My two days in Dublin were busy, both catching up with friends and doing research in the National Library of Ireland and Royal Irish Academy. But I was determined to get outside too and walked the 3km or so from town to Glasnevin cemetery on the northside. The cemetery opened in 1832 and in the 1840s several towers, like this one below, held nightwatchmen who guarded the graveyard against “resurrectionists” who supplied the medical profession with corpses for anatomy students.
My immediate aim was to find the grave of Thomas Meagher MP (1796–1874), the father of my research topic, Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher senior was important in his own right as Waterford’s first Catholic mayor in 200 years and a staunch Pro-Repeal Westminster MP for 10 years between 1847-57. He was born in Newfoundland, and I had earlier assumed he was buried in the family tomb at Faithlegg, Co Waterford. However in later years he retired to Bray and was buried at Glasnevin.
The cemetery archivist gave me his grave number “NC47” but admitted I wouldn’t find it without her help. She walked with me to a grave she believed was the correct one and I thanked her profusely. After she left I closely read the faded inscription and realised it was not Meagher but someone from Tipperary. After a search of a few minutes scrambling past other plots, I found Meagher’s grave in the vicinity. The inscription is too faint to read in its entirety but the bit I could make out read “Thomas Meagh… ESQR, formerly MP for …ford” and I could also read “died at Bray 28 February 1874”. However I could not make out the text of two lines underneath. Given Meagher’s importance, the neglected grave could do with a bit of love from Waterford Council or a local historical society.
With the investigative part of my mission complete, I had time to check out some of Glasnevin’s better known (and better maintained) graves. I was immediately drawn to the dominating O’Connell tower in the middle of the cemetery. Before Glasnevin, Irish Catholics had no cemeteries with repressive Penal Laws forcing them to conduct services in Protestant graveyards. After an 1823 funeral when a Protestant sexton reprimanded a Catholic priest for conducting mass in his graveyard, Daniel O’Connell launched a campaign saying there was no law forbidding praying for a dead Catholic in a graveyard. In 1828 O’Connell established the Dublin Cemeteries Committee, to provide dignified burial space “for those of all religions and none”. Glasnevin (initially Prospect Cemetery) was opened four years later. O’Connell’s achievements were huge and spanned half a century but he was most closely associated with two movements, Catholic Emancipation which he achieved in the 1820s and Repeal of the Union which he failed to achieve in the 1840s. When the Liberator died in 1847, he was buried here. In 1855 Dublin architect Patrick Byrne completed the O’Connell Tower and in 1869, O’Connell’s remains were reinterred in an ornate crypt at the base of the tower. The tower is 55 metres tall and is still one of the highest structures in Dublin.
In the O’Connell circle surrounding the tower lie many well-known graves. Most poignant is Thomas Davis, Protestant founder of the Young Ireland revolutionary movement and the Nation newspaper that inspired it. Davis and others were dissatisfied by the pace of reform of O’Connell’s Repeal Association. Young Ireland split off after O’Connell struck a deal to support the Whig government in Westminster in 1846 and launched a failed rebellion in 1848 amid Ireland’s worst Famine (Glasnevin has hundreds of thousands of famine victims in unmarked graves). Davis saw none of this. He died of scarlet fever in 1845, aged just 30 and was mourned across the nation, almost as much as O’Connell was two years later.
Also buried in the O’Connell circle is a more controversial figure, William Martin Murphy (1845-1919). When his father, Cork building contractor Denis William Murphy (1799-1863) died, William took over the family business and his enterprise and business acumen expanded it. He was elected an Irish Parliamentary Party MP in 1885. When the party split in 1890 over Charles Stewart Parnell’s leadership, Murphy sided with the majority Anti-Parnellites. However, Dublin remained a Parnellite stronghold and in the bitter general election of 1892, Murphy lost his seat. In 1900, he bought the insolvent Irish Daily Independent merging it with the Daily Nation. In 1905 he re-launched this as a cheap mass-circulation newspaper, the Irish Independent, which became Ireland’s most popular nationalist paper. His anti-union attitude in the 1913 Dublin Lockout gave him much notoriety as did his calls for the execution of the 1916 Easter Rising leaders. He also opposed the 1918 rise of Sinn Fein but died in 1919 aged 74 just before the war of independence took hold.
Also in the circle is another Young Irelander and one with strong Australian connections, Charles Gavan Duffy. Duffy was the son of a Monaghan Catholic shopkeeper and edited newspapers in Belfast before becoming the first editor of The Nation. He is acknowledged as one of the newspaper’s three founders in 1842 along with Davis and John Blake Dillon. Though arrested for sedition in 1848 he survived five trials before being released. Although he restarted the Nation in 1852 he became disillusioned with Irish politics and moved to Melbourne four years later. He entered the politics of Victoria on a platform of land reform. He served as deputy premier under another Irish Catholic, John O’Shanassy and in 1871-72 served as the colony’s 8th Premier, though disliked by the colony’s Protestant majority. He died in Nice, France in 1903, aged 86.
Buried nearby is, in my view, the greatest Irishman of the 20th century Roger Casement. He was an Irish patriot, poet and revolutionary, and an important human rights advocate who was also a British diplomat. His Foreign Office investigations into outrages committed against indigenous people in the Congo and Brazil enslaved to supply rubber for a new age of western manufacturing, brought him respect and renown. In 1911, he was knighted for his courage and integrity and his reputation was associated with the long struggle against international slavery. Yet in 1916 Britain hanged Roger Casement for treason. He was arrested in Kerry after trying to smuggle in 20,000 guns from a German U-Boat for the Irish republican cause. Casement got the death sentence despite being a knight of the realm with a 30 year career in the British Foreign Service. His trial unearthed diaries of his homosexual sexual conquests in Africa and Brazil and Casement was hanged, as much for his sexuality as his political attitudes, at Pentonville Prison in London on 3 August 1916. He was 51 years old.
The mortuary chapel at Glasnevin was designed by J.J. McCarthy (1817 -1882), Ireland’s pre-eminent architect of Catholic churches. The church is Hiberno-Romanesque in style, a symbol of Catholic Ireland of the late nineteenth century. Outside is a monument to the Great Famine, an Gorta Mór, unveiled by Irish president Michael D. Higgins in 2016 on the 170th anniversary of the famine. Some one million people died in six years from 1846-52 and another one million people emigrated. The combined population of the island of Ireland today is seven million, still a million less than lived here in 1845.
Unsurprisingly, Catholic prelates have a dominant position in the cemetery. One of the more imposing monuments is that for Edward McCabe (b. 1816), Archbishop of Dublin from 1879 until his death in 1885 and a Cardinal from 1882. The six years in which he was Archbishop were the years of the Land League and of the National League, of violent agitation including the Phoenix Park murders and savage coercion. Like his more famous predecessor Paul Cullen, McCabe distrusted popular movements and supported the British government against agitation. Nationalist newspapers and public men attacked him as a (Dublin) “Castle” bishop. His life was threatened and for a time he was under the protection of the police.
Because of the Easter Rising and its aftermath, the Irish tend to under-commemorate the First World War. That is a pity because Irish lives – Protestant and Catholic – were sacrificed in enormous numbers during the 1914-18 war. Over 200,000 men from Ireland fought in the war and 30,000 died serving in Irish regiments of the British forces and as many as 50,000 may have died altogether. President Higgins dedicated this cross of sacrifice in 2014 along with the Duke of Kent “to the memory of all the soldiers from Ireland who died in the World Wars”.
This poignant memorial honours those who died in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974. The 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland mostly left the 26 counties aside but Protestant paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force brought the war to the Republic on May 17, 1974 during the Ulster Workers Council strike, detonating four bombs without warning. Three bombs exploded in Dublin during the evening rush hour and a fourth exploded in Monaghan 90 minutes later. They killed 33 civilians and injured almost 300. The bombings were the single deadliest attack of the conflict and the deadliest attack in the Republic’s history.
Back on O’Connell circle is another man with statue on O’Connell St, Sir John Gray (1815-1875). Gray was a doctor and owner of the Freeman’s Journal and MP for Kilkenny from 1865 until his death. He supported O’Connell’s Repeal movement, and later, Parnell. Gray was elected Dublin Corporation councillor in 1852 and as chairman of the committee for a new water supply to Dublin, he promoted the Vartry Reservoir scheme to dam the Vartry river in County Wicklow, and build water pipes and filtering systems to carry fresh water to the city. The Vartry Scheme improved sanitation and helped reduce outbreaks of cholera, typhus and other diseases associated with contaminated water.
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (Diarmaid Ó Donnabháin Rosa) 1831-1915 was an Irish Fenian leader and member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. A west Cork man, he established the Phoenix National and Literary Society in 1856 “to liberate Ireland by force of arms” and his organisation merged with the IRB two years later in Dublin. In 1858, he was jailed without trial until July 1859. In 1865 he was arrested again on charges of treason felony. He was sentenced to penal servitude for life due to previous convictions. He served his time in Pentonville, Portland, Millbank and Chatham prisons in England. In an 1869 by-election, he was elected MP for Tipperary but the election was declared invalid because Rossa was an imprisoned felon. Released in 1870 he went to America where he joined Clan na Gael and the Fenian Brotherhood and established his own newspaper. Rossa organised the first ever Republican bombings of English cities in the “dynamite campaign”. The campaign lasted through the 1880s and made him infamous in Britain. His death in 1915 and graveside oration by Patrick Pearse was one of the major catalysts for the Easter Rising the following year.
Near Rossa’s grave lies another crucial Irish-American revolutionary. John Devoy (1842-1928). In 60 years of activism he played a role in the 1867 Fenian Rising, the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence 1919–1921. Devoy was chief Fenian organiser in the British Army in Ireland. The British got wind of a revolution plan and Devoy was arrested in February 1866. After serving five years in English prisons he was released and emigrated to America along with Rossa. He was one of the organisers of the Catalpa escape from Western Australia and was the single most important Irish nationalist fundraiser in America. He fell out with De Valera on his American visit in 1920 and he supported the pro-Treaty forces in the civil war.
Another man on an O’Connell St statue, Jim Larkin (1878-1947) was an Irish unionist and implacably opposed to William Martin Murphy in the 1913 Dublin Lockout. Born in Liverpool to Irish parent, he got involved in unions on Merseyside docks and in 1907 took his organising skills to Belfast and later to Dublin, Cork and Waterford. Larkin founded the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1908 and helped found the Irish Labour Party in 1912. In 1913 Murphy then chairman of the Dublin United Tramway Company refused to allow the ITGWU to unionise his workforce and dismissed 340 workers leading to a tramway workers strike. Murphy got 400 of the city’s employers to require their workers to sign a pledge not to be a member of the ITGWU. The strike was the most severe in Ireland’s history and lasted seven months. Larkin was arrested for sedition and served seven months. Afterwards he left for America where he joined the Wobblies and other socialist organisations. He was sentenced to five to 10 years in Sing Sing for his left-wing activism and later came back to Ireland to continue to advocate for the Labour party and unionism.
Maud Gonne (1867-1953) was one of the great heroines of the Irish revolution. Born in Aldershot she moved to Ireland when her army officer father was posted to Dublin in 1882. She became independently wealthy in 1887 on the death of her mother and met WB Yeats two years later, the poet falling hopelessly in love with her, though his love was unrequited. She was more in love with Irish nationalism won over by the plight of evicted people in the Land Wars. In 1903 in Paris, Maud married Major John MacBride, who had led the Irish Transvaal Brigade against the British in the Second Boer War. Their son Seán MacBride (also buried here) was born a year later. McBride senior was executed in May 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising. Still in Paris in 1921, Gonne opposed the Treaty and she moved to Dublin in 1922 before being arrested a year later, serving 20 days. Gonne was a leading figure in the Catholic monetary reform movement in Ireland in the 1930s and a member of the Irish Social Credit Party committed to reforming Ireland’s financial and economic systems.
Probably the single most-visited grave in Glasnevin is that of Michael Collins (1890-1922). Another Cork man, Collins moved to London where he played GAA and got involved in the IRB. He returned to Ireland to fight in the Easter Rising as Joseph Plunkett’s aide-de-camp in the GPO and became a leader of the interned Irish after that revolution. In the 1918 Sinn Fein landslide election, Collins was elected MP for South Cork but took his place in the first Dublin parliament instead and was appointed Minister for Finance in the First Dáil. In the War of Independence, he was Director of Organisation and Adjutant General for the Irish Volunteers, and Director of Intelligence of the Irish Republican Army. He was a brilliant guerrilla warfare strategist, planning many successful attacks on British forces. After the July 1921 ceasefire, Collins was a key plenipotentiary sent to negotiate peace terms in London. The resulting Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed in December 1921, established the Irish Free State but depended on an oath of allegiance to the Crown. Collins viewed the treaty as offering “the freedom to achieve freedom”, and persuaded a majority in the Dáil to ratify the treaty. He was chair of a provisional government in early 1922. In the Irish Civil War, Collins was commander-in-chief of the National Army. He was shot and killed in an ambush by anti-Treaty forces on August 22, 1922.
Collins’ alter ego and frenemy is Eamon De Valera, buried a discreet distance away in the De Valera family plot. Born George de Valero in Brooklyn, and known to all as Dev, he was a senior leader in the 1916 Rising but his American birth saved him from a death sentence. De Valera spent much of the war that followed in America raising money (and making an enemy of Devoy). He opposed the Treaty but sat out the civil war. He eventually rehabilitated himself, founding the Fianna Fail political party and the Irish press newspaper. He would dominate Irish politics for 60 years. He was influential on both sides of the border, a thorn in the British side and also had a massive impact on American affairs between 1918 and 1945. Ireland was such a pain to White House administrations, the country was left out of the Marshall Plan that revitalised allies and enemies alike. By the late 1950s de Valera’s economy naivete left the Irish economy in deep trouble. By then he was an almost totally blind caricature of the remote and exotic president of the Irish Republic he helped create and shape in his deeply religious image. Yet he clung onto power until 1959 when aged 76 he was forcibly retired upstairs as president in “the Park”. There in a supposed ceremonial role, he wielded enormous influence for 14 more years in two terms. He died in 1975 aged 92.
There was one last grave I wanted to visit, an imposing stone slab well away from the other notables. That was the grave of Charles Stewart Parnell. If Casement was the greatest Irishman of the 20th century, fellow Protestant Parnell was my greatest of the 19th, just shading O’Connell. Parnell emerged from a powerful Anglo-Irish Protestant landowning family in County Wicklow to become the most effective Irish nationalist politician of his era and an MP from 1875 to 1891. He led the Home Rule League from 1880 to 1882 and transformed the Irish Parliamentary Party into the first modern political party, holding the balance of power during the Home Rule debates of 1885–1886. He was imprisoned in Kilmainham in 1882, but he was released after renouncing violent action. His party discipline forced Gladstone to adopt Irish Home Rule as Liberal Party policy. The Irish Parliamentary Party split in 1890, following the revelation of Parnell’s long adulterous love affair. He never recovered from the scandal and he died a broken man a year later. Pro and anti Parnell feelings ran high for next 20 years and was second only to the civil war in divisiveness in Irish politics. His gravestone of unhewn Wicklow granite, erected in 1940 reads only “Parnell” and is all the more impressive for its stern brevity.