A cemetery may not be a typical choice for a tourist attraction but then Glasnevin is not a typical cemetery.
It’s much more than a graveyard – it’s the source of endless fascinating insights into Irish history over the last 200 years. Its very existence tells us of the prejudice and injustice that blighted the country for centuries. And the names of the people buried within its walls reads like a who’s who of the country’s most illustrious figures.
Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera, Daniel O’Connell, Maud Gonne, Brendan Behan, Luke Kelly… the list goes on. At the other end of the spectrum, there are hundreds of thousands of people buried in paupers’ graves. And then there’s the story of Charles Stewart Parnell, the man who was once described as the uncrowned king of Ireland yet ended up in a pauper’s grave himself.
More than 1.5 million people are buried at Glasnevin, meaning there are more people buried in the graveyard than the 1.2 million currently walking around Dublin today.
Glasnevin Cemetery came into being because of the social and political conditions in the early 19th century. At that time, Ireland was under British rule and subject to the Penal Laws. These laws restricted the rights of Catholics and prevented them from voting, being educated or entering the professions.
They also made it illegal for Catholics to receive a proper burial except through the Protestant Church of Ireland. The Church charged Catholics exorbitant prices, which most of them couldn’t afford. It meant families had to suffer the indignity of burying their dead in unsanctified ground, often in communal pits.
The Penal laws were repealed in 1829 following extensive campaigning by Daniel O’Connell, a Catholic lawyer who became famous across the world as the Liberator because of the way he stood up to the British government and forced it to make concessions.
The removal of the Penal Laws made it possible for Catholics to receive proper burials within their own church.
O’Connell wanted to take this a step further. Having seen the hardships Catholics had suffered, he wanted to make sure no other religious or social group would ever have to face discrimination again.
He became the driving force for the establishment of Glasnevin Cemetery on the north side of Dublin.
It would take people of all faiths and denominations without any form of prejudice. The cemetery also went on to accept suicides and unbaptised babies, who would be turned away elsewhere.
The cemetery started off with just nine acres of land and the first people buried there were three children who had died of fever. It now covers more than a hundred acres. As the number of people buried there increased, the authorities realised that rainwater was seeping through graves and contaminating the clean water supply for Dublin. Special culverts had to be created to divert the water and prevent disease spreading.
There are towers throughout the cemetery and it is surrounded by high walls. These features were initially built to guard against body snatchers who used to steal corpses to sell to medical schools for anatomy research.
One of the first illustrious people to be buried at Glasnevin was Daniel O’Connell himself. He developed an illness, which at the time was described as softening of the brain. Historians now consider that he was probably suffering from dementia, or possibly a brain tumour, although no one knows for sure.
At that time, doctors couldn’t do anything for such patients other than suggest they rested and took a holiday. With this in mind, O’Connell set off to Italy in 1847 with the hope of receiving a blessing from the Pope in Rome. He never made it and died on the way in Genoa. His last words were said to be: “My body to Ireland, my heart to Rome, my spirit to heaven.”
O’Connell was probably speaking metaphorically but he was taken literally, with his heart being cut out and presented to the Irish College in Rome. It later went missing and was lost forever. His body was returned to Ireland and fittingly, he was buried in Glasnevin with a huge funeral attended by hundreds of thousands of people.
He still holds pride of place near the entrance with a huge tower as a headstone, leaving no one in any doubt that he was someone extra special.
Visitors can still see his coffin in his crypt below the tower. It is nine feet long, three feet wide and four feet deep. The coffin is also lined with lead and said to be airtight, which means O’Connell’s body may still be well preserved inside.
The crypt also contains the coffins of members of O’Connell’s family.
The year of O’Connell’s death, 1847, was the time when the potato famine was at its height and thousands of people who died of starvation and the accompanying diseases were buried in Glasnevin. Unlike with O’Connell, there was no pomp or circumstance for them. Many were dumped into large pits.
In spite of this, Glasnevin has records of everyone buried there, no matter how poor. It can provide people’s names plus details such as marital status and profession, making it an excellent resource for people wishing to trace their ancestry and establish their family tree.
If anyone could rival O’Connell’s status in 19th century Ireland it was Charles Stewart Parnell. He was the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the leading advocate of Irish Home Rule. He was immensely popular and such was his influence that he was described as the uncrowned king of Ireland.
Then at the height of his power, everything came crashing down around him as a result of a personal scandal. Parnell had fallen in love with a woman called Katherine O’Shea. The trouble was that she was already married to another man, Captain William O’Shea.
Katherine had already left her husband when she began her relationship with Parnell. She started living with him and they had two children together. O’Shea later filed for divorce and Parnell was mentioned in the proceedings.
This was in 1889. Divorce carried a huge stigma. In the ensuing scandal, Parnell fell into disgrace and all but his most loyal supporters deserted him. The Irish Parliamentary Party insisted he step down as leader, saying he was not morally fit to lead them.
Parnell tried to soldier on, campaigning for Home Rule but he had lost support and credibility. He married Katherine as soon as the divorce came through but he died in her arms five months later in 1891.
At the time of his death, Parnell was a broken man and he was buried in a pauper’s grave – perhaps one of the greatest falls from grace ever seen. Years later, some of his supporters placed a huge boulder above his grave as a tribute to the great man. The inscription simply reads, Parnell.
Glasnevin continues as a working cemetery but also has charitable status to help it maintain historic graves and preserve the site’s historical significance. There is a museum on site and guided tours are held every day, providing visitors with a taste of the wealth of history maintained within the cemetery walls.