Illuminations: Glasnevin Cemetary

Glasnevin Cemetery is a large cemetery in Glasnevin, Dublin, which opened in 1832. It is the largest cemetery in Ireland. Originally covering nine acres of ground, the area of the cemetery now has grown to 124 acres. It holds approximately 1.5 million graves, including the graves of many notable figures from Irish history.

Prior to the establishment of Glasnevin Cemetery, Irish Catholics had no cemeteries of their own in which to bury their dead and, as the repressive Penal Laws of the eighteenth century placed heavy restrictions on the public performance of Catholic services, it had become normal practice for Catholics to conduct a limited version of their own funeral services in Protestant churchyards or graveyards.

This situation continued until an incident at a funeral held at St. Kevin’s Churchyard, in Dublin, in 1823 provoked public outcry. A Protestant sexton (a person employed as caretaker of a church and its graveyard)  severely reprimanded a Catholic priest for performing a limited version of a funeral Mass.

The outcry prompted Daniel O’Connell, champion of Catholic rights, to launch a campaign and prepare a legal opinion proving that there was actually no law passed forbidding praying for a dead Catholic in a graveyard. O’Connell pushed for the opening of a burial ground in which both Irish Catholics and Protestants could give their dead a dignified burial.

In 1824, the Act of Easement of Burial Bill was passed. This led to the establishment of Glasnevin Cemetery. A site was initially purchased at Goldenbridge, Dublin, but proved too small, so a nine-acre site was secured at Glasnevin.
The cemetery was consecrated in September 1831 by Monsignor William Yore (1781-1864).  It was opened to the public for the first time on February 21, 1832. The first burial was that of eleven-year-old Michael Carey of Dublin, who had died of tuberculosis.

The following are the burials of only a few of the hundreds of Irish Historical figures who lay buried at Glasnevin:

Daniel O’Connell
Daniel O’Connell was hailed in his time as The Liberator. He was the acknowledged political leader of Ireland’s Roman Catholic majority in the first half of the 19th century.  He was able to secure Catholic emancipation in 1829.

Following his death in Genoa, Italy in 1847, the man responsible for establishing the cemetery was buried in the O’Connell Circle in Glasnevin Cemetery. According to some reports, 50,000 people attended his funeral on August 6, 1847.

A campaign was begun to erect a more fitting memorial to O’Connell, and in 1855, the O’Connell Round Tower at Glasnevin was completed. Designed by Dublin architect Patrick Byrne, the tower measures an impressive 180 feet and is the tallest round tower in Ireland. Later, in 1869, Daniel O’Connell’s remains were reinterred in an ornate crypt at the base of the tower. 

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa
One of the largest funerals ever witnessed at Glasnevin was that of former Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. He died in exile in America and his body was transported back to Ireland to be buried at Glasnevin, August 1, 1915.

Patrick Pearse spoke at the funeral and uttered the famous quote, speaking of the English “They have left us our Fenian dead, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” The rallying cry was the opening verbal shots of the 1916 Easter Rising. On the day of the burial, twenty thousand marched behind the hearse from the Pro-Cathedral to Glasnevin with the streets lined by over 150,000 according to Irish Independent and the Freeman’s Journal.

Michael Collins
On August 22, 1922, Michael Collins’s was assassinated by Anti-Treaty forces near Béal na Bláth outside Macroom, County Cork. At the time is his death, Collins was serving as Chairman of the Provisional Government (Free State) and Minister of Finance. In the midst of a bloody Civil War, the Free State forces transported Collins’s body via ship from Cork to Dublin, where his body lay in state for three days at City Hall.

The funeral Mass was celebrated on August 28, 1922, by the Archbishop of Dublin, Rev. Edward Joseph Byrne, along with 300 priests at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral. A gun carriage drawn by six black horses carried the coffin and fourteen further cars were required for the flowers.

The cortege itself was of immense proportions and included many troops of Irish soldiers. It extended between five and six miles and took over four hours to pass any one point on the route.

At Glasnevin, three volleys were fired by 50 men of the Dublin Guards and 10 buglers sounded the Last Post. A half a million people paid their respects to the fallen leader, followed by a graveside oration delivered by General Richard Mulcahy. Today, Michael Collins grave is the most visited grave in Glasnevin, it is set apart from the others, close to the Glasnevin Museum building.

Countess Constance de Markievicz
One of the largest funerals for a woman took place on July 15, 1927, when Countess de Markievicz was buried. The Countess (known as “Madame” to Dublin’s poor) was a political activist and was the first woman elected to the British Parliament (1918), though she refused to take her seat. She was also the only woman to serve in the first Dáil Éireann, in which she acted as Minister of Labor (1919–22).

Her family preferred a private, family funeral, but this was not to be. In death Constance Markievicz was even more openly appreciated and acclaimed than in life. Three hundred thousand people attended the funeral to pay tribute to “the friend of the toiler, the lover of the poor” the words of Éamon de Valera, who delivered the funeral oration.

Éamon de Valera
One of the survivors of the Easter Rising and a man at the heart of Irish history for over a quarter of a century, Éamon De Valera died aged 92 years on August 29, 1975. He led the anti-treaty forces during the Civil War and in its aftermath found a new party, Fianna Fáil.

He led the Government until 1959, when he became President of Ireland, serving two terms. Over the first weekend of September, his casket lay in State at St Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Castle, and according to the Irish Examiner, more than 100,000 filed through the great hall to pay their respects. More than 100,000 lined the streets of Dublin as the cortege travelled passing the GPO and onto Glasnevin for burial.

In addition to the above, Glasnevin is home to many Irish luminaries, these include the graves of Charles Stewart Parnell, Arthur Griffith, Maude Gonne, Kevin Barry, Roger Casement, Seán MacBride, James Larkin, and Brendan Behan.

Find this and other columns  from the December 2023 issue Here!

J. Michael Finn

J. Michael Finn

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also past Chairman and Life Member of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected]


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