There are more people buried in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin that are currently alive in the city. I heard that on Saturday and it still hasn’t sunk in: 1.5 million dead vs 1.3 million alive. A tour of the cemetery has been on my list of things to do for years and finally, thanks to the ever-on-the-ball MN, I got to cross it off my list and may well have changed my life in the process.
Dominated by a large round tower – the tallest in the country – it’s home to many a famous Irish man and woman. The round tower, in fact, is the headstone on Daniel O’Connell’s grave and for those of you who are not familiar with the man Dan, there are those who believe that he discovered Ireland.
We share the same birthday – 6 August – but he was born into aristocracy in 1775 on the opposite side of Ireland, in Cahirciveen, County Kerry. Despite having money, the family’s belief in Catholicism stood against them and denied them the status and influence their bank balance would normally provide. After stints in college, Daniel went to Lincoln’s Inn, London, and then to King’s Inn, Dublin, where he studied for the bar. Qualifying in 1798, he was at this stage fully committed to religious tolerance, freedom of conscience, democracy and the separation of Church and State.
At home, he was seen as a bit of radical and despite his involvement in the United Irishmen, they themselves inspired by the French Revolution, O’Connell believed that the Irish were not sufficiently enlightened to hear the sun of freedom [An aside: when I read this, I remembered a Hungarian friend telling me in before the last elections that Hungary wasn’t ready for democracy – the parallels continue]. He was all for change, but advocated change within and through the system.
Fast forward to 1815 when O’Connell was probably the most successful barrister in the country and leader of the Catholic Emancipation movement. In 1823, he along with a couple of others, started the Catholic Association and had the brainwave to swell its ranks by offering annual membership for just a shilling. Their aim: to have the Act of Union repealed, to bring an end to Irish tithe system, to bring about universal suffrage, and to see a secret ballot for parliamentary elections. Despite being elected to government, O’Connell couldn’t take his seat in London in Parliament because he was Catholic. But he was a crowd-puller. It is thought that three-quarters of a million people gathered on the hill of Tara to hear the man they called the Liberator.
In 1841 he became the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin and continued to fight to have the Act of Union repealed, yet he would die in Genoa in March of 1847 without doing so. On his last trip to Rome, he visited Paris where he was touted as the most successful champion of liberty and democracy in Europe. He never made it to Rome and on his deathbed is reported to have said My body to Ireland, my heart to Rome, and my soul to Heaven. Whether or not he meant this literally is a mystery but those who heard him decided to grant his wish. His heart was removed and sent to Rome to the Irish College while the rest of him was shipped back to Glasnevin cemetery, the country’s first non-denominational cemetery which he had started back in 1832. Apparently, his heart went missing about 110 years ago…
O’Connell’s coffin sits in a crypt beneath the round tower. Holes in the marble casing allow you to reach in and touch the coffin, which is supposed to bring good luck. (Yet again, I’m fascinated by our ability as a people to conjure good luck out of anything from the combination of a black cat and an ambulance to repeated numbers on a digital clock.) Touch it I did, and more than once. In fact, had the opportunity presented itself and were good luck guaranteed, I’d have gotten into the coffin beside him.
His family and their first born are also entitled to a space in the crypt… in a side room, stacked on top of each other in lead-lined caskets. Lead creates a seal, a vacuum of sorts, that preserves bodies and as hair continues to grow long after we die, one can only imagine the state the family would be in now. In what might seem as an effort on behalf of history to rewrite itself, O’Connell’s coffin is 9 feet long – while the man himself was reportedly much, much, much shorter.
Even in death, O’Connell still presides over the cemetery where 800 000 bodies lie in unmarked graves. Vast expanses of innocent-looking lawns cover mass graves where bodies were buried regardless of religious or political beliefs. One can imagine the conversations …