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Glasnevin: Ireland’s National Cemetery.


If this was not the highest point in Dublin, then it certainly felt like it. After climbing the 198 steps to the top of the Daniel O’Connell tower in Glasnevin cemetery, the highest round tower in Ireland, I was able to gaze over the entire city, laid out almost like a map. It stretched from the western limits, past the airport to the north, by way of the Hill of Howth, the Irish Sea and the Liffey mouth round to the Dublin mountains in the south. This amazing revelation was the culmination of one of the most fascinating and enlightening days I have ever spent in the nation’s capital.

View from O'Connel Tower, Gasnevin, Dublin

We had arrived quite early in the day, and while awaiting the start of our guided tour, spent an informative hour in the impressive visitor centre, where we learned something of the history of the national cemetery. Until the early 19th century, Irish Catholics could only be buried, for a fee, in a Protestant graveyard. When Daniel O’Connell achieved Catholic emancipation in 1829, he set up Glasnevin as a burial place for people of all religions and none. Indeed, a wall in the centre contains symbols of many of the more than 25 world religions that are represented here. Other displays contain relics of some of the people buried here and models depicting grave-digging methods, while a room is dedicated to victims of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19.

Daniel O’Connell died in Genoa in 1847, and at his own request, his heart was buried in Rome and his body in Ireland, where it now rests in a vault beneath the tower. The first person to be buried in Glasnevin, following its consecration in 1832 was an 11-year-old boy, Michael Carey, who died from tuberculosis. Since then, more than 1.6 million people have been buried, a number that exceeds the present living population of Dublin City. The estimated capacity is 2.2 million, which is expected to be reached in forty years.

We joined a small group outside the visitor centre, where Warren introduced himself as our guide, and an excellent guide he proved to be, well informed and very humorous. We began the tour at the tombs of the ‘forgotten ten’, who fought in the War of Independence (1919-21) and were executed in Mountjoy Prison. They were originally buried in unmarked graves, but moved to the present site in 2001. One of these was Kevin Barry, whose memory has been preserved in song. Adjacent to these graves is that of Sir Roger Casement, whose fight against human rights abuses in the Congo and Peru led to his knighthood but left him with a hatred of the idea of empire. He was executed in England in 1916 and his body only returned to Ireland in 1966.

We descended to the entrance to Daniel O’Connell’s tower. The base was circled by 42 tombs belonging to wealthy families. Among them were the tomb of a grand nephew of rebel patriot, Robert Emmet and a priest who brought the partial remains of St Valentine to Dublin in 1835, having received them from Pope Gregory XVI. Inside the crypt was Daniel O’Connell’s vault and ten coffins holding the remains of descendents and more recent members of his family. There are spaces for two more burials in the crypt.

O'Connel Crypt

The largest funeral in Ireland after Daniel O’Connell’s was that of the second great pre-independence political leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. His grave is far more modest, marked only by a large boulder of Wicklow granite. Parnell’s career ended in scandal, and to deter enemies from desecrating his resting place, his body was buried above the mass graves of more than eleven thousand victims of a cholera epidemic.

Warren explained some of the reasons why, as here, yew trees are so prevalent in cemeteries. The tradition goes back to the time of the druids, who believed the trees warded off evil spirits. A more recent, and practical reason lay in the poisonous nature of the berries, which deterred farmers from allowing their animals to stray into the grounds. He also pointed out some watchtowers on the surrounding walls, that were built to prevent the illegal activities of grave robbers, who could make a good living from disinterring freshly deceased bodies for use in medical research.

The War Memorial space commemorated the forty thousand Irishmen who were killed during World War I, 207 of whom are buried in Glasnevin. A memorial donated by the French Government was erected here in 2016, to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

We passed the ‘Retail’ section, in which lay the founders of famous Irish chain stores, Quinn, Guiney and Dunne, and on to the De Valera plot which, considering the importance of Eamon De Valera in Irish history, is very modest. He was due to be executed after James Connolly, following the Easter Rising of 1916, but was reprieved at the last moment, possibly because of his American citizenship, but more probably because public opinion, initially hostile to the rising, began to swing behind it in revulsion to the execution of the other fourteen leaders.

In the republican plot are the graves of old Fenians alongside those of rebels of the independence years, among them John Devine, Cathal Brugha, Michael O’Rahilly and others. Here lies Grace Gifford, who married Joseph Mary Plunkett in Kilmainham Gaol just hours before he was executed. Here also lies Maud Gonne, who rejected five marriage proposals from the poet W. B. Yeats, and her son, Sean McBride, one of only two people to have been awarded both the Lenin and Nobel Peace Prizes, the other recipient being Nelson Mandela. Countess Markiewicz fought in the Rising and was the first woman to be elected to the British House of Commons, though she never took her seat.

O'Connell Tower

The tour came to its conclusion at the grave of Michael Collins. Half-a-million people lined the streets of Dublin for his funeral, and his grave remains the most visited in the cemetery, and the most adorned with flowers. A French lady visits twelve times each year and an American lady, who has never visited, sends flowers every fortnight. Collins’s untimely death in an ambush in 1922, at the age of 32, continues to pose the question as to how different Ireland’s subsequent history would have been had he survived.

But we were not yet ready to leave Glasnevin. After a leisurely lunch at the visitor centre, and before climbing the O’Connell tower, we returned to the grave of Jeremiah O’Donovan-Rossa, a Fenian leader who died in exile in America, in 1915, at the age of 83. A huge crowd attended his funeral in Glasnevin, at which Padraic Pearse gave one of the most famous speeches in Irish History. As we stood by the graveside, an actor in Army uniform repeated this emotional and very stirring oration, which played no small part in inspiring the Rising that was to take place the following year.

Before leaving, however, I made a short pilgrimage to the plot occupied by deceased Jesuit priests. One of those buried here was Father Francis Browne, who photographed the activities of the passengers and crew of the Titanic, before it left Queenstown, Cork on its ill-fated voyage. He was also awarded the Military Cross and Croix de Guerre for his bravery during World War I. And after searching among the lichen-covered names on the tall, solitary, Celtic cross, I found that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of the finest poets in the English language of the Victorian era. This was a fitting end to an enthralling day.

More by and about this author on his website.

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