Glasnevin: Ireland’s National Cemetery


Niamh Duffy


Glasnevin Cemetery, located in the heart of County Dublin, has long been known as Ireland’s ‘National Cemetery’. The result of a campaign by Daniel O’Connell (‘The Liberator’), it was opened in 1832 in response to the restrictions imposed by the Penal Laws. Introduced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – but with effects that survived for much longer – the Penal Laws were designed to restrict the rights of Catholics in Ireland, making it difficult for them to practice their religion (openly, at least, though there have long been rumours of secret, open-air masses held throughout the countryside).

Under these laws, Catholics were not permitted their own graveyard. Daniel O’Connell, in the early nineteenth century, began a legal campaign that aimed to open a new cemetery in Ireland – one that would be inclusive of all Christians, including Catholics. As a result of this campaign, a cemetery was opened in Goldenbridge, Co. Dublin, but high demand soon meant that a bigger space was needed. Glasnevin Cemetery, as we know it today, was opened in 1832 (three years after O’Connell successfully brought about the Emancipation Act, which repealed some of the restricted introduced by the Penal Laws).

Glasnevin Cemetery (Reilig Ghlas Naíon, in Irish) was originally known as Prospect Cemetery, after the townland that surrounded it. At first, it covered a mere nine acres of land, but this has now grown to approximately a hundred and twenty-four. The cemetery contains the graves of over a million and a half people – including, it is estimated, nearly eight hundred thousand victims of the Great Famine of the 1840s, buried together in unmarked mass graves.

Now a popular tourist attraction, the cemetery in Glasnevin is home to the graves of many famous Irish figures. Among those laid to rest in this cemetery are prominent political figures such as Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith, and Daniel O’Connell himself – as well as many famous Irish women, including Maude Gonne and Constance Markievicz. Collins’ grave, in particular, is popular with visitors, attracting thousands of people each year.

Although still primarily a working cemetery, Glasnevin has also made a name for itself as a major tourist attraction. It runs several types of tours, including a general Irish History tour, as well as the ‘Dead Interesting’ tour, which gives visitors an insight into some of the cemetery’s most fascinating inhabitants (including Bill Stephens, a Dublin lion tamer!).

Visitors are also given the opportunity to climb to the top of O’Connell Tower, a structure built to commemorate the cemetery’s founder and most outspoken advocate. The tower only reopened to the public in 2018, having been severely damaged by a bomb in 1971. The tallest round tower in Ireland, it boasts 198 steps and a height of 55 meters, with the crypt of O’Connell himself located in its base. At Glasnevin Cemetery, therefore, one can not only bear witness to the graves of some of Ireland’s most influential historical figures but can also pay their respects to the man whose efforts made the cemetery – a place where Catholics and Protestants could be buried as equals – a possibility at all.

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