Thursday 18 July 2019

The final resting place of 
the nation's great and good

Damian Corless on why even in the after life it's location, location, location

Strange but true - the high walls surrounding Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery were built in 1832 to ward off an invasion of the bodysnatchers. This is one of a great many absorbing facts revealed by guide Bridget Sheerin on the official walking tour of the vast graveyard.

The cemetery was closed to the public last Thursday as President Michael D Higgins and Britain's Duke of Kent laid wreaths at the unveiling of a Cross of Sacrifice. The new war memorial stands as a belated acknowledgement by Official Ireland of its citizens who died fighting for the Allies in two world wars.

When the cemetery was beng built at the start of the 1830s, Dublin was a world centre for medicine and was even dubbed The City of Doctors. The trouble for the bereaved of the capital was these doctors needed to dissect dead bodies in order to improve their surgical skills and advance their medical knowledge. And in the pursuit of medical science, they supported a thriving grave-robbing business.

It was illegal to dissect a human body unless it had been formerly inhabited by an executed criminal. But there just weren't enough executions to meet the demand from Dublin's doctors and those in that other centre of advanced medicine, Scotland, where bodies could fetch twice the price.

So the walls were made high, with seven watchtowers manned by armed guards. Vicious hounds were released to patrol the grounds by night, but the suspicion lingers that the bodysnatchers weren't to be put off. According to legend, Irish corpses were smuggled to Scotland in churns marked "butter" and in vats of whiskey. Once in Scotland, the bodies and the whiskey were reportedly sold separately.

Some 800,000 people have been buried in Glasnevin in unmarked graves. The death toll of the Great Famine of the 1840s was compounded by a cholera epidemic. Each day a fresh mass grave would be opened in the morning and closed at nightfall with 40 or 50 bodies, some just picked up off the streets outside.

The tour can take two hours, but the actual walking distance is surprisingly short. An astonishing who's who of key figures from Irish history can be found in a space the size of two or three football pitches. The walk starts at the tomb of the executed 1916 gun-runner Roger Casement before moving literally inches to the resting place of Kevin Barry, executed in 1920. Towering over both is Daniel O'Connell's monument, which was partly destroyed by a bomb in 1971, thought to be a loyalist response to the earlier felling of Nelson's Pillar on O'Connell Street by republicans.

As with many of the figures included on the tour, O'Connell's personality gets a little airbrushing so as not to offend the sensibilities of tourists and children. The Great Liberator's parallel career as the Great Fornicator is glossed over, together with his duelling addiction. O'Connell was instrumental in getting Glasnevin opened in an era when Penal Laws made the business of getting a decent burial very problematic for Catholics. He also shot dead a member of Dublin Corporation in a political row.

The next great leader of Irish nationalism was Charles Stewart Parnell, who is buried a couple of hundred metres away. Parnell died a broken man after a messy adultery case which ruined him. Parnell's funeral drew crowds that would fill five Garth Brooks concerts and such was the chaos, cemetery officials decided that in future they would issue tickets for the really big celebrity funerals. One of these big-ticket events was the burial of Michael Collins following his death in an ambush in 1922.

You can even decide to have yourself laid to rest beside Collins, but it will cost you. A crypt near Daniel O'Connell can be had for around €45,000, but one close to Collins is nearer €60,000.

As guide Bridget Sheerin says: "Even in death, it's location, location, location."

The final resting place of the nation's great and good

Daniel O'Connell The Great Liberator. A founding force of Glasnevin Cemetery.

Charles Stewart Parnell Sent to an early grave by a scandalous adultery case.

Maud Gonne Imprisoned as a rebel leader. The muse of WB Yeats.

Eamon de Valera Glasnevin had a new phone system installed for his 1975 funeral.

Brendan Behan Imprisoned for IRA activity. Found fame with The Quare Fellow.

Michael Collins Killed in an ambush at 32 in 1922. Funeral was a ticket-only affair.

Constance Markievicz Revolutionary. First woman elected to House of Commons.

Frank Duff Founder of the Legion of Mary and the man who closed the notorious red-light district of Monto.

Christy Brown Acclaimed author played by Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot.

Luke Kelly Beloved vocalist of The Dubliners whose life in the fast lane came to an early end.

Stephen Gately Boyzone singer cremated at Glasnevin in 2009.

Roger Casement 1916 revolutionary and human rights activist.

Arthur Griffith Founder of Sinn Fein and early leader of the new Free State.

Irish Independent

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