One Million Dubliners: 'Late historian Shane's grave is almost as popular now as Michael Colllins'
Published 27/02/2016 | 11:33
In the midst of the onslaught of 1916 centenary events coming our way over the next few weeks and months, a 15-year-old Dublin boy will be remembered for a brave act which helped to kick off the rebellion.
Surely one of the youngest members of the Irish Citizens Army which fought on Easter week 100 years ago, the boy in question blew on a bugle outside Liberty Hall on the morning of that fateful Easter Monday, sounding the 'Fall In' and thus signalling the start of the Rising.
That young bugler was William Oman. Just months before, he had sounded the same horn at the graveside at the funeral of 'rebel' Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, and today, their remains lay just a short walk away from each other in Glasnevin Cemetery.
This story intrigues the visitors who were huddled together in the cold air of the cemetery on a recent Saturday morning. But they were even more interested, because the young man who was giving the tour proudly revealed that he is Niall Oman, the bugler's great-grandson.
"Ooh," one of the American visitors cooed in genuine wonderment. "Imagine that, wow."
Niall has been working as a tour guide in Glasnevin Cemetery for six years and he took an interest in the subject after his parents taught him all about his family's historical connections.
"We would have been told from a young age that our great-grandfather fought in the 1916 Rising and that he fought in the War of Independence.
"Because he was only 15, he was released from Richmond Barracks after being arrested after about 10 days."
The 28-year-old also works as a history teacher, but he became a tour guide first after learning the trade from the late resident historian Shane MacThomais, who was featured on Aoife Kelleher's beautifully tragic and poignant film about the cemetary, One Million Dubliners.
Just like the inimitable Shane, who passed away in 2014, Niall now has an undeniably passionate enthusiasm for the burial ground on Dublin's northside, which is the final resting place for more than 1.5 million souls.
"The cemetery had its first burial in February 1832 - it was opened by Daniel O'Connell because he wanted a cemetery that would be for all religions and no religion. It has always been non-denominational and at present we have about 25 different religions and faiths buried here.
"We started with nine acres of land and now we have 124 acres of land. By population, it is the biggest in the country because there is 1.5 million buried here - that's more than Dublin's population.
"So when you say to people on tours that there is more people below ground in Glasnevin than there is above ground, it hits home the size and scale of it," he explained to The Herald over a pot of tea after sending a group of happy tourists on their way.
Graveyards aren't usually on must see listicles for tourists jetting away on weekend breaks, but if political, cultural and literary giants are buried there, you can expect a few to pop by. And the tour guides, who have a reputation for being entertaining, have learned to show these guests around with a reverence and respect for those who are buried there and the loved ones they have left behind.
"Shane had been doing the tours for many years here, just himself going around on a daily basis. The major increase in tourism came in 2010 when we opened the museum here, and with the museum, the word got out that tours are really an attraction. There are also exhibitions and a coffee shop here as well.
"Shane would have trained us all, as tour guides, to inform people in an entertaining way. We have to remind ourselves that it is a cemetery, that there will be people going to family graves. But, at the same time, our history is so interesting and fascinating, we like drawing out the little anecdotes in history that just makes the stories of those graves come alive to a lot of people."
Every year it goes "from strength to strength", Niall explained, but there is no doubt that a lot of this recent success is owed to the brilliant One Million Dubliners documentary.
"The targets we set for visitor numbers, we just surpassed them, particularly in 2015. In 2015, there were 75,000 paying visitors. We are still in our own infancy, so to get 75,000 in one year, it is quite a considerable number, and every year it is increasing."
This year, which marks the 100th anniversary of the execution of 16 of the leaders of the Rising, that number is expected to rocket to as many as 90,000 - more than the capacity of Croke Park.
"Glasnevin is the final resting place for a plethora of historical Irish figures, including Michael Collins, Maud Gonne, Countess Markievicz, Eamon de Valera, Joseph Mary Plunkett and his wife Grace Gifford. And more recently, the list of popular Irish figures who have been buried there includes Luke Kelly from The Dubliners and literary legends Brendan Behan and Christy Brown.
Collins' grave is undoubtedly the most popular in the cemetery, not just because of its proximity to the entrance, but staff credit the Hollywood blockbuster starring Liam Neeson for also bolstering interest.
The modest plot is inundated with flowers and even has attracted the attention of the 'mysterious French lady' - artist Veronique Crombe - who travels from her Parisian home to visit her beloved several times a year.
However, the interest in Collins' grave is now being rivalled by Shane MacThomais's final resting place, according to Niall.
"He is a great loss to the cemetery. But his legacy is still there. People on the tours will constantly say where's Shane's grave, which I think is funny because in the film he mentions Collins' grave being the most visited and all of the flowers on his grave and now Shane himself is kind of rivalling Collins. If you go down to Shane's grave, he always seems to have flowers.
"He is like Collins, in the sense that he died young - too young. He is still very popular to this day and he has a great film made about him, so you can't argue with that."
Keeping the tour fresh is something all 10 tour guides working in Glasnevin endeavour to do, and this year, Niall will be hosting a series of special 1916 tours from Good Friday to Easter Monday.
"It is a big year for the cemetery. With the anniversary of the Easter Rising, the cemetery is just going to be abuzz with it. We will have an exhibition in the museum, we will also have a lecture series and the Government will be out at various commemorations," the Dublin man added. "I have been teaching now five years and tour guiding for six years, so I have got history coming out of my ears."