Thursday 29 September 2016

Our capital has a million buried stories waiting to be unearthed

Workers on the new Luas cross-city line made a grisly discovery recently when they unearthed human remains at Broadstone. But an old cholera cemetery located there is just one of many forgotten burial grounds in Dublin

Dermot Bolger

Published 31/08/2015 | 11:47

Excavation site at College Green
Excavation site at College Green
Cholera epidemic

People associate the horror at the heart of the novel Dracula with Transylvania, but Bram Stoker - who was born during the Irish Famine - grew up close to terrible sights to rival anything in his novel.

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His mother spent her childhood in the shadow of the lunatic asylum attached to Sligo's country jail and witnessed famine, fever and outbreaks of cholera there.

Her most striking memory was of the local Catholic priest stalking the fever house with a horsewhip to try and prevent patients being buried before they were dead.

He was not always successful, with families often having to scramble to rescue still breathing relatives from such terrible makeshift pits.

People associate nineteenth century Ireland with famine, but outbreaks of diseases like cholera caused devastation also, as designated burial sites were unable to cope.

At times makeshift overflow pits became mass graves amid scenes so chaotic that nobody could keep track of the number of people hastily buried there, let alone their names.

Cholera epidemic
Cholera epidemic

Anything buried remains hidden and eventually forgotten, but it never actually goes away.

This is why it is unsurprising that a fortnight ago workmen digging foundations for the new Luas line to Cabra stumbled upon the remains of many victims from the great cholera epidemic that decimated Dublin during the 1830s.

These anonymous victims wound up in this pit near Broadstone Garage, having been transferred there in the 1870s, when Broadstone was being extended and the mass grave that they had originally occupied was built on.

This original mass grave had itself been an overflow burial ground, quickly established and forgotten, when the rate of death become so great that the official mass graves at Bully's Acre near the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham could no longer cope.

The Broadstone site has since been examined by archaeologists from Rubicon Heritage to establish its full features.

The find had echoes of a similar discovery last month at College Green, when Luas workers found the remains of five people - most likely dated from the medieval times.

It may seem strange that there are hidden burial plots scattered through the familiar streets around us, but in any city as old as Dublin you will find forgotten grave plots in unexpected places.

Nineteenth century Dublin was a city of contrasts with sublime wealth and intense poverty co-existing side by side.

People were divided in life: the rich inhabiting great Georgian or establishing smug self-governing townships, while the poor remained crammed into grimy tenements, where contagious diseases spread like wildfire.

This social segregation continued after death. This is why traces of some tiny nineteenth century Dublin graveyards remain where others are completely obliterated.

Few people walking down Drumcondra's Whitworth Road are aware that a hidden cemetery exists there that from 1820 to 1962 operated as the burial ground for the now forlorn (and currently for rent) great church of St George that stands empty beside Temple Street Hospital - and whose bells kept Molly Bloom awake during her soliloquy.

Few inhabitants of Ballybough know that a small Jewish cemetery operated on Fairview Strand from 1718 until 1890, with the last recorded burial, by a family with rights of access, occurring in 1958.

Even relatively visible graveyards can contain mysteries.

Visitors seeking the tomb of the famous architect James Gandon in the small Protestant graveyard behind Drumcondra's Cat and Cage pub are often perplexed to find a beautifully-kept grave, with a stone proclaiming that "The Rajah of Frongoch" rests there.

They walk away with visions of an Indian prince, unaware that this was the nickname bestowed on Jimmy Mulkerns whose flamboyant musical turns did so much to raise the spirits of his fellow inmates in that Welsh internment camp following the Easter Rising.

'The Rajah's' resting place is marked and honoured, but the same cannot be said for the poor souls who perished on board the ship The Prince of Wales, off the coast of Blackrock in 1807.

Many of the bodies found at the Luas works at Broadstone may not have been Dubliners, because impoverished country dwellers flocked to the city to try to survive.

Likewise the unfortunate passengers on The Prince of Wales were Gaelic-speaking migrants from Connaught, lured by starvation into enlisting in the British Army. They were being transported with their families when a terrible storm blew up and the captain and crew (who were later acquitted of mass murder) abandoned them in the hold to their fate and rowed off in the only lifeboat.

For days afterwards battered bodies were washed up along Merrion Strand. Those anonymous bodies buried in a pit in a tiny graveyard on Merrion Road, behind the garage beside the Tara Towers Hotel. Thousands of commuters pass that spot with no notion of the horror that once unfolded there, but that is the nature of a city's history.

Dublin has a million buried stories waiting to be inadvertently unearthed by unsuspecting workmen who stumble upon long forgotten tragedies.

Hopefully the bones unearthed this week will be allowed to lie as undisturbed as possible.

They will become forgotten again until some future time comes when the Luas is as much an antiquated memory as the Howth tram and new workmen in a new century will once again stumble across this reminder of Dublin's troubled past.

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