donnybrook, who was murdered in his home near Ballsbridge in 1826. Later that evening the culprits were apprehended after carrying out a highway robbery on the Blackrock Road, confessed to the curate’s murder and were hanged.

William Ashford (1746-1824) well known English landscape painter who settled in Ireland.

And, of course, Archbishop William King.

The last person to be buried in Donnybrook Cemetery was Amy Ryder (1936) and before that her sister Elizabeth (1935), both younger siblings of Canon Arthur Gore Ryder, who was first Rector of Donnybrook (1867-1889) after it separated from the Archdeaconry of Dublin. The graveyard, having being in use for over a thousand years, officially closed in 1880. However, as we saw, a few notable families named in the Closure Order continued to be interred there.

About 7,000 people in total are buried in Donnybrook Cemetery, among them Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Huguenots; the earliest headstone dating from 1625. The original entrance to the cemetery faced south. The current east-facing entrance under the archway was erected by the Dublin Stock Exchange in 1893 and has a dedication to Thomas Chamney Searight inscribed over it. There is no public access, but tours of the cemetery are given every alternative Saturday during the summer months by local historian David Neary, meeting at the gates at 2pm, they are free and no booking is required. The tour lasts about an hour and is highly recommended.