Documenting Donnybrook’s sacred space

David Neary
Photo by Teresa Beausang

Eoin Meegan

Having written about the ancient cemetery in Donnybrook previously in this paper, I was intrigued when a new documentary on the cemetery was announced this summer. So I went along to a preview showing at The Hive in Herbert Park, Donnybrook. ‘Donnybrook’s Hidden Treasure’, it is described as a film featuring interviews and stories about some of the people buried there.

The film was made by local historian Glenda Cimino, who directed it, with Caroline Brennan and James Martinez as co-editors, and Mahyar Ghodsi doing the camera work. It was produced by the Beaver Row Historical Society.

The film is about 40 minutes long and features hauntingly beautiful shots of the cemetery, as well as interviews with some of those who have a long-standing and close connection with it.

The interviews are informal and more like accidental encounters. Among the contributors are David Neary, who has been conducting tours of the cemetery since 2006, groundsman Míceál Mc Giobúin, local councillor Dermot Lacey, and Alan Parkinson, grandson of Danny Parkinson, whose book ‘Donnybrook Graveyard’ is an important record of the graveyard, its history and place in the village.

What particularly struck me about these people was their genuine love for this ancient graveyard, their passion to have it preserved, and in many cases how they were struck by a feeling of awe and something, almost supernatural there.

“You get a real feeling of peace in the cemetery, it really is palpable,” Míceál Mc Giobúin muses. “That’s why it’s incumbent on us to keep it a sacred ground.” This theme of a sacredness that can be felt, was repeated by several contributors, and it’s one which this writer also experienced. 

Glenda conveyed to me that she felt it too. This was largely the inspiration, or impetus behind the making of the film. “I have lived in Donnybrook since 1974 and every time I was in the graveyard I felt that there was truly a sense of peace there, and felt it was probably connected to the spirit of St Broc and the life her people lived there. More so than other cemeteries, it seemed to have an atmosphere of its own and convey a sense of well-being when you enter it. I tried to convey that in the film. Clearly many others, such as Míceál experienced something mystical too.”

She quotes Freddy de Silva who said: “Sacred sites are repositories of subtle energies that have a corresponding effect on people’s state of consciousness.” This is a statement anyone visiting Donnybrook’s old cemetery is likely to resonate with. 

David Neary is frequently asked if he ever felt a presence in the graveyard. His reply is “the only presence I feel in it is one of benevolence and peace.” A Waterford man originally, David tells us how, after some initial apprehension when he was cast unexpectedly into the role of tour guide, he grew to love it. What gives him particular satisfaction is the interaction with people on the tour. “I want the tour to be a conversation and like it when people join in,” he says.

What about the future of the cemetery? Dermot Lacey has proposed that a columbarium be built, that is a wall into which the cinerary urns after cremation are deposited, something that is becoming increasingly popular in many cemeteries.

As the cemetery is now full, the last internment was in 1936, this would make Donnybrook graveyard a working cemetery again, the council would most likely be responsible for its upkeep, and it would become an active part of the village once more. Any new work or additions to it would have to be done sensitively.

Dermot Lacey would also like to see a bench erected to commemorate the late Tony Boyle, a local man who led a team of voluntary workers in the restoration of the cemetery in the mid-1980s.

Not everyone shares this vision of the future of the cemetery, though. There are some who would like to see what is now termed as the ‘re-wilding’ of the cemetery; that is letting it fall into natural decay, not cutting the grass or restoring headstones which had fallen over, in other words, allowing nature take its course.

While I understand this sentiment I think it would be a pity to let the graveyard fall into complete ruin, and some upkeep is necessary, without spoiling its inherent structure as an old cemetery.

Returning to the documentary, Glenda says she doesn’t think the film is quite finished yet. She would like to include material on the reburial of the victims of the Seaview Terrace massacre (see feature on page 16) in the final cut. “I want to go through it again, make some corrections, cut some of it out and add in more about St Broc.”

I asked her when the general public would get to see the film. “The first step would be festivals, and then approach TV, if we get it to a good length.”

In a post-film panel discussion, Glenda talked about winning a prestigious prize for a previous film she made. “The first documentary I directed was ‘Bog Meditation’, a short film about Dublin artist and poet Christine Broe, and her work around sculpting faces out of bog mud, letting them dry out and take on their own expressions. We used her poetry from her collection ‘Lifting Light’ as the soundtrack for the film. It was a nine-minute long film. I sent it to the Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards (HIIDA). We didn’t have high expectations but surprisingly we were accepted into the HIIDA festival and won a prize in the ‘cultural film’ category. I think they found the mist and the bog mud quite exotic. We shot it over one day with no budget at all. I chose the music from the creative commons.”

Danny Parkinson recounts in his book that over 7,000 people are buried in Donnybrook cemetery. The film touches on one tragic family. In 1867, aged only 33, John Blythe and his two children, a son and daughter both under six years, all died. His wife Hannah, who came from Ringsend, followed them only five years later.

It transpired that there were no less than four chemical factories on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay at the time, where the family lived. It is very likely they all succumbed to noxious fumes that emitted from said factories.

All are interred in Donnybrook cemetery. A telling lesson for us even today, when individual health and the well-being of the environment have, rightfully, become central issues.

‘Donnybrook’s Hidden Treasure’ is a film sensitively made about one of Donnybrook’s lesser -known attractions. It is an important film documenting the history and story of a piece of Donnybrook that not only gave it its name (St Broc) but from which the village we love today emerged. I think Glenda and her team have done a splendid job and manage to capture that sacred atmosphere and sense of well-being just right.

David Neary’s tour of the cemetery takes place every alternative Saturday at 2.00pm. The tour is free and lasts about an hour. It is not to be missed.