There are some facts and figures guaranteed to silence a table. People might ask you to repeat yourself or blink in disbelief or question the truth of what you've just said. It just can't be right. Here's one that never fails to do just that: there are more people buried in Glasnevin cemetery than there are currently alive in Dublin.
I can’t remember where I first heard it, but it crosses my mind on Saturday mornings when I make my way through Glasnevin cemetery towards a nearby farmers’ market. Entering through the side entrance at the Botanic Gardens, I follow a different path each time to bring me to the gate closest to the Dublin industrial estate where I get macadamia nut milk coffee and fresh leeks.
Leafing through one of the books on sale at Glasnevin cemetery’s visitor centre, I find out a bit more about my room-silencing revelation: of the 1.5 million people whose final resting place is here at Glasnevin cemetery, 800,000 are buried in either “poor ground” or in unpurchased graves, as of 2012.
In his book Dead Interesting: Stories from the Graveyards of Dublin, Shane MacThomáis writes that being able to afford a place of burial in the capital was a guiding principle of the site at Glasnevin when it was founded by Daniel O’Connell in 1832.
Those with just “pennies in their pockets at the end of their life” would be able to find a place to be buried, whether they came from industrial schools, Magdalene laundries, workhouses or poor local tenements. A plot for those who cannot afford a burial still exists today, almost 200 years later.
The unsettling reality of more people being below ground than above is shared on the Irish history tour of the cemetery. The twice-daily tour runs for between 60 and 90 minutes, and focuses on historically significant figures whose final resting place is in the cemetery. A tour dedicated to lesser-known figures, aptly named the Dead Interesting Tour, is set to resume in 2022.
I did a guided tour a few years ago, but as they have recently resumed after a long Covid break I decided to revisit. On a mild Saturday afternoon our guide repeats the upstairs downstairs statistic and the small crowd is suitably discomfited.
Guides will also remind those embarking on the tour that Glasnevin is a working cemetery and to be respectful of those attending a burial and tending to graves. I’m later told guides will check their routes pre-departure to ensure the tour doesn’t disturb any services taking place that day.
We start our tour at the grave of Roger Casement, and make our way to the graveyard's visual centrepiece: the cylinder tomb tower of the cemetery's founder and nationalist hero Daniel O'Connell. You can also get a ticket to climb the almost 200 steps to the top of the tower if you'd like – which is well worth it on a clear day where you can see out to Howth and the division between sea and sky is hard to determine.
The Penal Laws of the 18th century prevented Irish Catholics from having cemeteries of their own and following O’Connell’s campaign and the passing of the Act of Easement of Burial Bill in 1824, the first person was buried in what we now call Glasnevin cemetery roughly eight years later.
Prior to taking Covid-compliant turns in seeing the tomb itself, we hear that just before his death in Genoa en route to Rome for a pilgrimage O'Connell requested that his heart make it to the city even if he did not. The organ was there for many years with a plaque marking its presence. However, about a century ago the plaque was removed for renovation purposes and the heart itself was lost. To this day it has never been recovered.
The tour is peppered with such anecdotes. One of my favourites was about Charles Stewart Parnell, another household name in Irish history. While his coffin left City Hall at midday, his burial was only able to take place under moonlight due to the numbers of mourners who came out to pay their respects.
A flash of light across the sky that evening was reported as the coffin lowered, and those who caught a glimpse of it swear it was Parnell himself who made it happen. We’re then told that Dunsink observatory in fact did record an unusual event in the sky that night.
Once our tour comes to an end I meet museum supervisor Niall Bracken and visitor centre manager Brendan Kavanagh at the graves of limestone and polished granite near the main entrance.
I ask about the centuries-old headstones in certain parts of the site that are slanted and am told they ended up that way due to moving soil. Bracken and Kavanagh say that there’s an on-site genealogist who can research and locate graves upon request. Any denomination of service can take place at Glasnevin for a burial, from Christian to Muslim to Humanist.
They also share some of their favourite stories of some of the lesser-known people buried here, and some of the interesting lives that unfolded in Dublin.
There's the story of Maria Higgins, who faked her death in 1858 only to notify the police that she was in fact very much alive two years later. Bill Stephens is buried in another plot in the cemetery, and his gravestone declares his unfortunate cause of death: "killed by lion."
We also delve into the new addition to the visitor centre that opened in September – an upstairs exhibition that chronicles the lives of well-known figures such as Luke Kelly and houses interactive installations that offer more information on the history and day-to-day running of the grounds.
Tour over, I make my way back to my usual entry point at the Botanic Gardens. I pass the well-tended grave of Michael Collins and further on newer headstones with a sprinkling of fresh flowers before them. That's the wonder of Glasnevin, it may be a place where some of the best-known names of Ireland's past lie, but it's also a living part of Dublin's history.