Contributed by Ciarán Wallace
Some time in the 1970s a republican slogan was painted along the wall of Glasnevin Cemetery. Éireoimid arís it read, ‘we will rise again’, to the delight of local wits. Whatever its political (or theological) implications, the slogan is being fulfilled in cultural terms at least.
On a very enjoyable tour of the cemetery last weekend I learnt about its past and future. As a local with a number of family graves in Glasnevin, I suspected that I knew the place, and most of the main historical figures and events associated with it. While the ninety-minute tour included the famous graves, the real value – and fun – came from the minor stories and incidental detail.
Ok, so it was a bit of a thrill to fulfil a childhood ambition by going down into the vault under O’Connell’s tower. The shrine-like arrangement of the sealed coffin within an open-sided sarcophagus allows pilgrims to touch the Liberator’s casket. There was no polite disinterest when the enthusiastic guide suggested we follow the tradition – adults and children alike promptly stepped forward and plunged their hands through the opening into the dim interior. The crypt, with its Arts and Crafts decoration, the Celtic iconography and the stack of deceased O’Connells in a side room (each in their sealed coffin of course) engaged our interest in the tour from the start.
As a respectable Victorian charity, Glasnevin Cemetery Trust has a record for each of the 1.5 million burials since its opening in 1832 . Yes, the city has more people underground than above it. As the guide proudly informed us, they have an entry for every pencil and candle they ever used. All burial records are being digitised and will be available both in the museum and on-line later this year.
Changing trends in funereal decoration are clearly demonstrated by the range of simple headstones and elaborate mausoleums, which create a living art-history textbook. Extensive renovations are well under way on the long avenues of decaying monuments. Inside the original Prospect Square gate the Nine Acres plot has been restored to its original grandeur. Knee-high headstones elsewhere in the cemetery are here remounted on firm plinths, restoring them to their full five-foot stature; resurrection indeed. Narrow sandy paths lead you between ornate and humble memorials to the various classes of deceased residents. In its early days the Trust actually transplanted Dublin’s famous dead to this location in the hope of attracting new business. Despite the logistical complications caused by O’Connell’s death in Italy, Glasnevin made sure to get the remains of this most prominent founder of the cemetery. Consequently, Glasnevin was the obvious choice for Parnell and Collins.
Celebrity culture is clearly not a product of the twenty-first century. Such early marketing, and the Trust’s ongoing management of the cemetery, paid off. Glasnevin is almost full.
The impressive new museum and information centre will open this Easter, with three floors of exhibits, a genealogical service and restaurant. The restorations will be completed by 2016 giving tourists a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable location to visit, and bereaved locals somewhere decent to have a cup of tea with their ancestors – an appropriate meeting of past and present. A shuttle-bus from the city centre, which serves the successful Croke Park exhibition, will also bring visitors to the cemetery increasing the number of tours from one to three per day.
Glasnevin Cemetery tours currently run at 2.30pm Monday to Sunday. Tickets cost €5.00 and are available from the temporary florists shop inside the main gate on the Finglas Road.