Fitting addition to national necropolis

Sat, Jun 5, 2010, 01:00

Most of the €11 million museum and heritage building at Glasnevin Cemetery is made of glass – and underground, which is particularly appropriate given what it aims to remind us of, writes HARRY McGEE

The great Gaelic writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain set his masterpiece novel Cré na Cille under the soil of a graveyard where the corpses continued the friendships, rivalries and snobberies that had marked their lives in the village above. The premise was absurd, but graveyards, the places of the dead, can also be great mirrors of life. And, on that plane of thought, few places capture Dublin life as well as its sprawling city of the dead, covering 50 hectares of Glasnevin.

Visiting the cemetery earlier this year the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, said: “Walking through Glasnevin, with its monuments, statues, headstones and inscriptions, is like taking a walk through Irish history.” He was not exaggerating. Glasnevin may not have the reputation of Père Lachaise, in Paris, or Arlington National Cemetery, in Washington DC, but it comfortably justifies its title of national necropolis. Daniel O’Connell is buried here, as are many of Ireland’s greatest political, cultural and social figures: Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera, Charles Stuart Parnell, Brendan Behan, Gerald Manley Hopkins, James Clarence Mangan, the GAA founder Michael Cusack, Constance Markievicz, Michael Collins’s fiancee Kitty Kiernan, the soprano Margaret Burke Sheridan, Roger Casement and James Larkin.

What gives the cemetery a magnetic draw is its stunning beauty. The Victorian sensibility – monuments and headstones should play second fiddle to the natural environment – still predominates. And to this day the place teems with nature: hundreds of trees – yews, oaks, pines, beeches and birches – grassy verges; flowers, wild and cultivated; bird life. In the older sections of the cemetery you can see how headstones have subsided and themselves become buried by the encroaching soil. In fact, for a long period some sections of the graveyard were neglected, and partially surrendered back to nature. The result was not displeasing to the eye.

Many of the monuments to mortality, be they grandiloquent or humble, are beautiful. The 50m round tower dominates the entrance, built above the elaborate crypt for O’Connell, who was the driving force behind the opening of the cemetery, in 1832. Underneath is the elaborately decorated crypt to the Liberator, with the oak caskets of succeeding generations of the O’Connell family stacked in a corner. And the famous epitaph “My body to Ireland, my heart to Rome, my soul to Heaven.” (O’Connell died in Rome in 1847.) As you wonder through this vast space you encounter some amazing monuments, elaborate headstones, Gothic statues depicting angels or a Madonna and Child, the audacity of a marble sarcophagus to a leading church figure or businessman, and ancient higgledy-piggledy gravestones half-swallowed by the earth.

And there are a few stand-out monuments – none more striking than the massive granite boulder marking the grave of Parnell, his surname chiselled on it in bold capital letters. Or the headstone to Brendan Behan, with a circle cut through it where his fans sometimes place a pint in commemoration of the playwright. Or the starkness of the broken column marking Arthur Griffith’s grave.

While the Victorian aesthetic still predominates, there is a huge diversity of styles, reflecting different eras. The high and simple early monuments give way to the Gothic and to elaborate Celtic crosses, with Italian marble becoming popular in the latter half of the last century. In the crematorium section are plaques with photographs of the deceased, reflecting a more recent vogue. Glasnevin remains a working cemetery for the capital: funerals arrive at the main gate throughout each day.

The new museum and heritage building that the Taoiseach came to open in April certainly reflects its time. This extraordinary €11 millon project, designed by the Dublin architectural firm of AD Wejchert, is unashamedly modern. Located just to the right of the main entrance, it is dominated by glass but has an extraordinary curvilinear roof with a very wide span that points to the round tower. It was the final major project of the firm’s principal, Andrzej Wejchert, before his death a year ago; he worked on it with Hugh Maguire.

Within is a museum on three levels, its displays devised by Mark Leslie of Martello Media. It also includes an extensive digital genealogical archive. Old-fashioned displays, reams of archival material and records, and interactive touch-screen technology combine to capture the history and national significance of this cemetery.

Logically enough, given where it is and what it’s about, the main section of the museum is underground. A clever display, as you go down the stairs, shows the strata of earth beneath the surface. The effect is eerie, as if you were being lowered down. The stand-out display downstairs is a life-size one showing grave robbers at work. The nefarious profession grew up in the early 19th century because of a demand for bodies from Dublin’s medical schools. Grave robbers, working at night, dug down to the head of the coffin, forced it open and exhumed the body by hooking it around the neck and slowly pulling it out. The turrets on the perimeter wall of Glasnevin were built to prevent this grisly practice.

The museum also houses a touch-screen display on burial practices among different religions and none, and also a display showing the meticulous record-keeping of all who have been buried in the graveyard.

The cemetery was O’Connell’s inspiration. As the historian Shane Mac Thomáis notes in the introduction to his wonderful book on the cemetery, Glasnevin: Ireland’s Necropolis, Irish Catholics had no cemeteries of their own “as the repressive Penal Laws of the 18th century placed heavy restrictions on the public performances of Catholic services.

“The situation continued until an incident at a funeral held in Dublin provoked public outcry when a Protestant sexton reprimanded a Catholic priest [for performing] a limited version of a funeral mass. The outcry prompted [O’Connell] to launch a campaign”.

It opened in 1832 as Prospect Cemetery, open to people of all denominations and none. The first person to be buried was Michael Carey, a young boy from Francis Street who died of consumption. Its entrance was then at Prospect Square, where the renowned Gravediggers Pub is located. The pub fell foul of the authorities on several occasions. Once, infamously, the caretaker found a number of coffins lying unattended at the gates while mourners took a fluid break inside the pub.

Fewer than half of those buried in Glasnevin are in marked graves. It’s estimated that some 80,000 are buried in unmarked plots or poor ground. The beautifully neat and ornate writing of the burial register faithfully records all who were buried. In passing, one can discover the epidemics of cholera and typhoid that swept Dublin over a century and a half.

As Mac Thomáis notes: “A read through the record books of the poor ground for Glasnevin Cemetery tells a tale of poverty and injustice . . . It is the cause of death that brings a sobering tear to the eye of the reader. Dublin’s poor died of tooth abscess, or diarrhoea, of whooping cough, scarlatina and of the flu . . . which a quick visit to the doctor or chemist would cure today.”

On the upper floor of the building the Prospect Gallery gives visitors a panorama of the cemetery outside its huge window. They can also learn, through a schematic display, about the historic graves they can see outside.

Over the years the cemetery itself has been at the centre of historic events. Parnell’s funeral was the largest seen in Dublin. It was at Glasnevin that Pádraig Mac Piarais gave his famous oration at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa, delivering his famous lines “The fools, the fools, the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead.” In 1965, a year before the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, the highly symbolic reburial of Roger Casement took place here. The dominant political theme of Glasnevin is, unsurprisingly, republicanism, and the extensive republican plot contains an array of famous names.

Immediately beneath the windows of the museum is the most visited grave, that of Michael Collins, with a simple Celtic cross. Some 300,000 people lined the streets of Dublin for his funeral, in 1922. Fresh flowers still garland the grave of the man whom General Risteárd Mulcahy described as “the fallen leader”.

Glasnevin Museum (01-8826590, glasnevinmuseum.ie) is open Monday-Friday 10am-5pm, weekends and bank holidays 11am-6pm