The round tower over the burial site of Glasnevin Cemetery founder Daniel O’Connell.
By Michael Gray
Media vita in morte sumus: in the midst of life we are in death. It’s a sobering thought that in any municipality of significant size and enduring history there are more departed residents of the city interred beneath its soil than there are living and breathing above its surface. Dublin is no different in this respect, and the city’s live population of a million and a quarter is far outnumbered by the combined totals of the dead and buried in its two main cemeteries, Glasnevin, on the north side of the city, and Mount Jerome on the south.
The larger and more celebrated of the two, Glasnevin Cemetery, has hosted a million and half burials since it was established more than 180 years ago. Its status as Ireland’s necropolis and last resting place of the nation’s heroes has made it the subject of a fascinating new documentary, by Irish filmmaker Aoife Kelleher. Kelleher’s film, “One Million Dubliners,” presents a refreshing approach to its subject by examining Glasnevin in the here and now, treating its storied history with a light touch, and eschewing the use of archival footage to focus instead on interviews with the people who run the cemetery, from the CEO, to the florists and gravediggers.
Glasnevin Cemetery was founded in 1832 by Daniel O’Connell, revered Irish patriot and emancipator, at a time when the Catholic population of Ireland did not have its own designated burial ground. A plot of nine acres was consecrated for the interment of departed Catholics at what was then the edge of the city, a location so remote from the center that for decades it was underutilized. As time passed, the city grew around the cemetery, many notable persons were buried there (including O’Connell himself – his memorial tower at a height of 168 feet, dominates the graveyard), and Glasnevin became fashionable with Dubliners of all classes. The cemetery was gradually extended to its current size of 150 acres, and became the preferred place of final repose of Ireland’s leaders in politics, music and the arts. Interred in its grounds are the remains of Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins, Countess Markievicz, and Maud Gonne. The tombs of O’Donovan Rossa, Roger Casement, James Larkin, Brendan Behan and Luke Kelly can also be found among its acres.
Kelleher’s camera lovingly caresses the ornate stone forest, resplendent in autumn foliage, to visit the graves of all of these remarkable Irish men and women. As a poignant counterweight to the cult of celebrity surrounding these heroes, Kelleher visits the Angels’ Plot, where the unbaptized remains of stillborn babies and miscarriages were interred, when the harsh rules of the past denied them a place among their relatives in consecrated ground.
“One Million Dubliners” is ably steered on this journey by the documentary’s real star, the resident historian of the cemetery, Shane MacThomáis. MacThomáis, a charismatic tour guide in the cemetery for decades, projects such a genuine affection for his native city and its remarkable cemetery, the history and the legacy, that the viewer will crave more of his wit and charm, and less of the interviewees in stiff suits higher up the ranks in Glasnevin. Alas, there will be no more of him. MacThomáis died tragically last year at the young age of 46, before the film was released. He is now buried in the graveyard, like his father and grandparents before him.
This month “One Million Dubliners” became available on DVD and Video on Demand. It is distributed by Kino Lorber. Visit the distributor’s website http://www.kinolorber.com for more information.
Michael Gray is the Irish Echo’s film reviewer.