Glasnevin Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Ireland. Nearly 1¼ million burials have taken place there since Daniel O’Connell and the Catholic Association acquired the land, which in 1832 received its first remains. It is now regarded as an iconic embodiment of Ireland’s history in the 19th and 20th centuries, holding as it does the remains of so many of those who figured prominently in the struggle for Irish freedom.
I recently went on a guided tour of Glasnevin where the guide was Seamus Mac Thomáis who turned out to be a son of the late Eamonn Mac Thomáis, a man whose love for Dublin, its lore and its history was unrivalled. Within the time allotted for the tour it was not possible to cover the entire 120 acres or even to refer to some of the many historic figures who have a final resting place in Glasnevin. The Daniel O’Connell Memorial Round Tower is readily seen as one enters the cemetery and in the underground vault lies O’Connell with various members of the O’Connell family including a clerical relative from Kerry who was the last to be buried there 10 or 15 years ago. The remains of Daniel O’Connell who died in Genoa on 15th May 1847 were brought back to Ireland, minus his heart which was brought to Rome. Accompanying the body was Fr. John Miley, a native of Narraghmore, who had travelled with O’Connell to Italy at the Liberator’s request. Miley gave the funeral oration in the Pro Cathedral in Marlborough Street, Dublin on the morning of O’Connell’s funeral.
Nearby are the graves of nine of the ten men executed in Mountjoy Jail during ‘the Troubles’ including Kevin Barry and Frank Flood, whose remains were exhumed from Mountjoy in 2001. The tenth man, Patrick Maher, was interned in accordance with the wishes of his family in County Limerick. The adjoining grave is that of Roger Casement, whose body was returned a few years ago from Pentonville Jail where he was hanged in August 1916, despite the efforts of such notable writers as Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesteron and George Bernard Shaw, all of who were involved in a petition to save his life.
The grave which appears to receive most visitors and is constantly covered in flowers is that of Michael Collins. Not too far away is the grave of his girlfriend Kitty Kiernan, who married Felix Cronin three years after Collins’s death. When she died in 1945 the love letters of Collins and Kiernan were found in shoe boxes amongst her personal effects and they were published in book form by Gill and MacMillan in 1983 under the title ‘In Great Haste’. The original letters were auctioned off in Dublin twelve years later and the former Fine Gael T.D. Peter Barry purchased them. In contrast to the flower covered grave of Collins is the unadorned de Valera family grave some distance away where Eamon de Valera, his wife and some of his children are buried. The modest gravestone belies the complex politician who presided over Irish politics for more than 50 years.
O’Donovan Rossa’s final resting place stirred thoughts of Padraig Pearse’s famous oration at the old Fenian’s graveside which catapulted the then little known Pearse into a very prominent position within the Volunteer movement. The Fenian John O’Leary who died 8 years before Rossa lies alongside James Stephens, the founder of the Fenian movement and nearby is the memorial to the Manchester martyrs Allen, Larkin and O’Brien.
The graves of Brendan Behan and James Larkin were noticed but not mentioned as we moved through the cemetery, as was also the grave of James Fintan Lalor. Charles Stewart Parnell had what is believed to have been the largest funeral ever seen in this country when on Sunday, 11th October 1891 his remains were brought from the City Hall to Glasnevin Cemetery to be laid in the specially assigned plot not far from the O’Connell tomb.
At the far end of the cemetery in that part first opened for burials is to be found the tomb of John Philpot Curran who died in London in 1817. His remains were brought back to Ireland 17 years later as it was his dying wish to be buried in Irish soil. The man who ostracised his daughter Sarah when he discovered that she was secretly engaged to Robert Emmet lies in a sarcophagus of a classical Roman type.
Not far from Curran’s tomb lies William J. Fitzpatrick, a prolific writer in the second half of the 19th century, who produced one of the first books to stir my interest in Irish history. ‘The Sham Squire’, published in 1866, dealt with the betrayal of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and his investigative work on Irish historical topics resulted in further books including ‘Ireland Before The Union’ and ‘The Secret Service Under Pitt’. He also wrote a biography of Bishop Doyle of Carlow and produced an important study on the correspondence and life of Daniel O’Connell. James Clarence Mangan was buried in the same area as Fitzpatrick and his writings, much of which appeared in ‘The Nation’ have recently been reissued as a multi volume publication.
As I passed on the footpath heading towards the section of the cemetery where the victims of the cholera epidemic of 1867 and the smallpox epidemic of 1872 were buried I saw the grave of Thomas H. Burke. With Lord Cavendish the newly appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland, Burke who was his Under Secretary, was murdered in the Phoenix Park on 6th May 1882 by members of the Invincibles.
Separated by a footpath from the last resting place of the Fenians, O’Leary and Stephens is the grave of the faithful servant of Robert Emmet, Ann Devlin, who died in poverty in 1851 aged 70 years. She spent two years in Kilmainham Jail as she underwent questioning in a vain attempt to get information about the 1803 insurgents and for over 40 years afterwards she lived in abject poverty until discovered by Dr. Richard Madden, chronicler of the United Irishmen. He befriended her in her last years. When she died she was buried in a paupers grave but Madden had her remains disinterred and laid in her present grave over which he placed a fitting memorial which read, ‘to the memory of Ann Devlin, the faithful servant of Robert Emmet, who possessed some rare and many noble qualities, who lived in obscurity and poverty and so died on the 18th of September 1851, aged 70 years. May she rest in peace.’
Robert Emmet’s grave has never been discovered but the grave of Ann Devlin is to many a fitting place to pay respects to the young Irishman who was hanged in Thomas Street, Dublin in 1803.
Glasnevin Cemetery provides a fascinating reminder of our Irish history stretching back to the decade before the Great Famine. The names recorded on the gravestones include many of those men and women who gave their energies and time for their country and in some cases their very lives. Their presence in Glasnevin makes the cemetery a place of pilgrimage for students of Irish history.
Last week I found myself, just hours before flying out of Ireland, without the necessary documentation to permit me to fly. I want to thank the officials from Kildare County Council who came to my assistance at very short notice and provided the necessary documentation which allowed me to travel. It is not often I have reason to praise officials of Kildare County Council, but this is one such occasion. Well done to all concerned.