Graveyard shift: A day with the dead of Glasnevin Cemetery

The heroes of 1916 may be the initial draw for many, but Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery is full of weird and wonderful stories, from mocking gravestones to murderous elephants

How mean-spirited would you have to be to have the flaws of your wife carved onto her gravestone as soon as she goes to her eternal reward? Such a mean spirit lies among the souls who have found their final resting place in Dublin's dead centre in Glasnevin.

James Dunn and his wife, Anne – who was partial to a tipple by his account – share a plot close to Glasnevin Cemetery's original Prospect Square entrance. She died in 1872 and once she'd left this world he ordered a gravestone featuring him in all his pomp, with his foot on an empty wine bottle, sternly waving a Temperance medal in her face.

"That headstone always cracks me up," says Glasnevin's historian, Conor Dodd, on a cold spring morning as he starts his early morning walk through Croak Park, as it was once dubbed by Dublin wags. "It's certainly one way to shame somebody."

Anne may have been shamed after her death but, in a splendid plot twist, she also had the last laugh when Brendan Behan settled in beside herself and her judgmental spouse. You can almost hear the puritanical James spinning wildly in his grave at the arrival of his new neighbour. How disapproving he would have been of the intemperate writer and how cross he'd be still at the mysterious figure who crosses his grave once a year carrying a pint of plain for Behan on his birthday.


“I don’t know who leaves the pint or even if it is the same person every time. It’s a mystery,” Dodd says.

It’s a glorious mystery.

Glasnevin Cemetery is full of both mystery and history but with 1.5 million people buried across its 124 acres, death is at its heart. Dealing with the grim inevitable every day hasn’t unduly hardened or desensitised the 70 or so gravediggers, gardeners, guides, florists, historians and undertakers who come here each day to juggle the needs of the living and the dead and respect is always their watchword.

Its residents are a rollcall of who was who in Ireland over two centuries There's James Larkin, Kevin Barry, Luke Kelly, Daniel O'Connell, Tony Fenton, Christy Brown, Roger Casement, Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera, Frank Duff, Shane MacThomáis, Maud Gonne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Constance Markievicz, Charles Stewart Parnell and Liam Whelan. And that's just for starters.

Everyone here – the famous, the infamous and the nameless lying in paupers' graves – has a story. Dodd rattles some off as we walk. We pass the grave of Michael Carey, an 11-year-old boy from Francis Street who died of consumption and had the dubious honour of being the first body interred here on February 22nd, 1832.

“I like to walk the cemetery every day,” he tells me. “The more you do, the more you kind of click with the place. You start to get what it is about. You could spend five lifetimes here and still never be done with the history,” he says, as we pass de Valera’s headstone. I comment on how small the tomb of this giant of modern Irish history is. “That’s the most common reaction we get,” he responds.

The cemetery has never been as popular as it is today with the 1916 commemorations proving a massive draw. More than 1,000 school children come through its wrought iron gates each week and hundreds of tourists from across the world line up each day for guided walks. "The kids love O'Connell's crypt," education officer Annie Bernie tells me, as she pores over a ledger in an office above the museum. "And they love the story of Elizabeth O'Farrell. Some of them could give the tour themselves they're so well prepared."

Michael Collins is still the biggest draw. Dodd walks me past his grave covered in bright floral tributes towards the corner of the cemetery. There are no flowers for Dev today.

As we walk around, it's easy to distinguish the different eras. The Victorians were fond of large, ornate tombs while the nationalists who died in their wake preferred heavy granite crosses with Celtic swirls. In the latter part of the 20th century and right up to now, Italian marble has dominated. "You can even tell when recessions start by looking at the headstones," Dodd says. "During the boom they got bigger and then after the crash, they started shrinking."

The inscriptions change with the times too. In the 19th century the living who paid for the tombstones sought equal – and sometimes greater – billing than the dead, with phrases such as “Erected by . . . ” routinely etched on stones. Not so much anymore. “People are funny about seeing their own names on headstones nowadays,” Dodd explains.

We reach the Prospect Square gate, a stone's throw from the Gravediggers pub. Dodd points to a spot on the connecting wall through which "pints of drink" used to pass. The practice was knocked on the head in the 1980s after a gravedigger had a few too many scoops during a lunch break and toppled into an open grave. It prompted the Dublin Cemeteries Committee to ban everyday boozing.

It wasn’t the first time the DCC took action against alcohol. When the graveyard opened to people of all religions and none, it was considered quite remote. Mourners coming from faraway Dublin had to pass many pubs along the way and sometimes the warm, cheery glow of the inns on the way out proved irresistible.

People started arriving at gravesides merrier than was entirely appropriate so the cemetery elders passed by-laws ensuring all funerals took place before a certain time – opening time.

Phillip Ryan is head groundsman and a lynchpin in Glasnevin's resurrection. "I trained as a horticulturist in the Botanic Gardens in the 1980s," he says. "I used to look through the railings. You couldn't see the headstones there were so many briars. 'Jaysus, I'd hate to be working there,' I'd think. And here I am."

He was brought in to give direction to a FÁS restoration programme and loves it now. "On my first day I didn't even know where to start. It was an absolute mess. I just walked out of the office, picked the first grave in front of me and started there."

He says people outside the dying game are endlessly fascinated by what he does. “If I want a quiet night out, I don’t say where I work. If I do, the questions never stop.”

I have some questions, questions such as, why are graves always six feet deep?

They’re not. A grave can be anything from four to 10 feet deep. “The gravediggers used to get paid by the foot and they’d always be delighted to get a 10-footer.”

Why would some be deeper than others?

“You could easily fit five coffins on top of each other in one plot, and . . .” he pauses. “How can I put this without being too graphic? As the years pass, gaps are created as coffins and bodies break down. You might gain a foot every 10 years as things sink.” He winces. “It’s cremation for me. I don’t want to go into the ground.”

“We’ve three burials today.” he tells Dodd. “And three crems.” Then, unexpectedly, he starts talking about hand jobs. Worried confusion crosses my face and Ryan laughs. “That’s what we call manually dug graves. The others are mechanical jobs. I suppose it’s important you know that.”

It absolutely is.

We move on. The crematorium opened in 1982 and its manager, John Campbell, has been there since the start. "I've looked after thousands and thousands," he says as he works. He's well suited to the job, with his clean-shaven head, full undertaker garb and sombre, weathered face. Most of his work is done behind the scenes but when dealing with mourners – as he is today – he is always smartly turned out.

“I started as a gravedigger. It was hard at first but, like anything, you get used to it. It’s still tough sometimes, especially when a child comes in. But you have to get on with it. You just treat everyone with respect. Everyone deserves that.”

He dispels a few myths about cremations. Corpses are never taken out of coffins. Coffins are never recycled. And the ashes families collect are always the ashes of their loved one. There’s no intermingling.

After a committal service at the onsite chapel, a curtain draws over the coffin and it’s transferred to the nearby cremator building. The nameplate is checked as the cremator is heated to 800 degrees Celsius. Then the coffin slides into the flames. After around 90 minutes, what’s left behind is raked into a separate cooling chamber before being placed into a “cremulator” to be crushed into the final ashes. These are put into a bio-degradable urn and left to one side ahead of collection. From beginning to end it takes around six hours.

As Campbell talks I stare at the full urns stacked neatly along one wall and the coffins on racks waiting their turn. There are more than 100 dead people within 10 feet of me. It’s unsettling. But not as disturbing as the sight of the cremator doors opening and the raging fires within. That is something best left to the imagination. Or, more accurately, best left unimagined.

Campbell walks me to the church as a service starts. Out of sight of the mourners, we watch via CCTV. He plays music on cue. There are usually two songs. He lines up Time to Say Goodbye by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. It's by far the most popular tune. Campbell confesses that he does "kind of get browned off listening to it. It was lovely when it first came out but when you're hearing it five or six times a day, it gets a bit tiresome.

"We do get some strange requests," he adds brightly. "I think the oddest is Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash. "

The ceremony ends. A button is pressed and the curtains close on the coffin.

It’s time to meet the gravediggers. They’re not chatty. They eye me suspiciously as I approach their grave. “How deep is that?” I ask. There’s a long silence. “Four foot,” one gravedigger says eventually.

“And how long did it take to dig?” Another silence. Longer this time.

“Three hours,” says his buddy. They shuffle away with their spades.

Right so.

On Dodd and I go. We pass poor James McNally. His head was crushed by an elephant called Sita in 1903. She was Dublin Zoo’s first elephant and he was her keeper. One summer morning, Sita cut her foot and as he applied ointment to the wound she hit him with her trunk and stamped on his head. The coroner decreed she’d acted out of malice and sentenced her to death.

Without a notion of how to kill such a beast, the Zoo called for reinforcements from the Royal Irish Constabulary HQ nearby. Neville Chamberlain (not that one) arrived with an elephant gun and a police firing squad. Not even the intervention of this newspaper, which told readers the elephant "had always conducted itself admirably", could save poor Sita.

Weirdly, her stamping foot was preserved and served as an umbrella bucket in the zoo cafeteria for decades. Oh, and Pat Kenny’s granddad became elephant keeper after McNally. It’s amazing what you can learn in this place.

Glasnevin is characterised by high walls and watchtowers built to keep bodysnatchers at bay. “There was huge money in bodysnatching,” Dodd says. Adults had a fixed price – a well-preserved corpse could fetch £3 – while children were sold by the inch.

I hope the Popes we're looking for as we walk weren't snatched. In the archives we'd found the name of William Pope, my great-great-great-grandfather and the location of the plot he bought here in the early 1860s.

He didn't get a fashionable spot and none of his neighbours are celebrated. He bought it for the saddest of reasons. The grave was for his daughter Margaret. She was just three when she died shortly before Christmas 1861. His son Patrick died three days later. He was one. Five years later, John Pope died. He was one too. Elizabeth died four years later at a week old. The Popes buried here in the second half of the 19th century were taken by typhoid or bronchitis or by "congestion of the lungs" or a "weak action of the heart". The archives record most, but not all, causes of death. William passed away in 1915. He was 81 and had seen almost his entire family die before him. Cause of death: old age.

The list stops me in my tracks. “The most dangerous time to be alive was childhood,” Dodd whispers as I read down through a print-out containing the details.

I am relying on a print-out because there’s no gravestone marking my family’s final resting place. Dodd can’t say why but he assures me it was normal then. It is terribly sad now.

At the cemetery entrance, the re-enactment of Pearse’s oration at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa starts. An actor dressed as an Irish Volunteer addresses a group of tourists, some of whom look very confused. English is not their first language and they’ve no idea who O’Donovan Rossa is. Or Pearse. They’re here for Colllins. They smile gamely.

When the oration's done, tour guide Paddy Gleeson starts talking. He's brilliant. What makes a good guide, I ask. He has his answer to hand. "I always go back to the words of Shane MacThomáis," he says, referring to the cemetery's resident historian and main tour guide for 14 years until he died in the cemetery two years ago.

“He told me that to be a good guide you need to tell people something they know already. You need to tell them something that they could never have known. You need to make them laugh and you need to make them cry,” Gleeson says.

At MacThomáis's funeral, his passing was compared to "a library burning down" so encyclopaedic was his knowledge of the cemetery. He still casts a long shadow and his name frequently crops up among staff and tourists who seek out his grave. They come looking for him because of his starring role in the brilliant One Million Dubliners documentary about the cemetery. When asked about Glasnevin Cemetery once, MacThomáis said simply that it was "a remarkable place and it lifts my spirits to work here".

It seems right to leave the last words to him.