Glasnevin Cemetery: Where the Stories of the Ordinary and the Powerful Intertwine

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Glasnevin Cemetery, Finglas Road
(Image author’s own)

I visited Glasnevin Cemetery this morning as part of my research for the new book I’m writing on Dublin in the revolutionary period.  With Pamela (my ‘research assistant’ / partner in crime) in tow, I intended to have a look at the graves of the Republican Plot and maybe visit those of other powerful figures from Irish history.  We arrived just as a tour was starting and, despite my reservations about guided tours (see below), we signed up.  I had planned to to write a blog post about the politics of burial: why a location is — or isn’t — chosen, how a grave is marked and if it’s a site of commemoration.  But as I listened to our tour guide, it quickly became apparent that Glasnevin Cemetery has much more to offer the historian: that the stories of the ordinary and the powerful buried within its walls are sometimes far more closely intertwined than first appearances might suggest.

The first person to be buried in Glasnevin Cemetery was eleven year old, Michael Carey of Francis St.  He had died of TB.  His funeral on 22 February 1832 was attended by the priest and his father alone.  As was the custom of the day, his mother remained at home.  Funerals of children, it was felt, were too traumatic for women.  By 1838, the cemetery was full and new stretches of land had to be acquired.  Today, it stands at around 214 acres and is sometimes referred to as the Dead Centre.  There are more people buried there than there are currently living in Dublin.  

Many of those bodies lie in unmarked graves: a sort of hidden history.  We stopped at this memorial to the war dead:

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(Image author’s own)

Inscribed on both walls are the names of more than 200 people buried in the cemetery.  Headstones have been erected at each of their graves, and they are commemorated as war dead.  As we stood on the pathway in front of the memorial, our tour guide informed us that beneath our feet was the final resting place of Dublin’s poor.  More than 300,000 people were buried in unmarked poor ground plots between 1838 and the 1920s.  Some were victims of epidemics, but many were simply residents of the notorious tenement buildings immortalised in the plays of Sean O’Casey.

And while the war dead might not be considered ‘the powerful’ of Irish history, Charles Stewart Parnell certainly is.  But his grave also has a hidden history.  His gravestone sits atop a large grassy mound, surrounded by railings.  A spacious final resting place for Ireland’s great nationalist leader.

CS Parnell, 1846-1891
CS Parnell, 1846-1891
(Image author’s own)

What Parnell’s gravestone actually sits on top of, though, is a cholera pit.  Victims of a massive outbreak in Dublin in 1849 were buried here in the hope of containing the disease.  What the authorities didn’t realise, however, was that streams which ran into the River Tolka flowed beneath the burial ground.  Used for washing clothes, dishes and for bathing in, the river water transmitted the disease from this mass grave.  13,000 people were buried there long before Parnell’s body was laid to rest.

While Parnell’s grave is not marked in the same lavish way as that of Daniel O’Connell — a round-tower marks the final resting place of the liberator — there is still something very poignant about the fact that the forgotten dead lie beneath the granite headstone from Parnell’s family home in Avondale or in front of a memorial on which more than 200 soldiers are individually named.  Or that Parnell’s funeral, attended by more than one-quarter million people, was the largest in the cemetery’s history — bigger even than that of Michael Collins’s.

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Plaque marking the Republican Plot
(Image author’s own)

When I left the house this morning, I initially thought this post would be filled with pictures from the Republican plot and surrounding graves.  And while we did see those of James Larkin, Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins, Cathal Brugha, Maud Gonne, Harry Boland, Richard Coleman (whom I’ve previously written about here), etc., it was the unseen, unmarked — and I would think, for the general visitor — unknown graves that made the biggest impact on me.

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Arthur Griffith, 1871-1922
(Image author’s own)

My only disappointment was that the tour did not include the grave of Arthur Griffith.  Griffith is one of those neglected figures in Irish history.  Yet his headstone alone offers an impressive resume of his contribution to Irish nationalist life.  Founder of Sinn Féin and a signatory of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, he succeeded Eamon de Valera as president of Dáil Éireann.  Circumstance had taken him down a political route, but he was more comfortable with the life of a journalist.  He had an innate ability to conceptualise large ideas into communicable articles and pamphlets, of which The Resurrection of Hungary — a work synonymous with his name — is the most celebrated example.  As his headstone attests, he was founder, editor and main contributor for a series of newspapers: United Irishman, Sinn Féin, Éire, Scissors and Paste and Nationality.  Each of these was a response to the suppresion of its predecessor, and, through them, he advanced his views.  It was Seán O Lúing who best summed up the influence of Arthur Griffith the journalist: ‘by the power of his writings [he] shaped and set in motion many of the forces that created the Irish revolution’.

There is further reason that Griffith’s grave is of interest.  On first glance, it would seem that his headstone has been damaged.  Perhaps vandalised.  It is, however, unfinished.

The Unfinished Headstone of Arthur Griffith
The Unfinished Headstone of Arthur Griffith
(Image author’s own)


Back in 2002 when I was writing my final year undergraduate dissertation on Griffith, I queried the state of his headstone with the cemetery.  John A Kinahan kindly replied to my email, informing me that Griffith left instructions that the headstone was to be left unfinished until the 32 counties were united.  It, thus, stands as an enduring commentary on partition.  While I think there is a reasonable case to be made for including Griffith in the tour, Laura, our guide, displayed an impressive familiarity with the cemetery’s layout by giving me detailed directions to his grave.

(Image author's own)
(Image author’s own)

I have a dim view of guided tours.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been on too many where the guide has clearly learnt a script and by the fourth or fifth tour of the day, their heart is no longer in it.  Or maybe it’s because I’ve come away from too many tours with students feeling that they’ve been fed the ‘popular’ version of Irish history and have had to correct some of the information provided.  In my experience, it’s surprisingly rare to find someone with a depth of knowledge matched only by their passion for the subject.  The staff at the Yeats exhibition at the National Library of Ireland come to mind as one of those exceptions.  Pamela and I had the good fortune of having one of those rare tour guides today.  Laura was full of personality, knowledge and good humour.  Though it rained on and off, her story-telling ability was such that you barely noticed the dull weather and certainly didn’t mind standing around in it.  Though a strange thing to say about a morning spent at cemetery, I thoroughly enjoyed it!  I’m only sorry I waited this long to take a tour of somewhere I pass on an almost-daily basis.  Public tours take place at 11.30am and 2.30pm, and the admittance fee is money well spent.  And don’t let the risk of rain put you off.  Very thoughtfully, umbrellas are provided!  A nice touch.

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

I am Head of History and Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. I am the author of 'The Cosgrave Party: a History of Cumann na nGaedheal, 1923-1933' (Royal Irish Academy, 2010) and 'A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-1987' (Palgrave, 2013). I also co-edited 'A Formative Decade: Ireland in the 1920s' (Irish Academic Press, 2015) and 'Perceptions of Pregnancy from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century' (Palgrave, 2017).

15 thoughts on “Glasnevin Cemetery: Where the Stories of the Ordinary and the Powerful Intertwine

  1. Griffith’s unfinished headstone is very appropriate if you ask me. Him and Michael Collins are responsible for the partition of Ireland. They gave up the six counties the moment they signed the treaty. Did Griffith come to regret that? Is that why he wanted his body to lie beneath a monument to his own failure?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jack. I don’t agree, though, that Griffith and Collins were responsible for the partitioning of Ireland. Partition has its roots in the Home Rule period and was formally introduced by the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, which pre-dates the signing of the Treaty on 6 December 1921. They didn’t sign away the North, because it was already gone.

    2. I have always interpreted the pillar on Griffith’s grave as representing the solid foundation of the state – base, or something to grow from – and the unfinished portion as representative of a life cut short before the work of national consolidation was complete.

    3. Now listen , every one of us would like to see a united Ireland but unfortunately the people of the day in the north and now also would not vote for it. There are simply too many people in the north that want to stay in the UK . Collins and Griffith had to take what was on the table. I for one agree that Ireland is occupied by a foreign power! But what can be done when most of the people want to stay with the UK and you can count a lot of Catholics in there. One soccer team might be a start like the rugby team and boxing teams. Maybe one day !!

  2. Share your fascination with Glasnevin. As a child it was an unwanted ritual to visit the graves of my grandparents etc but in latter years it has opened up so many enthralling chapters of Irish history. Incidentally, only this year I discovered that Arthur Griffith was interned after Easter 1916 in Reading Gaol – the town where I went to school and have lived and worked since 1962.

  3. Hi Maurice, thanks for stopping by. It’s always fascinating when history and your own personal life connect. As I said in the post, it might seem strange to say that you enjoyed a morning in a cemetery, but Glasnevin has so much to offer.

  4. My parents are buried in Glasnevin cemetery. Visit their grave as regularly as my schedule permits. Never knew what lay beneath Parnell’s grave, and I don’t recall seeing any sign other than keep off the grass??

  5. Just discovered the blog and, Ciara. I’ve long been fascinated by Griffith, particularly it’s been years since there’s been a critical biography (and published study) of him, or at least one I’m not aware of. Any particular recommendations as to what to look at?

    1. Hi Gerard, thanks for stopping by. You’re right that it’s been a long time since Griffith has been the subject of a biography. Virigina Glandon’s Advanced National Press (though not a sole study of Griffith), Calton Younger’s and Brian Maye’s biographies are long out of print. If you haven’t read Michael Laffan’s The Resurrection of Ireland, I’d strongly recommend it. Though not a biography of Griffith, he features prominently — and the title of the book, of course, is a nod to Griffith’s most famous work. More recently, Felix Larkin and I both had chapters on Griffith the journalist in Irish Journalism Before Independence, edited by Kevin Rafter.

      1. Hello Ciara, thank you very much – I’ll start with those recommendations. Hopefully in this decade of centenaries, someone will see fit to give Griffith his due. (Not a figure I at all idolize to be clear, but he’s such an influential and rather underrated individual… at least for much of the public).

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