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Educational epitaphs

I thought I was a little odd visiting Bródy Sándor’s grave each November and leaving flowers, but I have nothing on this 40-something French girl who comes to Ireland five or six times a year to visit Michael Collins’s grave and also sends flowers for Valentine’s Day and his birthday. Amazing what Liam Neeson’s portrayal of the great man can ignite.

IMG_7245 (600x800)Mind you, I inherited a photo from my aunt of a man in uniform, sure that it was of my grandfather. A friend visiting from Ireland said he was surprised that I’d have a photo of Michael Collins on my wall. I’m not sure who got the bigger shock.

Michael Collins ranks up there as one of Ireland’s great historical figures. And Glasnevin cemetery is full of them. Parnell, Larkin, O’Donovan Rossa  – they’ve all secured a place in history and a plot in this cemetery. Used as I am to rather banal epitaphs, it was quite a shock to see cause of death etched in stone. Walking through Glasnevin was like leafing through a history book.

IMG_7241 (589x800)IMG_7223 (594x800)I felt stirrings of that elusive thing called patriotism as I was reminded, yet again, that the freedom I enjoy today is courtesy of so many who gave up their lives to secure it for me. There were two sides in the Civil War and to this day, there are two camps alive and well in Ireland. I wrote a while back about the American Civil War and the South’s reluctance to move on and let go, so it was with more than a little chagrin that I listened to our guide tell of visitors who would refuse to stop at de Valera’s grave or walk by Michael Collins without as much as a nod. And I wondered, not for the first time, about history and how, how it is passed on  shapes our view of the world.

IMG_7235 (600x800)I’m a great fan of WB Yeats and have noted a couple of instances where he refers to a chap by the name of O’Leary. In September 1913, he writes: Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone; it’s with O’Leary in the grave. And again, in the poem Beautiful Lofty Things: Beautiful lofty things: O’Leary’s noble head. I’d always wondered who this chap was and now I know. Buried next to James Stephens, for whom he was best man, O’Leary was a Fenian, believing in Irish independence and the separation of Church and state, and, apparently, a friend of Whistler. Now there’s a connection that would make for an interesting ‘six degrees of separation’.

IMG_7211 (800x600) (2)The prize for the best attended funeral goes to Charles Stewart Parnell – more than a quarter of a million people turned out to see him buried – a sizable number of whom wanted to make sure he was dead. Parnell was buried in the cholera pit, where more than 13 000 others met their end in a mass grave. It was thought that here, he’d be safe from the grave robbers and those who might want a piece of him.

In many countries, grave robbing has fallen off the statutory law wagon. Back in the day, when medical universities needed bodies to dissect, corpses were traded by the imperial inch. Just one body was worth two months’ wages in Ireland and in the UK, the same body would be worth six. In Austria right now, police are looking for a grave robber who has broken in the graves of composers Brahms and Strauss and stolen their teeth! Apparently he plans to open a museum. Oh, the workings of the human mind – what a mystery.

Touching coffins

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.

IMG_7267 (600x800)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.

IMG_7183 (800x600)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…

IMG_7186 (800x583)IMG_7194 (800x600)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.

IMG_7188 (800x600)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.

IMG_7210 (800x600)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 …