Monday, August 22, 2016


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This is a marvelously provocative book.

I have already done a post on its launch in the appropriate surroundings of Glasnevin cemetery and I have left a review on Amazon. These two links should give you an idea of what the book is about. What I am doing here is responding to its personal provocation. I have said that the book had my head spinning and that is due to the flood of personal associations it provoked as I was reading through it.

My purpose here is to share some of these associations. I hope that when you read the book it will provoke as many, although clearly entirely different, associations for you.

The Editors

First let me introduce the editors. The book grew out of a conference on the subject held in the Glasnevin Cemetery Museum a while back. The conference proved so popular and stimulating that a book was clearly the next step.

The book contains not only contributions from the conference, but also some subsequent gap fillers and an overview by the editors. The editors are therefore also contributors not just with the overview but also with a fascinating piece in an appendix looking at the company records of Nichols undertakers who have been in business in Dublin for over 200 years.

Their mini-bio material below is taken from the Four Courts Press website, and while it is convenient for reproduction here, it understates who they are and what they've done.

Lisa Marie Griffith is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin where she completed a PhD on 18th-century Dublin merchants. She is the author of Stones of Dublin: A history of Dublin in Ten Buildings and has published a number of articles on Dublin history. She is co-editor, with Ruth McManus, of Leaders of the City: Dublin’s first citizens, 1500–1950 (2013).

Ciarán Wallace lectures in Irish history and Irish studies at DCU, Mater Dei campus. His latest publication was Thomas Fitzpatrick and ‘The Lepracaun Cartoon Monthly’, 1905–1915 (2015).

See you in due course

Before we get down to the business, the Glasnevin Museum offers this thought as you enter its underground vault. "As you are now so once were we". A clear warning not to lose the run of yourself in this life.

Burying & digging up again

The vault museum has this depiction of a pair of grave diggers. Appropriate enough in a location where many are buried by the day.

However, it's adjoining depiction is, thank the Lord, not so routine. A bodysnatcher at work. These guys did a roaring trade when there was a shortage of bodies for the medical schools. Some graves attempted to deny them access by putting heavy railings around the grave or a heavy slab on top of it. Glasnevin cemetery actually has a series of watchtowers around its perimeter to defend itself against this practice, now happily out of date.

Yet clearly the fear of disturbance after death remained on into the twentieth century. Lord Ardilaun, who is buried in a vault in All Saints church, Raheny, looked to the spiritual world to protect the bodies of himself and his wife. The curse reads: God bless the man who doth this hallowed place revere,/ but curs'd be he who would disturb those sleeping here.

I have been following up my own family history and have a cousin an undertaker in East Limerick. I think I might have upset him, or others in the company, when I insisted on reminding them that he was going around burying people and I was following him around digging them up again.

History of Undertakers

I have undertakers on both sides of my family so I was particularly interested in the appendix tracing the evolution of Nichols undertakers.

On my mother's side, and in Dublin, I had PJ Medlar who married my granny's sister Tess. He had a business for around thirty years (c. 1912 - 1942) mainly located in James's Street but with on/off branches elsewhere in the city.

The book refers to Nichols relocating bodies from some graveyards around town as the sites were put to alternative uses. I'm sure they did a fine job.

Not so Fanagans, for whom Medlar was an agent as you can see in the photo above. They relocated bodies from St. Peter's graveyard in Aungier St. to St. Luke's in the Coombe and the bones were bagged holus bolus. It didn't help that Luke's vault was subsequently vandalised which only aggravated an already confused situation.

Freeman's Journal 31 October 1924

There is a mention in the book of (occupied) coffins being stacked up in undertakers' premises during the 1918-19 Spanish Flu epidemic. People were dying at twice the normal rate and the undertakers and cemeteries couldn't keep up with the increased flow of bodies.

That reminded me of the undertakers' normal pride in their work, which you can imply from the ad above disclaiming any responsibility for the quality of coffins used by the army when the Free State finally released the bodies of 77 executees to their families after the end of the Civil War. Medlar clearly got his share of the ensuing funerals.

It also reminded me of another occasion on which coffins were stacked up. This was during the Artic Winter of 1946-7 when the ground was frozen too hard to dig graves. This, surprisingly, is not mentioned in the book.

The book reminds us that new cemeteries on the outskirts of the city gave rise to the need for transport. This was initially horse drawn until finally overtaken by motorised transport. That the undertakers' carriages could be used outside a strictly funereal environment is shown by the Medlar landau above containing the whole family plus one. This dates from 1925.

And if you're in the transport business why not go the whole hog.

Before I leave Medlar you might be interested in hearing this account of an out of town funeral which didn't go quite according to plan. The storyteller is PJ Medlar's brother Larry, who sometimes gave a dig out with funerals. The piece was recorded by his son in law Dave on Larry's 90th birthday (12th of March 1978). Larry died on the Feast of the Assumption in 1986 aged 98.

My father's people are from Cappanahanagh townland in Murroe parish in East Limerick on the Tipperary border. John has his undertaking business in nearby Newport, but also in Cappamore and Castleconnell. I accompanied him to the funeral parlour above while he put the final touches to the coffined body of an old lady before her relatives came for the viewing.

Death Notice

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If you're used to gravestones telling a story, check out the death notice above. These can also tell a lot. This one is for my uncle Paddy who drowned in the river Suck in Ballinasloe. The notice tell us he merited a High Mass in Ballyhaunis and that he was the brother of Willie. So far so good. Willie was the local and county secretary of the INTO and his mention would have identified Paddy to a wider audience. You might think from the phrasing and content of the notice that Paddy's parents were dead at that stage.

But they were very much alive. So why were they not mentioned in the death notice? Check out the year. We have just got our independence and the Civil War is about to begin. Violence is once again stalking the land and old grudges are being settled. Paddy's father, my grandfather, was at the time a retired RIC man and such people were being taken out and shot in both Ballyhaunis and Ballinasloe at that very time. So no mention in the death notice. That's my guess anyway.

Infant & Unmarked Graves

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The book refers to a number of things which come together in my great grandfather's and great grandmother's grave above. Most graves in 1861 went unmarked, unless you were somebody. Glasnevin was part of the garden cemetery movement, and infant mortality was high.

The grave above is in The Garden, the earliest part of Glasnevin cemetery. It is unmarked and it contains the remains of three infants: one died at birth in 1861 (Joseph) and the others at just over a year old in 1865 (William) and 1873 (John). William died of infant cholera and John of "inflammation from teething". I gather that teething was a sort of catch-all cause when they really didn't know what was going on.

Their father died in 1875 of septicemia. He was a carpenter and I don't know whether he died from a burst appendix or a rusty nail. The point is that there was no cure around in those days.

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This is another unmarked grave. This time in St. Paul's, Glasnevin. Bridget and Julia were my granny's sisters, successively married to Nicholas P Fleming. He and Bridget had three children. When Bridget died he had her sister, Julia, in to mind the children and subsequently married her. When she died he went on to marry and have more children with another Julia.

And that's how cousin Gerry is probably the only Parish Priest to have had four grannies and appeared on the internet in a skirt (above).

Died abroad and State Funerals

You don't have to die in Dublin to be featured in the book. Burial will do the job. The photo above is of the coffin of Lt. Kevin Gleeson, leader of the Irish soldiers on UN duty in the Congo who were killed in the "Niemba Ambush" in 1961. I was at that funeral and am proud to have this photo of mine in the book.

I was also at the funeral of Roger Casement in 1965 (above) though that photo is not in the book..

I was not at O'Donovan Rossa's funeral (in 1915). This is mentioned in the book but there is no photo included of this either.

The Hereafter - Power of the Church

Clearly all the churches were involved in death in one way or another. After the Reformation and up to Catholic Emancipation Catholics were buried in Protestant graveyards and the priest was not supposed to be allowed say prayers over the grave. So much for the body.

However the church's influence over the soul was another matter and the afterlife was liberally invoked in your lifetime to scare the shit out of you and thereby consolidate the power of church and clergy.

The above example is from cousin Peggy's will, made in 1939 as she lay dying of TB. Look at the fortune put aside for masses of every description. These guys have a lot to answer for.

And let me remind you of the Parish Priest's Horse. Relations on the other side of the family had let the PP graze his horse in their field. Came the day when the field had to be sold and the PP told he could no longer graze his horse there. He did not take it well, but what could he do. Well he did. When the old mother was dying he refused to come out to give her the Last Rites and an order priest had to be pressed into service. Wouldn't get away with that today, DG.

Mount Jerome

If Glasnevin was the "Catholic" cemetery then Mount Jerome was the "Protestant" one. While this was generally true, both were in fact non-denominational, and are very much so today.

When my godmother died, in 2011, the plan was to bury her with her husband's people as you might expect. I had already sussed out this grave in the course of my family history pursuit and it was FULL. Made for four with four already in it. I had a plan B where she could be buried with her parents as there were only three in that grave. However, no doubt with the agreement of the current occupants, they squeezed her in with hubby (above).

I was at another funeral there recently when I felt a presence behind me, looking over my shoulder, as it were. When I turned round it was revealed as Oscar's daddy (above). Highly appropriate as we were burying my old English teacher. He would have enjoyed that one.

My final Mount Jerome story concerns Eibhlín Bhreathnach. I had been to her funeral there some years ago and thought, while I was there again, I'd pay my respects. Nobody could find the grave, not even the man in the office. Finally he thought to ask "was it a burial or a cremation?" Dammit, it was a cremation and I had been there. Serious disconnect.


Goldenbridge, beside Richmond Barracks, was the first of the Glasnevin Trust cemeteries and it has been closed for many years. Plans are now afoot to open it up both as a garden cemetery and a resource for historians and genealogists.

Stories from Stone

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This is great grandfather Christopher Burgess's grave in Glasnevin and it tells an interesting story. His son in law, Andy Duffy, who predeceased his wife Elisabeth, is buried in the family grave. That is unusual in my book. It can only be explained by Chritopher "adopting" his son in law in place of his own son, the heir apparent, who went and joined the British Army just as Christopher was about to retire and was disinherited as a result.

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I've already referred to exhumations and reburials by Nichols and Fanagans, well I've done one of my own in Glasnevin, albeit in cyberspace.

When I went up to check out great uncle John's grave, the nice lady in the office gave me a list of burials in the grave. When I got to the tombstone I noticed that Sarah (Sadie) while on the tombstone was not on the list. On my way out I drew the lady's attention to this and she undertook to effect a cyber transfer for Sadie from wherever she was currently cyber-resting to her rightful cyber-resting-place.

How many Angels

The previous "missing person" recollection reminded me of the Angels' Plots. There are now two of these and the photo shows the older one.

Irish language

There are a number of subjects not dealt with in the book which might be worth following up at a later stage if they have not been dealt with elsewhere. One of these is the Irish language. There are Irish language tombstones in Glasnevin but a systematic study would be interesting.

The picture above is from Knockananna in Co. Wicklow but I thought the impression it gives of a native Irish speaker as a rare bird or endangered species was amusing, if not sad in its own way.

Anyway, that's all, probably enough for now. and maybe too much. But the above are some of the thoughts provoked by my reading of this wonderful book.

May you enjoy yours.

And if you enjoyed this post you'll enjoy this (almost hour long) fascinating interview with Ciarán Wallace by Paula Wiseman on NearFM.

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