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Grave Matters

Death and dying in Dublin, 1500 to the present
Lisa Marie Griffith and Ciarán Wallace (eds)
Four Courts Press
Grave Matters


From Death and the city: An Introduction by Lisa Marie Griffith and Ciaran Wallace

So many belonging to me lay buried in Kilbarrack, the healthiest graveyard in Ireland, they said, because it was so near the sea.
- Brendan Behan, The Borstal Boy.

Even in daily life, death and dying are all around. This is especially true in the city where memorials, graveyards and cemeteries surround us, where a passing ambulance may briefly hold up traffic or a public funeral close the streets. Like any older city, Dublin has amassed centuries of ordinary and extraordinary deaths, sad family burials, humble and heroic commemorations; but the city's particular social and political history have produced a unique geography and culture of dying, death and remembering. Looking at Dubliners' efforts to delay the inevitable or to prepare for the afterlife tells us much about medical developments and social attitudes; examining the commerce and creativity surrounding burial and bereavement deepens our understanding of the city's trade and craftsmanship. Memorialization, both private and political, reveals how the dead are incorporated into the identity of the surviving family, community or state.

Several studies on the topic of death and dying have been published in Ireland in the last fifteen years, such as Clodagh Tait's Death, burial and commemoration in Ireland, 1^0—16^0, Greta Jones' study on the history of tuberculosis in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland, Viven Igoe's Dublin burial grounds and graveyards or James Kelly and Mary Ann Lyons' recent collection of essays Death and dying in Ireland, Britain and Europe: historical perspectives.' While this undoubtedly reflects the growing academic interest in the field of medical history, it might also reflect a particular Irish interest in death. In autumn 2014 One million Dubliners, a documentary about Glasnevin Cemetery, was released in cinemas throughout Ireland before being broadcast that November on RTEi. As well as attracting large audiences, the docu­mentary received critical acclaim. This broad popular interest in the topic of death in Ireland extends beyond the deaths of historic or sensational figures to an interest in the death of ordinary everyday people; the title of One million Dubliners tells us just this — the cemetery commemorates all the lives and stories of those buried within its walls, not just those who are celebrated in history books. This is reinforced in Shane MacThomais' volume Dead interesting: stories from the graveyards of Dublin, which takes a broader view of those buried in Glasnevin, seeking out the stories of ordinary, and not so ordinary, Dubliners interred there.2

There are a number of reasons for this particular Irish interest in death. The Great Famine, which saw the death of around one million Irish people over a period of just five years, has cast a long shadow over our national consciousness. The memory of these traumatic years was kept alive in Ireland and was brought by immigrants to the new countries in which they settled, ensuring that the famine was not forgotten. There is also a strong cult of death that focuses on nationalist leaders who gave their lives for Irish independence. The deaths of key revolutionary leaders like Lord Edward FitzGerald, Robert Emmett and the 1916 signatories meant a cult of martyrdom was founded, maintained and then embedded in the nationalist movement. Dates linked to their failed rebellions were marked in the nationalist political calendar.' These commemorations continued when the new state was founded in 1922. While the Civil War created a gulf in Irish social and political life, events like the 1916 Rising and the 1798 Rebellion could still be commemorated. This tradition has continued to the present day as national and local authorities sponsor and support the commemoration of historical events through lecture series, trails, re-enactments and exhibitions. The most extensive commemoration of this kind to date is the Decade of Centenaries (2013—23), which aims to bring historical context to a decade of events (global, national and local) that culminated in the creation of the Irish state. It is through the commemorations for those events that we can get a sense of the Irish preoccupation with our dead and how their lives shaped our country. Studies focusing on the leaders of the 1916 Rising, which remained popular through the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, have shone a spotlight on the idea of martyrdom, on the sacrifice that they made, and this has made us think about death in a national sense. (For a less familiar view of the 1916 executions see Brian Hughes' essay on the private reactions of the bereaved families.) Two of our most important national heritage sites, both located in Dublin, became pivotal to this cult of death; Kilmainham Gaol was where the leaders of the 1916 Rising were executed before being buried in Arbour Hill Cemetery, and Glasnevin Cemetery was where Irish nationalist figures dating back to the nineteenth century were laid to rest. These sites have become political and national shrines.

It perhaps follows that there is also a strong historic interest in the locations associated with death. The work undertaken by local historical associations, religious groups and individual scholars reflect this interest.4 This can also be seen as far back as the nineteenth century and highlights a concern to preserve the graves of previous generations at a time when the political and social landscape was undergoing a momentous shift. Some scholars and associations set out to chronicle the burial sites of the Protestant community. This was a population which was losing its grip on power from the mid-nineteenth century and which, by the foundation of an independent Irish state, was experiencing a decline in numbers. Other groups such as the National Graves Association sought to commemorate and preserve the grave sites of those who had died fighting to create an independent Ireland. In the aftermath of the Civil War such activities could be contentious. That it took so long to establish a museum at Kilmainham Gaol, the site of executions during the 1916 Rising and later the Civil War, and to commemorate the Irish dead from the Great War, shows how politically contentious these sites of death could be.5