1916 and 485

485

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.’

Work in progress

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.

Glasnevin Statuary

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.

Tower and Cross

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. 

Casey Memorial

Restored MonumentThe 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

Outlaws and Felons

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.

Rossa Oration

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. 

Michael Collins Gra ve

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.

Museum

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.

Celtic Crosses

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. 

One-Million-Dubliners

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.

** The first photograph in this post is the front cover of the research report 1916 Necrology by the Glasnevin Trust

Celtic Cousins

Jonathan Ball (right) - Architect, Co-Founder of the Eden Project - and Chorus Master

Jonathan Ball (right) – Architect, Co-Founder of the Eden Project – and Chorus Master

This weekend, West Cork was invaded by Celtic Cousins from Cornwall! By longstanding tradition, a group from Bude and its environs visits Courtmacsherry and the area surrounding it to join Irish neighbours in a feast of music and song: the hospitality is reciprocated when the Irish contingent goes over to Cornwall. The reason? The lifeboat based in Courtmacsherry has long been ‘twinned’ with the lifeboat based in Bude.

Images from the past: Bude’s Lifeboat in earlier years

Images from the past: Bude’s Lifeboat in earlier years (historic images courtesy of Bude RNLI)

The event is becoming an annual treat for us – because I worked in Bude for many years, with the Jonathan Ball Practice. The group that comes over is overseen by Jonathan himself, who won’t mind me saying that he is a Cornishman born and bred who believes that Bude is the centre of the Universe. I know, of course, that it’s actually West Cork that’s the centre of the Universe – so we have to have an annual get-together to sort out our differences…

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First, a bit of background. There are 236 lifeboat stations around the coasts of these islands, and 43 of these are in Ireland. The RNLI has operated life saving facilities in the Republic and the UK since 1824, when the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was founded as a charity by Sir William Hillary, a soldier who lived on the Isle of Man. The Institution today is supported almost entirely by donations and legacies, and the crews are unpaid volunteers.

Bude, on the north coast of Cornwall, had its first lifeboat as early as 1837. This boat was presented to the town by King William IV and paid for by the Duchy of Cornwall: the cost was 100 guineas. The lifeboat at Bude was withdrawn in 1923, and not reinstated until 1966. At the same time the Bude Lifeboat Singers came into being: this was conducted by crew member Jonathan Ball, and over the next 25 years was much in demand across Britain and into West Cork, and during that time many thousands of pounds were raised for the RNLI and other charities.

Meanwhile, the lifeboat station at Courtmacsherry was established in 1825 – one of the first to be founded in Ireland – and has been active ever since, its Trent class Lifeboat being on hand at all times to save lives and rescue mariners in trouble. The Trent lifeboats are true all-weather vessels in the RNLI fleet, and are exclusively designed to operate in Europe’s most hostile waters.

Courtmacsherry 'Trent' class Lifeboat: Frederick Storey Cockburn

Courtmacsherry ‘Trent’ Class Lifeboat: Frederick Storey Cockburn

As you know, West Cork is also home to many people steeped in music and tradition, so it was only natural that Bude and Courtmacsherry should get together to share tunes and songs – and hospitality.

four alls

For us the ‘getting together’ happened on Friday, when we travelled up to Sam’s Cross: Michael Collins country. We had to visit his birthplace, of course – have a look at our previous post on this great Irish folk-hero. Collins’ local pub was the Four Alls, and that’s where the singers and musicians settled down for a lively session, joined by some of the pub regulars, who added their own contributions.

Jonathan, Finola and myself, having a Michael Collins moment...

Jonathan, Finola and myself, having a Michael Collins moment…

Although a little hoarse from the previous night’s revels, Cornwall gave of its best, with Jonathan himself still conducting – 48 years on! West Cork was well represented by Dan O’Donovan and colleagues – former show band members – and the locals. I felt privileged to be allowed to join in with my own European mixture of English / Irish / French dance tunes.

As dusk began to settle, the next venue beckoned, and we became part of a convoy snaking its way through the most remote parts of County Cork: we had no idea where we would end up! When we finally arrived at Hickey’s Bar in the fine village of Aherla we were completely disorientated.

hickeys

But at Hickey’s we were welcomed with open arms and led into a back room full to the brim with musicians! I counted well over twenty from the Irish contingent and, as the evening progressed into night and then morning, more locals came in to add to the entertainment with songs and recitations.

Somehow, we found our way back to Nead an Iolair – it was a drive of an hour and a half – exhausted, but thoroughly elevated by all the music and conviviality. Only in Ireland (and Cornwall) could you find such a sharing: we are all Celtic Cousins, of course…

RNLI1

 

The Laughing Boy

Birthplace of a Folk Hero

Birthplace of a Folk Hero

T’was on an August morning, all in the dawning hours,
I went to take the warming air, all in the Mouth of Flowers,
And there I saw a maiden, and mournful was her cry,
‘Ah what will mend my broken heart, I’ve lost my Laughing Boy’

bust

Let’s face it: our travels today were a pilgrimage. We went out in search of a hero and we found shrines, monuments, places of devotion and folktales. It all started last week, which was ‘Rebel Week’ in Cork County and Skibbereen was one of the centres of activity. We were attracted by a flyer for a ‘Tribute to Michael Collins’ being held in the Eldon Hotel – a venue which we now know features in the story of the man: it claims to be the place where he ate his last meal. The ‘Tribute’ proved a bit of a damp squib as the advertised speaker didn’t turn up, but as compensation we were shown a 1973 British film made and zealously narrated by a very ebullient Welsh actor, Kenneth Griffith: Hang Up Your Brightest Colours. This film extravagantly documents the life of Michael Collins and the Irish struggle for freedom in the early twentieth century, and was considered ‘incendiary’ in a time when The Troubles were boiling over; consequently its showing was banned for twenty years. We determined to visit some of the significant locations that featured in the film and which are not too far away from Nead an Iolair.

Master of Oration

Master of Oration

West Cork is Collins’ country: he was born in Sam’s Cross, near Clonakilty – the youngest of eight children – in October 1890. His father Michael had married Marianne O’Brien (23) when he was 60. Already the folklore kicks in: Michael the elder was the seventh son of a seventh son and therefore gifted with powers of divination. On his deathbed he predicted that our hero – then aged 6 – would one day “…be a great man. He’ll do great work for Ireland…” Also, there’s a touch of mystery about Collins’ birth: the records state he was born on 16 October whereas on his tombstone the date is given as 12 October.

The Collins grave in Rosscarberry

The Collins grave in Rosscarbery

In the burial ground in Rosscarbery we found the family grave. There is a modest entry on the headstone for young Michael, recording that he died on 22 August 1922 (he’s actually buried in Dublin). That’s about all that’s modest about the Collins story. He was known as The Big Fella, as much because of his reputation and charisma as for his physique.

You can’t miss his birthplace – it’s signposted for miles around the area of Woodfield – but the family farmhouse isn’t there! It was burnt to the ground by the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1920, during the Irish War of Independence (and not by the Black and Tans, which is often claimed). However, the site has been preserved as an essential waymark of the Michael Collins pilgrim trail.

Memorial at Sam's Cross

Memorial at Sam’s Cross

There is also another, larger monument to Michael a little way up the road at Sam’s Cross – this is in fact next door to the house where his mother was born – and opposite his cousin Jeremiah’s pub – The Four Alls (this is one of several places where Collins is supposed to have taken his last drink).

Four Alls pub - cousin Jeremiah's

Four Alls pub – Cousin Jeremiah’s

For anyone who doesn’t know I had better just say that Michael Collins – soldier, freedom fighter and politician – was one of the key figures in the long Irish struggle for Independence – a conflict that was won, after a fashion, in December 1921 when the irish Free State was set up. Collins signed the Treaty in his then role as ‘Chairman of the Provisional Government and Commander-in-chief of the National Army’ and (legend has it) pronounced that he was also signing his own death warrant (the great folk heroes usually foretold their own death). The conditions of the Treaty, and the exclusion of some of the northern counties from the new state caused such dissension that a civil war ensued, and Michael Collins fell as a victim to that war as he toured through his home county of Cork on 22 August 1922.

The Eldon, Skibbereen

The Eldon, Skibbereen

His convoy left the Eldon Hotel, Skibbereen, in the early afternoon for Cork city and was ambushed at Béal na Bláth, on a minor road between Clonakilty and Macroom. During the skirmish Michael Collins was shot in the head and died instantly. He was the only casualty of that confrontation.

memorial2

Béal na Bláth

Béal na Bláth may mean ‘Gap of the Blossoms’ but there is some debate as to its correct translation: ‘Mouth of the Ford of the Buttermilk’ is one suggestion. Brendan Behan, in his folk ballad on the death of Michael Collins (the first stanza of which starts off this post), goes for ‘Mouth of Flowers’. We began our pilgrimage here on a wet Sunday morning. The place had a sombre atmosphere and the monument that we found – although unmistakably Messianic – is grim. Crowds come to this site, especially on the anniversary of the assassination. A white stone marks the actual spot where he fell: the fine details seem all important.

ambush

But – sifting through these details when I was trying to assemble this piece – I realise that there is so much that is apocryphal or contradictory in the various accounts, not just of his death but with many aspects of his life. And it’s the stories that will win out in the end. Michael Collins is a real national hero – quite rightly – but he’s on his way to becoming a folk hero – something different. He could be a Saint (he did after all perform a miracle in bringing together so many different factions and feelings to found the beginnings of modern Ireland) but to me he is more likely to end up in the ranks of the great Hero Warriors of Irish mythology such as Cu Chulainn, Medb or Finn McCool – or even the Gods. I wish I could be around to hear his sagas told in a few hundred years from now.

The fate of a Folk Hero...

The Fate of a Folk Hero…