Dead Heat – An Irishman’s Diary on the high-speed funerals of old Dublin

 Photograph: Dave Meehan

Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

The pace of life is generally assumed to have speeded up over the past century, and more so in cities. But in Dublin, at least, there is one aspect that has been forced to slow down.  

I have never seen in these cities or anywhere else the galloping which, more especially on Sundays, disgraces Dublin funerals

Ironically, it concerns funerals.

During the early 1900s, restrictive opening hours at Glasnevin Cemetery left undertakers with a daily deadline, in more ways than one. As a result, the speed with which horse-drawn funeral cortèges proceeded there was a cause of frequent scandal and, sometimes, a threat to safety.

In his columns of the period for Arthur Griffith’s newspaper Sinn Féin – published in book form a few years ago as The Streets of Dublin 1910-1911 – Alderman Tom Kelly contrasted the “indecent haste” of Dublin funeral processions with those of Cork, Limerick, or Belfast. “I have never seen in these cities or anywhere else the galloping which, more especially on Sundays, disgraces Dublin funerals,” he wrote.  

And the indignity was only exacerbated when multiple processions converged on the same route. “I have at least on two occasions been at a Sunday funeral, and when going up the hill at Rutland [now Parnell] Square other funerals came along, and between the pace at which they were all driven, each hearse-driver striving to get ahead, in order to be at Glasnevin at twelve o’clock, and the multitude of cabs and outside cars attending [...], the vehicle which I was in followed the wrong hearse, and it was not until the general stampede which takes place always within a few hundred yards of the entrance to the cemetery was over that I, on foot, followed the remains of my friend.”

That was terrible, Mr Power’s shocked face said, and the corpse fell about the road. Terrible!

Kelly’s 1911 column was headlined “Round Dunphy’s Corner”, in reference to a grocery shop and pub located at the last turn before the cemetery. Going “round Dunphy’s Corner” was a popular Dublin euphemism at that time. So naturally, it also featured in the fictional last journey of one Paddy Dignam, as described a few years later, but backdated to 1904, in Ulysses.

James Joyce has his party of mourners discussing the lack of decorum in the then-current system, and arguing for fixed funeral trams instead, as in Milan. This would be “more decent than galloping two abreast”, suggests Leopold Bloom. “– Well, there’s something in that, Mr Dedalus granted. – And, Martin Cunningham said, we wouldn’t have scenes like that when the hearse capsized round Dunphy’s and upset the coffin on to the road. – That was terrible, Mr Power’s shocked face said, and the corpse fell about the road. Terrible! – First round Dunphy’s, Mr Dedalus said, nodding. Gordon Bennett Cup. ”

The last part of Dedalus’s joke was a reference to the famous motor race, which had been held in Ireland in 1903 but whose 1904 instalment was to take place in Germany the next day, June 17th.

The first part was a typical Joycean pun, playing on both the supposed race between hearses and the “first round” of drinks than mourners often ordered in the aforementioned pub, on their way back.

But as for the accident the men were remembering, it must have been at least partly based on a real one that had happened two years earlier, and that was no joke for at least one of the participants.  

In the case in question, it wasn’t the already-dead who suffered the worst indignity.  

Here’s The Irish Times account, from January 11th, 1902:  “On Wednesday two hearses arriving at Glasnevin Cemetery Gate a few minutes before the limit of time, came into collision. Both were smashed to pieces, but strange to say the coffins remained whole. The driver of one of the hearses was killed, and a mourning coach with eight occupants overturned. The coffins, containing the remains of two women, were duly interred.” The resulting inquest heard that a horse had bolted while crossing the bridge over the Royal Canal, and the driver could not regain control. A verdict of accidental death was returned.

In his 1911 article, Kelly noted the sentimental attachment of many Dubliners to Glasnevin, one of the first Catholic cemeteries opened in the city since the Penal Laws.  

But sounding a bit like Michael O’Leary on Dublin Airport, Kelly expressed anger at the “excessive charges and unreasonable conditions” imposed by management.  

As a nationalist, he was particularly upset at the contrast with Belfast, where burials could be held as late as 4pm. The cities were about equally populous, but Belfast was “much busier”, he said.

“I cannot see why Dublin could not have funerals conducted as decently as they undoubtedly are in the capital of the Black North.”