I’ve been up around Glasnevin before in a vain attempt to find Brendan Behan’s grave; I don’t know what possessed me, it was a beautiful day, I’d just finished reading The Hostage and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Of course, I failed in the attempt, but promised myself I’d come back some day and have another look. So, given the oppurtunity this weekend, the three CHTM heads, accompanied by LukeF (of LukeF Comics,) took a walk to Irelands largest necropolis where we hooked up with the official tour- led by Shane MacThomáis, son of the great Dublin historian Eamonn MacThomáis, a man who I personally have a lot of time for, and I’m sure the other two lads here are the same. Some of his documentaries can be found here.
The cemetary is home to the graves of approximately 1.2 million people; A far cry from the nine acres it started out with in 1832,the area now stands at over 120 acres on one side of the road and a further 40 acres on the other, where the body of Luke Kelly now rests. It came into being initially due to reforms pushed through by Daniel O’Connell, whose tomb sits at the entrance to the cemetary. Prior to it’s existence, death was an expensive thing to endure, there being no Catholic burial grounds in Dublin and it costing a small fortune to bury a Catholic in a Protestant one. O’Connells tomb is of course marked by a 170ft tall round tower, which tends to stand out a wee bit! The tomb was the target of a loyalist bomb attack in the seventies, which shook the tomb itself, and blew up the stairs encircling the inside of the tower, closing it to the public. The Cemetary is surrounded on all sides by high stone walls, with towers on each corner. Not there to keep the dead in, they were built to keep grave robbers out. Grave robbing was a lucrative business in the 19th Century, corpses fetching £2, quite a sum in those days. Guards manned the towers from dusk to dawn, armed with muskets and pistols.
JayCarax said it on the way up here and he was right: It isn’t a case of who is buried here, it’s easier to say who isn’t. For within a stones throw of the gate, you have Daniel O’Connell, as mentioned above, Eamonn DeValera, Michael Collins, Michael Malone, Maud Gonne, Jim Larkin, Roger Casement, Cathal Brugha, The O’Raghallaigh and Frank Ryan, amongst any number of important historical figures. The virtual map on the Glasnevin Trust site gives you a better of who is buried, and where, and is definitely worth having a look at.
Whilst amongst the masses of graves friends and comrades lay side by side, mortal enemies are often not within spitting distance of each other either. For while Big Jim Larkin turns to dust beneath the Glasnevin soil, likewise does William Martin Murphy whose palatial tomb is within sight of the modest grave Jim and his family are buried in. While Frank Ryan is buried within sight of the gate, Eoin O’Duffy is also. Glasnevin is, and has always been, a multi-denominational cemetary. Buried and cremated here are Catholic and Protestant, Sikhs and Jews. Rich and poor also, the cemetary is home to the Millenium Plot (what would have formerly been known as a “paupers plot.”) This is looked after by the charity “Alone” who maintain the plot and make sure people buried there are buried with dignity, giving them a full funeral, headstone and flowers. Fair play due there. In one of the older paupers plots, up to 25,000 bodies are buried in a relatively tiny area, not far from Parnell’s grave. Many of the dead were victims of a cholera outbreak in the late 19th century. A couple of years after their burial, fresh outbreaks of Cholera were reported in the Drumcondra / Ballybough area. For not far beneath the soil where their bodies lay is a maze of underground streams, all emtying into the Tolka River- the disease had assimilated into the soil and on into the water, making its way back into circulation. Nasty times.
Above is a stone that caught my attention the first time I visited, and again on our visit on Monday, a memorial to the Indian Mutineers of 1920. Theres is an interesting story. Upon hearing of the uprising in their homeland, hundreds of Irish Soldiers fighting in the British army in India turned their guns on their generals. Though close to 400 men took part, the mutiny was quickly suppressed and eighty-eight of those men were court martialled. Fourteen were sentenced to death and the rest given up to 15 years in jails in Dagshai and Solan. Two died in the mutiny, Pte Sears and Pte Smyth. Thirteen of the men sentenced to die had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment, though one man, James Daly was shot dead by firing squad. He was considered the leader of the mutiny at just 21 years old.
The tour eventually took us to the grave of Brendan Behan in the end, and my search was over. Not far from him lies the burial place of Francis Sheehy- Skeffington, brutally murdered by an Anglo-Irish officer of the 3rd battalion Royal Irish Rifles, Captain J.C. Bowen-Colthurst. Another sad story, one of 1.2 million sad stories you might say. You get the sense when walking around here that each grave has a history attached, each person buried here has had trials and tribulations of their own. And while visitors come here to see the burial sites of the famous and influential, there are others here whose personal struggles surely matched the struggles of those marked on their maps.
The new Glasnevin Visitors Centre opens this Friday. There are daily tours of the cemetary, led by Shane MacThomáis, costing €5. A bargain, tours last approx. 2 hours. Without donations and support, Glasnevin would be forced to close its gates as a national monument. Be sure to visit and support it however you can. Check out http://www.glasnevintrust.ie for more details.