On my recent trip home; I visited Glasnevin Cemetery for the first time. We went because – a – it’s a place of great historical importance and – b – because my mum is deeply morbid, with a clear obsession for cemeteries. Don’t believe me, ask the Elf – she was dragged to at least 2 during her short visit to Ireland!
Glasnevin is immense and it feels as though every significant personnage from recent Irish history is buried there. So this post will not attempt to mark out every single grave and headstone that we passed. Rather, I will post about some of the highlights of an enjoyable and informative tour. Also, it’s a cemetery, so the emphasis will be somewhat focused on that aspect. Nor will I be emphasising the architectural aspects – sorry Burke and Emmett Crosses – as I know nothing about them.
The Significance of Glasnevin
In Ireland, prior to 1832, there were no cemeteries for Irish Catholics. Due to the repressive Penal Laws; there were also heavy restrictions placed on Catholic services in public. As a result, many Catholics were holding limited funerals services for the deceased in corners of pre-existing Protestant graveyards.
Daniel O’Connell (more on him later) lead a campaign to change this situation legally after an incident in 1823 where a Protestant Sextant reprimanded a Catholic Priest for holding such a limited funeral mass, causing some outcry.
In 1832, Glasnevin (known then as Prospect Cemetery) was consecrated. It is one of the few to allow still borns to be buried in consecrated grounds, known as the Angels Plot. Since 1982, cremations have taken place there also.
There has also been a restoration project underway for many years, ensuring that the headstones are raised up, where sinking, and legible for years to come. It was a bit weird seeing all those graves with little notes attached but really interested to see from the watermarks how far they had sunk in a few decades/years.
(Side note – my mum mentioned that there is a really good film that highlights many of the stories of the people buried in Glasnevin. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but here’s the trailer on Youtube!
One Million Dubliners
The Forgotten 10
For my leaving cert (A Level equivalent); I took history and had to pick a specialist subject. I chose Kevin Barry.
As the tour guide explained, the best way to become really well known in Ireland after your death is to have a ballad written about you.
It was genuinely moving to see Kevin included in the tomb of the Forgotten 10 (though there are only nine remains interred there – the 10th was taking home to be buried alongside his family). Alongside him, his friend Frank Flood.
The tour guide did a great job of painting a picture of this young lad; so proud and so defiant and perhaps not really understanding how bleak his situation was. In court (one he refused to recognise) he sent word to his land lady that he would settle up with her after the case closed.
After he was sentenced to death by hanging, Barry remained stoic, refusing to inform on others within the cause. He requested a soldiers death – the firing squad – but this was rejected. Michael Collins himself was rumoured to have tried to rescue him to no avail.
“It is nothing, to give one’s life for Ireland. I’m not the first and maybe I won’t be the last. What’s my life compared with the cause?
On the 1st of November 1920, at 18 years of age, Kevin Barry was hanged. In 2001, he and the rest of the Forgotten 10 were reinterred at Glasnevin and given a state funeral.
The most grand tomb on the site belongs to Daniel O’Connell – the emancipator. Though long considered a national treasure, I have my own soft spot for this great leader.
Way back in time, 1999 ish, my parents drove down to Kerry to visit the O’Connell house. We were unusually disinterested and spent the whole journey grumbling and mumbling. Two teenagers, with the hump. Oh, the joy!
We eventually arrived at his home and spotted his cart. This completely threw the pair of us. ‘What sort of a rip off Cliff Richard is this guy?’ My brother mused aloud ‘To have a cart, what a tit’ or something similar.
At this my father exploded. I tried to help by saying ‘oh come on, it’s not like there’s much call for that in a country and western singer’ and the penny finally dropped. Dad went the colour of a particularly ripe tomato and gasped ‘Daniel O’Connell…not Daniel O’Donnell’ before staking off.
Turns out that Daniel O’Donnell is a singer. Daniel O’Connell was known as the catholic emancipator in Ireland. Bit of a difference there.
The actual lead lined coffin. I kid you not.
Born in 1775 to a Catholic family of diminished means; it was by no means certain that O’Connell was ever destined to play a major role in Irish society. Under the Penal Laws; education had to take place outside of the country. O’Connell was lucky in the patronage of his uncle Maurice ‘Hunting Cap’ O’Connell who enabled him to study in France before taking the law at Lincoln’s Inn.
Well aware of his own abilities, O’Connell became frustrated with the limitations placed upon him by the circumstances of his birth. He channeled this towards his home nation; seeing in Ireland a likewise constrained spirit. A a lawyer, he was raised to the Irish Bar and formed the Catholic Association, where membership was only 4p a month – affordable even to the most destitute. He cut a strong figure and was known for his fearless acerbic exchanges with all who would challenge him in court, including judges.
During his years in France, during the French Revolution, he had learned to abhor violence and became a resolute pacifist. He spoke eloquently on abolition and alienated many of the Irish US slave owners. Indeed, he met with Frederick Douglass – an emancipated slave, in part at least because Douglass wanted to meet the man his master cursed so vehemently.
Politically – there is just too much to dream of including here. Catholic emancipation, the Tithe War, repeal of the Union – if there was a headliner issue in Ireland at that time; chances are he was involved in the most noble way. In the 1840’s he became involved in trying to secure help for those suffering during the Famine, as they received little if anything from the British state.
In 1847, he headed off on a pilgrimage to Rome and passed away in Genoa. He is believed to have requested that “My body to Ireland, My heart to Rome, My Soul to Heaven”. And so it was. His heart was literally taken out and put into a silver box to be sent to Rome. It’s believed to reside in a bank somewhere – the tour guide had a bit to say about there finally being a bank with a heart but I was still too busy eeewwwwing to laugh.
His body was returned to Ireland where it waited for some 20 years for a tomb grand enough to house him. The tower in the photo at the start, marks his resting spot. His tomb is at the base, under a small mound.
In 1971, a bomb exploded in the tower, likely retaliation for the Nelson bombing in 1966. The tower worked as a gun barrel, shooting the bomb upwards. The grave itself was more or less untouched. Naturally, it was closed to the public. Not closed enough though, there was a window left open and decades worth of pigeons; their droppings and remains were found when restoration work began. The tomb was reopened in 2009.
One panel left unrestored
A restored panel
Despite being a family man; his wife is buried elsewhere – however, ten of his children and one grandchild are alongside him. As befits any above ground burial; his is a lead lined coffin. After all, all the germs buried with him are all still in there!
Yes, I touched the coffin for luck. Yes, it felt a bit weird to do so.
Now, with the repeal of the Penal Laws, there was an emerging wealthier Catholic middle class. Never one to miss an opportunity; catholics were offered a place close to O’Connell in Glasnevin Cemetary for a mere GB£60 000. I noted that it was a bit mawkish ‘for £60000, buy a grave plot next to the emancipaaaaator’ and the tour guide quickly agreed. If she uses the line in future tours; I want to know! 🙂
This lovely land that always sent
Her writers and artists to banishment
And in a spirit of Irish fun
Betrayed her own leaders, one by one.
James Joyce, Gas from a Burner, 1912
Charles Stewart Parnell
My favourite grave (is that a bit wrong?) belonged to Parnell. He’s a personal hero of mine as I find his story incredibly romantic – our very own lost leader.
The Uncrowned King of Ireland, as he became known, was born into an affluent Anglo-Irish family. His family had links to great families across Europe, England and in America – but it was as an improving landlord and Irish nationalist that he became best known. Parnell believed not in an independent Ireland, but in one devolved from Great Britain.
Parnell entered politics in 1875 and by 1880, was the leader of the Home Rule Party. A decisive speaker, he was known for his discipline and tactical skills. An astute politician, he created the role of the whip and formal party structure and was happy to work either side to gain his goals – to the chagrin of Ulster Unionists and sometime-Prime Minister Gladstone.
By 1889, Parnell had reached the height of his power. He held two significant meetings with Gladstone and it appeared as though Home Rule was within reach, merely a matter of time. Naturally, this was the moment when Parnell was struck down – not by illness or a bullet…but by the moral standards of the time.
Katie (to friends, Kitty to enemies) O’Shea had first met Parnell in 1880. She was married and separated from Captain William O’Shea – a Catholic Nationalist MP. There was talk of making the split permanant but Katie had a wealthy aunt and O’Shea wanted to be sure of his piece of her inheritance. Parnell and Katie fell in love and had three children together. Though unmarried, they lived together and the affair was widely if silently known. O’Shea knew about the pair and was unhappy about it, even challenging Parnell to a duel in 1881, but stayed quiet for the most part.
It might be pure coincidence that this was the year that Katie’s wealthy aunt died, leaving everything in trust to Katie’s cousins. Something inspired William O’Shea to begin divorce proceedings and to name Parnell as the cause.
The effects were devastating. Parnell’s party split and overnight he was politically shunned. His once glittering career was utterly ravaged, though he was given a hero’s return to Ireland in December of 1890, never fully censured by the ordinary working Irish that he had so passionately championed. To add insult to injury, William O’Shea was granted custody of Parnell and Katie’s two daughters. Catholic Ireland was further shocked when, after the divorce was finalised, Katie married Parnell.
The marriage was short lived. Two months after their wedding, Parnell died in his wife’s arms from stomach cancer. He was 45 years of age.
His supporters – the Parnellites approached Glasnevin Cemetery and said that Parnell would have liked to have been buried within sight of the Church and his great hero Daniel O’Connell, but funds were going to be an issue.
The cemetery returned and said that they had just the site, going very reasonably. The Parnellites were no fools, they knew that something was up so pushed for further details.
The Cemetary wanted to bury Parnell amongst a cholera pit. Cholera – being spread by water – was terribly feared and most Christian souls feared to be anywhere near the bodies of a cholera victim…let alone buried amidst them.
Parnell’s loyal supporters considered. Parnell had been a man for the people; he had given voice to the voiceless, and – when he fell – he was not abandoned by the common people. Fine, they said, we’ll take it.
One more thing, said Glasnevin. Come on now, thought the Parnellities, you’re taking the mick; what’s up was what they said aloud. Turns out that the grave diggers were too scared to dig on the site.
As a result, a mound was built up over the cholera grave with Parnell’s remains within. His resting stop is marked by 8 tonnes of Wicklow granite, with only one word needed.
Cross of Sacrifice,famine memorial
About halfway through the tour we came to a wall commemorating those who have been cremated at the cemetery. It was beautiful but starting to rain so I didn’t take a picture.
There was also a memorial for those who died during the Famine and (above) those who laid down their lives during the Great and Second World War. It was very moving (I know I keep saying that…but it was!) to see something set aside for those who didn’t die in the trenches, especially as so many of those soldiers returned to a country that regarded them as traitors.
I was a bit surprised to see a Cross of Sacrifice (the Christian cross with a bronze sword). Though a frequent sight in other commonwealth countries, I wasn’t aware that Ireland had one. In fact, we didn’t for the longest time. However, last year, this one was unveiled by President Higgins. I’m delighted – whether you agree that the sacrifice was a noble one or not; I think that it’s terrific that those Irish lives are marked in the same way as their contemporaries around the world and to mark the centennial no less.
There were a number of very significant graves near and in the Republican Plot. Cathal Bruha; Countess Markiewicz; Harry Boland; James Larkin; Peadar Kearney (author of The Soldiers Song (the Irish National Anthem) and the Rathaille all take their rest in this cemetery. I did think of just including a load of photos, rather than either leaving them our or attempting to relate part of their stories …but photos of graves without any context is a bit weird, no?
Eamon de Valera
Like Michael Collins (below); Dev is a character who has taken on extraordinary aspects within Irish culture.
Beyond a politician, he has been one of the primary and dominant political forces recent Ireland has known. He lead the country for 3 terms as Taoiseach (Prime Minister equivalent) and President twice, only stepping down from public office in 1973, two years before he passed away. He wrote the Irish constitution in 1937 – so when I say that his vision shaped Ireland, I mean it.
However, Dev is a very divisive person also. Those who admire him, do so wholeheartedly, attributing all positive things during his tenure to him. Those that oppose him, despise him utterly, blaming him for every negative or bad event that took place during his lifetime.
History will probably sort it out – nationally, it feels like it’s all still a bit recent for anyone to work out his role objectively.
Growing up though, I was a Collins kid – and Dev, he was the man who orchestrated his rivals downfall. So it was lovely to walk away from Glasnevin with a much more humane view of the man.
Eamon de Valera is buried beneath a modest and humble cross.
It had originally been erected for his son Brian, who had died in 1936, predeceasing both of his parents. Later in life de Valera was asked what marker he would rather have placed there, upon his passing. The assumption was obviously that the stateman would want one that befit his status. Dev simply replied that the cross that was good enough for his son, was good enough for him too.
He passed away at the age of 92, in 1975. Sadly, his grave is the most vandalized at Glasnevin, something I admit to finding shocking and distasteful.
Finally, we moved onto a grave set slightly apart from the others. Michael Collins resting site is the most visited one at Glasnevin and is never without flowers, sent from groups and individuals from around the world.
It’s almost impossible for me to conceive of summarising his life or achievements. His story has become so embedded into Irish society. Nevertheless for any international readers, into the abyss go I.
Michael Collins was an inspiring orator, charismatic leader and a lifelong passionate advocate for Irish independence. During the tumult of the Great War and subsequent Easter Rising; he emerged as one of the most versatile and resilient leaders of the movement.
In 1921, Collins was sent as a plenipotentiarie to London for the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty. This allowed him the authority to sign on behalf of the Irish parliament. The treaty was hugely contentious and negotiations raged. Collins was fully aware that he was likely sent in order to be the bearer of bad news, a national scapegoat, noting – “Let them make a scapegoat or whatever they like of me. Someone must go.” The treaty was signed on the 6th of December 1921 and in effect split the Irish Free State from six counties in Ulster, which would remain part of the Union.
In subsequent years, the tale has been spun that it was down to this reason that others among the Irish leadership refused to accept the treaty. However, at the time, the separation of the industrial Unionist Ulster counties was readily accepted and it was the taking of the Oath of Allegiance that caused more significant uproar…despite Collins having cleared the Oath and it’s wording ahead of time.
Regardless; Collins knew that the treaty fell short of the republic that he had so desired. Nevertheless, it would allow for ‘the gun to be removed from Irish politics’. Upon signing the treaty, Birkenhead noted that he may have signed his political death warrant; to which Collins astutely replied ‘I may have signed my actual death warrant’.
The treaty split the party; the republicans and the nation. Collins lead the pro-treaty movement; Eamon de Valera the anti-treaty side. In August of 1922 and against advice, Collins traveled down to his home city of Cork. It is likely due to the secrecy of the meeting that he met with leaders of the various factions to try and bring the Civil war to an end.
The facts of the return journey are disputed to this day. Despite taking a circuitous route and successfully navigating one ambush; Collins was fatally shot.
His death at 32 years during the height of the civil war and 8 weeks before he was to have married, shocked the country. 500 000 mourners attended his funeral in 1922 – an estimated fifth of the total population. There has never been an official inquiry into his execution, though there are a number of theories; from anti-treaty soldiers to British agents to even Eamon de Valera himself.
(If you want to watch a film about Michael Collins, then please don’t reach for the Liam Neeson/Julia Roberts version and expect any great degree of accuracy – it’s very much a hollywood film. I did quite enjoy The Treaty, starring Brendan Gleeson as the big fellow, though.)
O’Donovan Rossa/Padraig Pearse Speech
At 2:30pm every day, an actor appears dressed up in the republican army uniform, playing the role of Padraig Pearse to recite his famous graveside speech.
Basically, the story is this – O’Donovan Rossa was an Old Fenian. Unlike Parnell, he did not reject violent methodology and in 1865 was arrested for treason for being part of the plotting of an uprising. An unrepentant and defiant prisoner, he nonetheless won the seat for Tipperary in 1869, though was unable to take up the MP position due to his imprisonment.
Released in 1870 as part of the Fenian Amnesty; O’Donovan Rossa entered into exile in the US, continuing to fund raise and raise awareness for the cause. Though he was allowed to visit Ireland twice in 1894 and 1904, he remained in the USA until his death.
His widow contacted the new republican movement and offered to have the remains returned to Ireland. The movement quickly agreed, sensing an opportunity for propaganda. At the time, due to the Great War, it was illegal for the group to assemble and promote their cause. A funeral however, was fair game.
Thousands assembled to greet O’Donovan Rossa with a hero’s welcome. A young poet – Padraig Pearse – was asked to deliver the eulogy. ‘How hot shall I make it?’, he is reputed to have asked. ‘Hot as all hell’ the feverant reply.
Pearse stepped up to the grave in full uniform. His speech captured the rebel spirit perfectly and was widely reported. From being a little known poet; Pearse had just become the defacto leader of the republican movement to the public.
Now, I didn’t catch the full speech due to space limitations (due to an overpowering need to video every movement my nephew makes), but it was powerfully delivered. I didn’t catch the full version, but you’ll get a sense of the speech below and can find a full version HERE.