The process of providing detailed and dignified funerals for the Catholics of Ireland had been one that faced harsh limitations until the 1830s. The Penal Laws and ongoing discriminatory actions by religious and government officials journeyed through a process of repeal and debate, however it was a funeral in 1823 that altered the conditions granted to Ireland’s Catholic dead. A Protestant sexton had scolded a priest of the Catholic faith for the brief, limited version of a funeral mass he had dared to perform, inspiring the great emancipator Daniel O’Connell to consider the final duty of Catholic life. Campaigning to demonstrate that no legal obstacles existed to prevent Catholic rituals from being performed in Irish graveyards, the civil rights activist fought for a burial ground for Ireland’s dead.
In 1824, the ‘Act of Easement of Burial Bill’ was passed, ensuring that Catholics would no longer have to approach the Church of Ireland in regards to burial, and outside of Dublin, nine acres of land was consecrated in 1831 – Glasnevin Cemetery. A mere five months later, on February 22nd, a Dublin boy named Michael Carey became the first person to rest within the new grounds, soon to welcome hundreds, then thousands more, its borders to be guarded with stone sentinels – watchtowers to rid the sacred ground of potential body snatchers, seeking to profit from selling the dead to the medical community so that students could study anatomy.
Today, Glasnevin is still a working cemetery, but it has become so much more. A major drawcard for Dublin’s tourist industry, as people journey from everywhere to gaze upon the final resting places of Ireland’s famous and notorious, of ancestors located through the cemetery’s flawless record keeping, or to visit the ‘star’ plot- a stone grave heavy with floral tributes, set apart from his countrymen- the place that Michael Collins sleeps eternal.
A tour to Glasnevin begins with a wander through the upstairs museum on site. It is an eclectic wander through history- artefacts are displayed in their glass cases from different historical periods, although World War One is the clear focus point. Artefacts paint a brutally honest picture of lives snatched in a horrific, bloody conflict. A compass, an officer’s belt. Delicate letters and postcards home, their edges browned and tattered, final musings of men who charged ‘over the top’ and never returned to the embrace of the muddy trench. Poignant are the examples of trench art; bullets and shrapnel fashioned into decorative objects, a testament to the long hours of boredom in the trenches of France and Belgium, to a soundtrack of artillery barrages.
Perhaps, however, what catches the eye is the section of a glass cabinet dedicated to a young man named Owen Conlon. Owen’s father, John, was a member of the IRA and eventually the Free State Army; his 1922 photograph, aged and faded, is near the small card that bears the likeness of his son. This is a ‘Remembrance Card’, the image of a soldier, the words of the Immense Passion Prayer in italics below his photo. The card implores the lord to have mercy on the soul of Owen Conlon, who at a mere twenty years old, was killed at Dardanelles in 1915. The photo shows a handsome young figure in a formal military uniform, his features reflected in the nearby image of the father who outlived him.
There are old Ulster Volunteer Force badges, brassy and bronzed, nestled beside banners and flags, dress buttons emblazoned with the Union Jack scattered nearby. Behind them, panels stretch the length of the wall, detailing the story of the artefacts they guard. The formation of the Volunteers is explained, stretching back to the First Home Rule Bill of 1886 and noting the significance of conducting drills in Unionist Clubs. The panel that follows is decorated with an Irish Volunteers replica poster and outlines the Nationalist response to the Unionist unification of various elements. Before this panel, a replica Irish Volunteers newsletter from 1914 is folded neatly in its cabinet.
Beyond the museum are the computers. Many of Glasnevin’s visitors make pilgrimage to the location in order to seek out relatives and ancestors long gone. Strict laws, harsh penal punishments and the Irish Diaspora, when so many fled famine and dark fate, ensured that the Irish continued to be scattered around the world and many return to the place from where their family journeyed to strange countries. Here one can pay to conduct research, for the cemetery has kept exemplary records, both written and digital.
Upon emerging from the main building, one comes upon the grave of Sir Roger Casement. Once the man responsible for exposing the horrific treatment of people in the Belgian Congo, the diplomat met his end accused of, and found guilty of high treason for his role in facilitating the provision of German arms for the doomed 1916 Rising. His fate had been sealed once his private diaries were made public and he was ‘outed’ as homosexual, a grave sin at the time, and Casement was hanged in August of 1916. His remains were moved from Pentonville Prison in England in 1965. He had expressed the desire to be buried in Northern Ireland, but given that it remains British territory, this request was a political hot potato, and Casement’s remains were transferred to Glasnevin with the full honour of a State Funeral. Eamon de Valera, who had known Casement, attended the funeral as the last living leader of the 1916 Rising.
Central to the cemetery is the ‘round tower’, or O’Connell Tower- the structure that spirals above the crypt of The Liberator himself; the long deceased Daniel O’Connell. The crypt can be entered, although for a period this wasn’t the case. In 1971 a bomb, the suspected work of loyalists, detonated within the tower. The aim was clearly to destroy O’Connell’s crypt, for he remains a hero to many of the Irish people, whether as a Catholic, a civil rights activist or a nationalist. Instead of achieving its aim, the device managed to react as any explosion within a gun barrel would- it erupted inwards and upwards through the height of the tower, blowing the roof off and destroying the staircase. The crypt was sealed and the expert guides of the museum relish telling the story that many years later, when the crypt was entered once more, conservationists and those responsible for restoration had to wade through pigeon droppings and the remains of the birds themselves, who had managed to enter via the towering windows but failed to exit again. O’Connell’s crypt is stunning- his poignant words decorate the walls, which have been restored but for one panel- left as it was found upon the unsealing of the crypt to provide guidance to those that would restore its walls in the future. Etched near the entrance that leads from the crypt to the stairless tunnel are the man’s immortal words.
My body to Ireland, my heart to Rome, my soul to Heaven.
O’Connell got his wish – his heart was sent to Sant’Agata dei Goti in Rome, although whether it is still there remains an issue of much debate and question.
Not far from the crypt one stumbles upon a massive stone etched with a single word- ‘Parnell’- the resting place of the man who would have been Ireland’s greatest politician, had his relationship with another man’s wife not stood in his way. Charles Stewart Parnell contributed to the downfall of two British governments and was crucial in the process of land reform, however he died aged just 45, driven from his own political party. The stone that bears his name is Wicklow Granite, and stands fenced off atop a green mound as a fitting and dignified tribute to the man who was known to speak for days in parliament, even when nobody remained to listen.
Of course, Ireland remains proud of its artists and writers, and the creative element is well represented within Glasnevin. The opera singer Margaret Burke Sheridan rests here, as does Gerard Manley Hopkins, who penned poetry such as ‘Pied Beauty’. The father of James Joyce, one John Joyce, is buried there and indeed the cemetery itself provided the setting for Hades in Ulysses.
The Republican Plot is one of the most visited in Glasnevin, for it holds the earthly remains of some of the nation’s most famed revolutionaries. Purchased by Eamon de Valera in 1917, it was signed over to the State just over a decade later. Within it one finds several names from Irish history. Countess Markievicz, who famously expressed her disappointment in officials unwilling to execute her following the 1916 Rising as a failure to put her on equal standing with the men who met that fate. Cathal Brugha, the Rising revolutionary who joined Anti-Treaty forces and died at the hands of the Free State Army in 1922. Nearby, John O’Leary’s grave. The Fenian is immortalised by Yeats, who referenced him in his poem September 1913.
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone; it’s with O’Leary in the grave.
Not far from here rests de Valera himself; the grave oddly unassuming for a man whose personality and story continues to dominate recent Irish history. In fact, if one observes the grave, they note the key name on the monument as ‘Brian de Valera’, Eamon’s son who died in a horse-riding accident. It is suggested that de Valera felt that a grave plot good enough for his son was worthy of him, too.
Perhaps it is a blessing that the grave of Kitty Kiernan sits a well enough distance from that of ‘Dev’- the once friend, then adversary of her former fiancé. She rests beside her husband, Felix, who must have been of a somewhat relaxed nature, for it seems that he was more than willing not only to name a child after the deceased fiancé of his wife, but to be buried nearby to the same dead revolutionary. And it is this grave that remains the key draw at Glasnevin. Recent advertising for the cemetery’s tour notes that the location holds 27 Biggs, 18 Fellows, but only ONE Michael Collins.
His grave sits apart from the rest. When I visited, it was awash with fresh flowers. My guide, who had been both knowledgeable, respectful and possessing of that disarming Irish humour that Australians find so familiar, informed me that many of the flowers are sent by a woman in France, who admired Collins after watching the Liam Neeson film. Other tributes from admirers are scattered around the grave, for the cemetery itself doesn’t place flowers on anyone’s grave of their own initiative, a wise choice that allows them to remain neutral in terms of religion and politics. As I gazed down at the final resting place of the man who had once believed that he had signed his own death warrant (and indeed, history shows that his assessment of the treaty that would partition Ireland was found to be correct one cold afternoon in Béal-na-mBláth), I noticed Christmas wreaths decorating the stone edge. The man had been assassinated more than 90 years ago, but still people wished to celebrate the holiday on his behalf.
As I gazed down at the grave, I didn’t feel wonder at seeing the final resting place of the ‘Big Fellow’, nor did I feel any desire to watch the somewhat historically dubious film once more. Rather, I felt sorrow. For everywhere else, the graves seemed clustered together; even O’Connell had his family interred with him as they passed on, one by one. But Collins sleeps alone, his grave apart from all others.
Rebekah Poole is a history teacher at Knox Grammar School in Sydney. After winning the NSW History Teachers Association [HTA] scholarship for 2016, she spent much of January 2016 visiting Ireland and looking at sites associated with Irish history.