Historian who was instrumental in restoring Glasnevin cemetery to its former glory, writes Eamon Delaney
Published 23/03/2014 | 02:30
The world of history and commemoration was in shock at the sudden death of the conservationist and resident historian at Glasnevin cemetery, Shane MacThomais, aged just 46. MacThomais was a son of Eamonn MacThomais, the chronicler of Dublin history and urban folklore (author of Me Jewel and Darlin' Dublin) and continued his father's legacy with his own role in the transformation of Glasnevin cemetery, in north Dublin.
Glasnevin is among the most famous of European graveyards, with an atmosphere equal to Highgate in London or the Pere Lachaise in Paris. A sprawling field of crypts, tombs and religious statues, it holds the remains of most of the major figures of Irish history, including Daniel O'Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, Eamon de Valera, as well as the communal plots of religious orders.
As such, the cemetery was a popular attraction for locals and tourists alike, as well as the scene of many commemorations, such as that in mid- August at the graves of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, as well as Republican events at the plots of Fenians and other unrepentant republicans. However, the graveyard, which uniquely is still a working cemetery as well as being a national heritage site, had become decrepit in recent decades and in 2007, a proposal was made for extensive restoration, involving plans for a visitor centre.
The plan was not without controversy, purists preferring that Glasnevin stay as a working cemetery rather than become an overdone tourist attraction and republican 'theme park'. But in fact, the renovation has been a huge success, sensitively restoring the site to its 19th Century glory and creating a valuable cultural space in which visitors can explore the country's social and historical heritage. Almost every day, tourists, researchers and school children flock to Glasnevin and the modern visitor centre.
Shane MacThomais was a major part of this, consulting on restoration work and offering witty and knowledgeable tours of the graveyard which made him a popular figure among staff and visitors alike.
He also did frequent media appearances to publicise the cemetery and in 2012 he published Dead Interesting – Stories from the Graveyards of Dublin, which also recounted tales from the other Dublin graveyards such as the Huguenot cemetery, Bully's Acre and Mount Jerome. All of the book's proceeds went towards the further restoration of graves in Glasnevin.
Shane had been the resident historian and tour guide at Glasnevin for over 14 years. He grew up in a staunchly republican family – as well as being a popular historian, his father Eamonn was interned in the Sixties and was active in Sinn Fein until the 1970 split – and so was familiar with a place that held the remains of Roger Casement, Kevin Barry and O'Donovan Rossa.
But he also came from a solid working class family, rich in a Dublin culture celebrated in his father's books, and so would have appreciated the utter democracy of Glasnevin where rich and poor lay side by side, and where giants like Parnell and O'Connell share the soil with paupers, nuns, the residents of industrial schools and, most adventurously, the Irish men who fought in the First World War.
Shane's most recent project was the refurbishment of the Daniel O'Connell Tower, a major focal point in the cemetery. In 1971, an explosion by Ulster loyalists damaged the tower's winding staircase.
A new staircase was being constructed and Shane said he was looking forward to once again giving visitors a view from the top of the tower which stretched "to the Wicklow Mountains, up to the Mourne Mountains to the north and across to Meath".
Shane said of his Glasnevin experience that it had been both a professional and personal journey. "I grew up surrounded by history through my father so it was a natural progression to do what I'm doing. It's nice to be able to carry on the family tradition and that love of history."
He leaves a rich legacy through his work, tours and scholarship.
Shane MacThomais is survived by his daughter, mother, sister and brother.