An Irishman's Diary

 

THAT blackly humorous ballad The Night Before Larry Was Stretchedis thought to date from the late 18th or early 19th century, when the “Newgate Cant” in which it was written was fashionable in certain quarters. It describes an eve-of-execution party hosted by the eponymous hero in his cell in Kilmainham Gaol, where he spends his last night playing cards and drinking with friends. As an example of gallows humour (or pre-gallows humour, to be exact) it is hard to beat.

Of course, “stretching” was a mere euphemism for what awaited the unfortunate Larry. But of the fact that Kilmainham was once the scene of another infamous stretching incident – not so deliberate but equally fatal – I was reminded when reading Muiris Houston’s column in the HEALTHplus supplement on Tuesday. Which, in case you missed it, concerned the formerly lucrative business of body-snatching.

The 19th-century surgeons who benefited from this ghoulish trade generally kept themselves at a remove from the work of the so-called “sack-em-ups”: merely paying for the corpses they delivered. But some, like Peter Harkan, were more actively involved. Harkan was head of the anatomical department in one of Dublin’s first medical schools, which he had helped found. And that he took a hands-on approach to sourcing research materials we know from the details of his demise.

One night in 1814, he was leading a party of “resurrectionists”, as they were also called, in Bully’s Acre: the ancient cemetery located, then as now, only a few yards from Kilmainham Gaol.

Such was the notoriety of their trade even then, however, that a party of “body-watchers” was keeping vigil at the site. Apprehension by these sentries was justifiable feared: on one one occasion, they had dragged a grave-robber down to the nearby Liffey and, trussing him with a rope, dangled him in the river until he was very near drowned. So, surprised

in the act, the resurrectionists fled.

Harkan’s accomplices made it over the wall safely. And he himself was half-way over when the chasing group caught him by the legs. His friends grabbed him by the other end. At which point there occurred a tug-of-war, with the surgeon playing the part of the rope. The resurrectionists won the tussle eventually, but too late. Harkan died of his injuries, although still only in his early 30s. No doubt Larry would have seen the funny side of it.

“BULLY’S ACRE” HAS been a cemetery for at least 1,000 years, long before it was subsumed by its latter-day landlord, the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. It is believed to hold the graves of some of those killed at the Battle of Clontarf, including a son and grandson of Brian Boru. But over time it became more famous as a pauper’s cemetery. And, the right to a final resting place here being one of the few privileges of Dublin’s poor, it was jealously guarded.

Early attempts to enclose it (in the manner that cost Harkan his life) were resisted violently. In 1755 the RHK’s new master Gen Dilkes attempted to stop people trespassing on his grounds by walling off the cemetery, levelling the graves, and even burying the ancient monuments. Such was the public hostility to this move that he ended up having to call the inmates of the hospital – military pensioners – out of retirement to quell the trouble.

According to one account, a mob led by the so-called Liberty Boys cried “Down with the wall of Bully’s Acre”: whereupon “it fell before them like a house of cards, and the place once more became a common-land.” But the mob was still not satisfied, proceeding to mount an attack on the hospital itself.

“They burst in the western gate, which the sentry had sought to close, and in the attempt he was seriously wounded. Gen Dilkes called together the more active of the pensioners, who, fully armed, marched down the Elm Walk. A battle between missiles and muskets continued for some time; but the mob were opposed to men who were trained soldiers. The leaders of the rioters fell dead, many were wounded, and the Liberty Boys beat a retreat. It was deemed wise, however, to relinquish the design [of enclosure].”

fmcnally@irishtimes.com