Although a rather ‘soft’ day yesterday, circumstances demanded a flying visit to Glasnevin Cemetery. The occasion was the public opening of the crypt of Daniel O’Connell, one of the great Irish figures of the nineteenth century. I felt compelled to make the journey, and with a small group of weather braving souls we paid a sort of tribute to the Great Liberator.
I have been wanting to visit Glasnevin since arriving in Ireland and it had, until yesterday, eluded my grasp. The cemetery as you can read from the linked wikipedia article is the largest nondenominational cemetery on the island and it contains the last resting spots of some of the most notable public figures of the last two centuries. In fact, the article claims it contains the remains of over 1.5M souls. That seems a rather heady claim, but bears consideration. Existing during famine times the cemetery existed during a period when roman catholics were not permitted to maintain their own cemeteries and had to conduct what rites they could in protestant graveyards.
Certainly Glasnevin is on par with a place like Pére LaChaise in Paris as the national cemetery. However, the cemetery in Paris is rather lush and you have a feeling of creeping organic decomposition and a sense that you are at the portal to the underworld. At Glasnevin, there is a sense of reaching out towards heaven. The vast collection of monuments soar upwards and you feel surrounded and amongst the concrete remembrances, but clearly on a worldly plain.
The cemetery is hard to miss. As you approach you can see the magnificent round tower erected over the crypt of Daniel O’Connor for a great distance and on closer approach the towering walls and guard towers at the corners make the site unmistakable. Even on a dreary day one is in awe on approach. This feeling of great appreciation that one is in a special place is all the more heightened as you walk amongst the markers of figures that you may only be familiar with from the pages of history books or spoken in reverence. Casement, Boland, Devoy, Brugha, Collins, Maud Gonne Macbride, to but name a few. And only a few as the weather was filthy and I now look forward to heading out on a sunnier occasion to pay proper respect to the memory of the many more that are buried here.
The President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, gave a very thoughtful and extremely poignant speech (in the driving rain) paying tribute to O’Connell as one of the first human right activists and connected his legacy directly to the ideals of the Irish people today. The visit was brief, but we did manage to get down to the crypt and actually touch O’Connell’s sarcophagus. The vault itself is decorated with motif’s rooted in the nineteenth century, fine celtic knot work and bold statements of the accomplishments of the great man. I hope that the pictures that I share can do this justice.
On another note there is a huge shiny new visitors centre nearing completion which promises to ‘tell the story’ of the souls buried at Glasnevin…I look forward to seeing the interpretation.
If you choose to visit Glasnevin, Bus 40 leaves from Parnell Square quite frequently and drops you right at the gates to the cemetery. Bus 140 is even better as it comes right from UCD down the dual carriage way, Leeson Street, Stephen’s Green and across the river right past the cemetery as well, so it is very easy to reach. For myself, I hope that I can find a nice dry day to revisit and experience the cemetery.