Death is one of the things we in Ireland do very well. We also sit very comfortably with our dead especially in Dublin where we have the largest graveyards in the country. Largest of all and most well known in Glasnevin Cemetery on the northside of the city, which occupies over 120 acres and is the final resting place to over 1 million citizens.
I recently paid my first visit to Glasnevin to meet with historian and tour guide Shane MacThomáis to talk about his new book Dead Interesting – Stories from the Graveyards of Dublin.
Like many Dubliners, I had regularly driven past the high stone walls of Glasnevin but had never actually visited the graveyard and even though it was a miserable, damp and grey morning, I was most surprised at just how beautiful a place it is. Dominated by the well known landmark of the Round Tower (marking the crypt of Daniel O’Connell) and the beautiful curving lines of the modern visitor centre, arriving into the cemetery was more like arriving at a well cared for national monument than a graveyard. But as MacThomáis told me, Glasnevin tells the story of our city and indeed our country and so perhaps the analogy of a well cared for national monument is entirely appropriate.
Dead Interesting is one of my favourite kind of non-fiction books, which both entertains and informs in bite size pieces. MacThomáis has pulled together some wonderful stories, from not just Glasnevin but from various Dublin graveyards giving the reader an insight into the death and funerals of well known personalities but also telling the small stories of how ordinary lives ended in this city. It is well written and illustrated with lots of great black and white photos. If you have ever wondered why we wear black at funerals, where the phrase ‘dead ringer’ came from or who was the first to fall in the Easter Rising in 1916, this is a book for you.
Shane MacThomáis has history in his blood; his father was the well known historian Eamonn MacThomáis. Research is something he learned early, “when I was about seven years old, my father used to give me big tomes like Thom’s Directory and tell me to go through them and find all the silversmiths in Dublin.” Shane seems to have found his own personal Nirvana working at Glasnevin and he has been instrumental is raising the historical aspect of this burial place of so many of Ireland’s great and good. The museum generates the vital income needed for the upkeep of the graveyard.
The first thing I discover, much to my surprise is that Glasnevin is still a working graveyard. “There are about 2,000 virgin plots left in the cemetery,” Shane tells me. But surprisingly, like real estate, purchasing a grave is all about location, location, location. The cheapest plot is about a mile away from where we are sitting in the Visitor Centre and will cost about €1,000. A plot near that of Michael Collins is clearly considered to be the luxury end of the graveyard and will cost you in the region of a cool €40,000. Proximity to De Valera will cost only half that at €20,000. I wonder if history will ever elevate De Valera to equal status in people’s minds with Collins. MacThomáis doubts it, Collins having achieved the kind of status reserved for those who die young, energetic and attractive. “I wake up every morning with a different view on the Civil War and Collins and De Valera. At the end of the day I blame both of them; the civil war was the worst thing that could have happened for Ireland. Both sides were equally wrong, equally right and equally bloody minded about the others.”
Shane goes on to point out that the Civil War was far more brutal than the War of Independence. “The IRA killed more pro treaty people than they killed British soldiers and the Pro Treaty side killed more IRA than they ever killed British Soldiers. In civil wars there’s a savagery that exists because it’s personal; a savagery that’s not there when you’re fighting a faceless army.”
The fallout of that savage and brutal civil war has defined our politics up to the present day and it still evident during the Easter Rising Commemorations at Glasnevin when Shane tells me that four different political parties arrive at four different times to honour those who died (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and Republican Sinn Fein). “When you look at England, who celebrate 11th of November – you see everyone standing together wearing a poppy. Here we don’t even have a symbol we can all use. If we wear a lily people associate it with Sinn Fein. Until we can sort that out we are still going to be caught in the Civil War politics.”
This is why I love meeting good historians. They not only can illuminate the past but they also can point out how the past still impacts on our present.
Glasnevin is of course synonymous with the Easter Rising of 1916 and although the leaders are buried in Arbour Hill, many others who fought and died, and the ordinary Dubliners who were also killed, are buried here. Many of those who died during that week are buried in ‘poor ground’ graves in the area of the graveyard called St Pauls, where there is a 1916 monument above them.
So what are Shane’s favourite stories in the book? Without hesitation he cites that of Sean Foster, which is indeed beautifully told in the book. Little Séan was caught in crossfire during that Easter Week 1916, as he sat in his pram. As martial law had been declared due to the fighting, baby Séan was buried at 7am on the morning of 27th April 1916 with just one mourner present, his grandfather. “It’s very poignant. We can all be really gung ho about rebellions but at the end of the day it’s about little babies dying in their mother’s arms.”
Anne Devlin and Elizabeth O’Farrell’s stories are others which are special to MacThomais. “Elizabeth O’Farrell shows the magnificent role Irish women played in Irish history.”
Although I am completely enthralled with all this modern Irish history being brought so alive I remember to don my writing.ie hat and ask Shane about how he writes. Dead Interesting is his second book having already authored Glasnevin, Ireland’s Necropolis a book which was written to launch the visitor centre. “It took about 18 months in total to write Dead Interesting… and I wrote it in spurts.” The good news is that there is not one but three more books in the pipeline, again on the subject of graves and funerals.
We finish our interview with a short tour of some of the highlights of Glasnevin, ending at the grave of Michael Collins. True to form, it is covered in fresh flowers – as it always is, according to MacThomais. I wonder about its location right outside the visitor centre.
“Was Collins’s grave relocated to this spot beside the museum,” I ask.
“No,” says Shane, “the visitor centre was built beside the grave of Michael Collins”
As it should be, I suppose.
As I walk back to my car, my mind wonders how Ireland’s journey may have been different had Collins lived. The truth is of course that we will never know. Even so I have to fight the temptation to buy my own bunch of flowers at the Glasnevin Trust florist to place on his grave.