We’re in Dublin this week, at the height of the centenary commemorations for the Easter Rising of 1916. There is much to do and see but I’ve decided to focus on a place where the men and women who died in the struggle for Irish freedom are remembered every day – Glasnevin, our ‘national cemetery.’
This part of the cemetery is still a work in progress. Slowly but surely all areas are being reclaimed and restored
Glasnevin is one of Ireland’s top tourist attractions – a cemetery, imagine! This is all the more remarkable when you realise that only a few years ago it was a tangled mess of weeds and ivy with row upon row of broken and fallen headstones, neglected and unsung. Now, after an extensive restoration project there is a handsome new museum (the world’s first cemetery museum) and avenues of statuary and bowers the like of which you might see in Paris.
But of course it’s who is buried here that marks it as a focus for this year of commemoration. The giants of Irish history – poets and politicians, painters and writers, priests and suffragists – can all be found here. And, most impressively, all religions. Daniel O’Connell, whose crypt and round tower dominate the scene, helped to found this graveyard as a burial place for all denominations.
Daniel O’Connell’s round tower rises above all other monuments
The history of headstone trends can be read in this graveyard too. Victorian statuary and sylvan avenues dominate the earlier periods but it was all Celtic Crosses and Maids of Erin at the turn of the century. The modern period has brought austere and understated granite slabs.
The Celtic Revival was not just about literature – trends in art extended to gravestone designs. The top one above is the gravestone of John Keegan Casey, author of soul stirring national ballads and songs; the lower one commemorates several different patriots
Last year, the focus was on O’Donovan Rossa (see my posts about Rossa here and here and here). The oration at his graveside in Glasnevin was given by Patrick Pearse: it was re-printed and widely distributed and is usually credited with marking an important starting point to the 1916 Rising, one year later.
An actor re-enacts the oration given by Patrick Pearse in 1915 at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa
Many of the participants in that rising found their final resting place here in Glasnevin, although not the leaders who were immediately executed, most of whom were buried in quicklime at Arbour Hill cemetery, in what was once a prison yard. But here are Eamon de Valera, Countess Markievicz, Thomas Ashe, Harry Boland, Cathal Brugha, Austin Stack, Sir Roger Casement, Elizabeth O’Farrell (see below) and many more. They were men and women, Catholic and Protestant: although the new state that grew from independence was predominantly Catholic, many Protestants numbered in the ranks of the revolutionaries. See the always entertaining Come Here To Me blog for a thorough investigation of this. Of all the graves the most famous belongs to Michael Collins, about whom Robert has written. Collins’ grave has the distinction of being the most visited in the cemetery, and always has fresh flowers on it.
But the most startling and important association that Glasnevin Cemetery has with 1916 is not captured by the roll call of the leaders and foot soldiers of the IRB and Volunteers who fought in the various actions. No – the real story here is in the sheer numbers of people who died during that conflict and who were buried here. That number (so far) is 485 men, women and children.
The modern Glasnevin Museum houses displays, vast records, and a visitor centre
This number is the result of a massive research effort by Glasnevin Trust.** Here is what their website has to say about their findings:
This major research work has revealed many interesting and previously unknown facts. The majority of the dead were civilians, 54% of the total dead, caught up in the fighting. British Army dead accounted for 26% of those killed while the rebel forces had 16% of the casualties. The remaining percentage is made up of members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and Royal Irish Constabulary. The numbers of civilians killed each day steadily increased, peaking on the final day of the rebellion 29 April when 45 died. This was also the most violent day of the rebellion during which 78 people lost their lives. 26 April, the day of the Battle of Mount Street Bridge, was the worst for the British Army losing 30 men during the fighting throughout the city. The rebels also suffered their worst casualties on this day with 13 men killed. For the police the day of the Battle of Ashbourne, 28 April, proved to be their worst.
The vast majority of those killed were buried at Glasnevin Cemetery in the aftermath of the fighting. The staff of the cemetery struggled to deal with the large numbers of bodies being brought for burial. Despite great strain they succeeded in giving all a dignified burial and recorded their details in our registers.
If you’re in Dublin, do go on a tour of Glasnevin Cemetery. And when you’re there, stop at the new memorial to all those who died in the 1916 Rising (to be unveiled in early April), and reflect not only upon the insurgents or the soldiers and policemen, but upon the innocents. It is fitting that their lives and their deaths should also form part of what we remember and understand about that week of conflict.
Much has been written lately about the many women who played active roles in the Rising. One of those was Elizabeth O’Farrell, the nurse who carried the white flag of surrender out of the GPO – and who was almost airbrushed from history
And that planned new memorial – a ‘necrology wall’ listing the 485? It is, inevitably, controversial. Depending on what you read it is either a bewildering, ‘bizarre’ and revisionist decision, or a brave new effort to recognise all the dead equally and non-judgementally. But perhaps that is, after all, the job of a cemetery.
And if you can’t get to Glasnevin, try to see the film One Million Dubliners. It’s a brilliant, moving, evocative and beautifully made film that will show you why this historic cemetery has so rightly earned its place as one of Ireland’s major tourist attractions.