I was delighted to see that the staircase in the O’Connell Monument is back operational again and while I don’t look forward to climbing 198 steps I look forward to the view from the top. On a clear day you can see Cooley, the Mountains of Mourne, Wicklow, Meath and what I look forward to most - my family home!
It is the latest addition to a tourist attraction that has gone from being an ugly and dangerous mess in the late 70s, 80s and even into the 90s - to a source of great pride for Dubliners – and the last resting place of over a million of us! Actually nearer 1.5 million!
I grew up in the shadow of the tower and went to school in nearby St. Vincent’s from the early 70s to the early 80s. There were many funerals for schoolmates’ parents over the years. And we always got lost in the cemetery and only made it back to school 5 minutes before it finished – despite knowing every nook and cranny in the place. Neighbours too were buried there and people whose papers I delivered. There were also the famous funerals of the era – I remember Bean (Sinead) De Valera’s funeral - I think we may have provided a guard of honour outside the school. Her husband actually died 7 months later in August 1975 - but we were on summer holidays.
But Glasnevin was in a sorry state in the 70s and 80s and beyond. Pathways were wrecked, gravestones in bits, railings rusting and there was a general air of neglect and dilapidation to the place. In addition there was a fair bit of anti social behaviour there – cider drinking etc - and also some attacks on people visiting graves. My own father died in 1984 and my mother would not bury him there because of the vandalism that was prevalent at the time. A real source of pity now.
In 2006, following lobbying by the Cemeteries Committee, the Government agreed to include the cemetery in the National Development Plan as an Office of Public Works project. They envisioned the cemetery as a potential tourist attraction and wanted to ensure that it would be somewhere the country could be proud of when the Easter centenary was celebrated ten years later.
The results have been stunning. Right from the open and welcoming entrance the place grabs your attention. O’Connell’s Tower dominates your first views and its stunning surrounds and the many Republican and notable burials at the front of the cemetery just make you want to see more. And there is plenty. Graves, railings, trees, paths have all been given a new lease of life – not quite what you’d expect in a cemetery! The museum is there now – and a fine restaurant, the best of tour guides – everything you would want.
A nice day weather-wise is not essential but greatly adds to a visit. An aimless wander is a real treat. Even crows add to the ambience believe it or not! Get the guide maps etc and make sure you see what interests you most. But just enjoy the history of the place too. The elaborate graves, the simple ones, the stories they tell. There is the tragedy of the Angels’ Plot, the crematorium and for United fans there is one Liam Whelan but be warned – Cabra’s finest is across the road in St. Paul’s.
I always like the towers that were built to thwart the grave robbers and body snatchers – there are some good ghost stories here worth looking up – the museum or guide will also fill you in! A group of local lads had a hut in the top of one of them in the lane up from the Gravediggers when I was a teenager – some den that was!
As a local there is an extra interest in wandering across Mr Duggan who always gave you a shilling on Friday after delivering her briquettes cut the fingers off you - or stumbling upon Ms Rafter who gave you nothing – maybe its down there with her! Even if you are not local the chances are you will happen on someone you worked with or played football with or maybe even someone who taught you! I also have relatives buried there and a few friends so there is always a reason to go and always a time to dwell, reminisce and recall the good times.
The Prospect entrance also means you can sneak into the Gravedigger’s for a pint and a little further along is a gateway to the Botanic Gardens – making this overall green space in Dublin 9 a national treasure.
The Glasnevin Trust, especially John Green and George McCullough, as well as the OPW deserve huge credit for what they have done here in the last decade. The pride among staff in Glasnevin – I know a few – was clear for all to see in that most poignant of documentaries ‘One Million Dubliners’ – (RIP Shane Mac Thomais). They love where they work and it’s easy to see why.
A visit is a lesson in history, humility, humanity, identity and just a great day out that will leave you as proud as ever to be a Dubliner. Highly recommended!