On my latest trip to Ireland, my sister refused to go to Dublin. Here is the conversation that followed:
Maureen: (In a whiny voice and a foot stomp.) “Come on! I want to go to Dublin. Why don’t you like Dublin?”
Maureen’s Sister: (Sighing patiently.) “I do like Dublin. I just would like to spend some time in other parts of the country. We only have a week in Ireland.”
Maureen: (With a sly note in her voice.) “If we go to Dublin, we can visit Glasnevin Cemetery.”
Maureen’s Sister: (Sharp intake of breath.) “Ohhh. Glasnevin!”
I didn’t know why my sister wanted to go to Glasnevin. I didn’t know anything about it. However, she had mentioned it longingly several times in the past. Luckily, I discovered a documentary about Glasnevin called One Million Dubliners.
I thought the movie was going to highlight the many famous people who are buried in Glasnevin. Instead, the cemetery itself was the main character. Glasnevin was founded in 1832 as a place where both Protestants and Catholics could be laid to rest. Today, more than 1.5 million people are buried there.
I learned that the cemetery has been part of the cycle of life and death in Dublin for almost two centuries. One day, we all will face the journey to death. And, like those buried in Glasnevin, every single one of us has a story.
Throughout the documentary, there are a number of narrators, but none more captivating than historian and Glasnevin tour guide Shane MacThomais. He is part of the fabric of the cemetery, and he acknowledges that he, too, will be buried one day in Glasnevin. The final, shocking scene of the movie is Shane’s funeral and his gravestone. It hits the viewers like a punch in the stomach, because we have no idea he is going to die. And, we really, really like Shane.
After watching One Million Dubliners, I was emotionally involved. I felt compelled to go to Glasnevin. Upon entering the visitor center, I discovered that it is the greatest cemetery of all time. Visitors are shown a small movie, and the seating is in the shape of coffins! You have to love a cemetery with a sense of humor. The facility also has exhibits about grave robbing and body snatching.
As I left the exhibits, I realized that a funeral was taking place outside. I unobtrusively watched for a long moment from the window of the visitor center. The attendees were beautifully dressed and carrying silver and white balloons to release into the sky. I could not take my eyes off the group, who sadly hugged and held each other while still celebrating a life.
My sister and I then visited the graves of the national heroes of Ireland. These graves honor the men and women who led the fight for Irish independence–The Liberator Daniel O’Connell, Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, Charles Stewart Parnell, Eamon DeValera and many more. If these names mean nothing to you, then you should check out my Ireland Reading List. The history of Ireland is one of tragedy, inspiration, bravery, and ultimate victory.
Here is an epitaph that commemorates this fighting spirit:
We spent the bulk of our time simply walking through the cemetery. The Glasnevin Trust has refurbished many of the graves after years of neglect, but the cemetery is huge, and there is much work to be done. I loved the plots touched by the destruction of time—the darkened celtic crosses, the tilted tombstones, the overgrown ivy.
The unrestored parts of the cemetery seemed authentic and quietly beautiful. We looked for our own Irish family name, but did not see it among the thousands of graves. Still, it was somehow lovely to see this large community of Irish people united in death.
True to the Irish, the cemetery is not meant to be an entirely sad place. Even in the face of death, there is love, life, and laughter. Case in point, a local woman shared a memory with us about Shane MacThomais.
“I once took a Glasnevin tour led by Shane. He pointed to the homes that bordered the cemetery. He told us that the people living in those homes could not be buried in Glasnevin. We were quite surprised, but Shane said the cemetery had a strict policy. They could only bury dead people. Ah, he had a wicked sense of humor!”
Before leaving Glasnevin, I was drawn to the plot where the morning’s funeral had taken place. As I approached the site, my sister was a few steps behind me. She heard my involuntary, loud gasp. A temporary name plate lay on top of the newly dug grave. Our own family name stared back at us. I never knew this woman, but we are connected by that name. Her life’s journey ended at her funeral, but I found it comforting that her story will be kept safe in Glasnevin.