Glasnevin Cemetery by Pat Liddy


A cemetery may be the last place anyone would think of as being a tourist attraction but the concept may not be so strange after all. Paris has Pere Lachaise, Rome has its catacombs, Vienna its Zentralfriedhof, Washington has Arlington and London presents spooky Highgate Cemetery. Dublin’s necropolis, Glasnevin Cemetery, is a ‘must see’ for anyone visiting the city with a little time to spare. But always remember, while such visits are primarily to see the final resting places of the famous or indeed the infamous, cemeteries demand respect, especially towards those visiting who are still raw with recent loss.

Cemeteries have only been around in Ireland for a couple of centuries. Previous to that the deceased were buried in small churchyards attached to local churches. After the 18th century, with the massive growth in urbanisation and the population increase due to improved medical advances, traditional burial grounds proved to be inadequate. From the 1800s larger burial grounds, unattached to churches, were established but, like the church graveyards, these were initially Protestant-run. Catholics had a right to be buried but prayers and ceremonies of that religion were severely curtailed.

Following the 1824 ‘Act of Easement of Burial’, multi and non-denominational cemeteries were allowed. Daniel O’Connell, famed in Ireland as The Liberator on account of achieving Roman Catholic Emancipation in 1829 from the dreaded anti-Catholic Penal Laws, determined to open a cemetery where all religions and none could carry out burials in their own traditions. His Catholic Association opened Goldenbridge Cemetery in Inchicore in 1828. A larger cemetery at Prospect, in Glasnevin on Dublin’s northside, was opened in February 1832. Never one to be thwarted by the establishment, O’Connell bypassed the then tolls applicable on the roads approaching the cemetery by simply cutting a new road between them. His outwitting of the toll gatherers led to his reputation of being able to “drive a coach and six (horses) through Acts of Parliament”!

Sadly, and perhaps reflecting the high infant and child mortality of the time, the first internment was that of eleven-year old Michael Carey from Francis Street in the inner city. He was, of course, quickly followed by many more until today, over one and a half million people lie in repose in Glasnevin thus equalling the total living population!

Almost as soon as the new cemetery opened the ghoulish practice of graverobbing began. Medical colleges were growing in size and importance but, thanks to earlier laws, only the bodies of unbaptised infants and hanged criminals were allowed to be used for dissection. People, especially the poor, tended to be buried soon after death in those days. No sooner were their remains interred, and with the approach of darkness, shadowy figures climbed over walls and set about their grim work. They dug up the loose earth around the heads of those most recently buried and dragged out the corpse by placing a hook under the chin. Quickly placing the body in a sack they scarpered out of the cemetery and galloped away as quickly as they could, often pursued by armed night watchmen and vicious Cuban bloodhound dogs. No questions were asked at the receiving door of the medical colleges and the appropriate fee was handed over. When the Anatomy Law, allowing dissection of officially donated bodies, was passed in 1832 it put an end to this dreadful practice. The high walls and watchtowers still standing around Glasnevin date from this time.

Many illustrious personages, especially those associated with a resurgent Ireland or yearning for independence from England, made their last journey to Glasnevin, sometimes accompanied by massive crowds. They included politicians (including O’Connell), churchmen, magistrates, poets, writers, artists, singers, industrialists, revolutionaries and soldiers from all sides of conflict. Burials were often used as occasions for displays of dignified civil protest and even once for the official ‘launch’ of the 1916 Rising! Now associates, competitors and former enemies all lie together in equality and peace.

Of course, there were the forgotten and the ignored. Tens of thousands were buried in mass graves -those who died in the cholera outbreaks, during famines and from smallpox outbreaks. Throngs of the underprivileged were buried in the ‘poor ground’. A disgrace of times past was when up to 50,000 unbaptised babies, usually stillborn, were anonymously buried in what is now honoured as the Angels’ Memory Garden.

If you normally see cemeteries as Dickensian, haunted or places of decay you will be surprised at the pristine condition of Glasnevin. Huge restoration of its thousands of monuments, some spectacular, has been undertaken and there is also an incredible museum where you can even trace your family history.

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