Opinion: Glasnevin Cemetery has been a sanctum for public commemorations since it opened its gates in 1832 and given the prominence of certain individuals in public consciousness, public commemoration was inevitable.

People do not simply remember, they remember because someone is constantly reminding them. This constant reminding is the basis for commemorations and doing so in public spaces allows for the celebration and presentation of heritage and the remembrance of those lost, but it can also re- enact traditional divisions.

Glasnevin Cemetery has been a sanctum for public commemorations since it opened its gates in 1832. The 124 acre site is the resting place of over 1.5 million people including well-known names in civic, social, political and cultural life in Ireland such as Christy Brown, Constance Markievicz, Eamon De Valera and Luke Kelly.

Given the prominence of some of these individuals in public consciousness, public commemoration is inevitable in the cemetery grounds.

A fundamental aspect of commemoration is ritual. This can take many familiar forms such as national anthems, one minute silence, laying wreaths and raising flags. Key to the ritual of commemoration is the ability to replicate actions year in, year out, giving the feeling of continuity and stability despite the passage of time. Be it a one year anniversary or a bicentenary, the rituals remains constant.

One ritual that has disappeared from commemorative practices however is the recital of a decade of the rosary. Once a staple of state commemorations, the religious ritual has been withdrawn in favour of secular traditions such as the recital of poems or performances.

From RTÉ Radio 1's The History Show, Louise Denvir reports from Glasnevin Cemetery where, this morning, a new memorial was unveiled to commemorate Irish lives lost on French soil, including those lost at the Somme.

When Fenian leader Jeramiah O’Donovan Rossa died in 1915, his funeral in Glasnevin was a coup for the nationalist movement and the attendance was a veritable who’s who of the forthcoming Easter Rising - James Connolly, Edward Daly, Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and John MacBride.

Standing over the grave, Patrick Pearse delivered his rousing oration, warranting the Rising that would take place the following year and establishing his position as a prominent individual in the nationalist movement.

The oration cemented the funeral in the national commemorative agenda and the one hundred year anniversary in 2015 was marked by an official state commemoration at the graveside on the morning of August 4th.

With dignitaries in attendance and the public confined to spectating from afar, the unofficial commemorations that took place in the afternoon went a step further by conducting a full scale re-enactment of the funeral including a coffin drawn in a horse drawn cortege along the original route from City Hall to Glasnevin Cemetery.

From RTÉ Archives, the state funeral for Éamon de Valera in Glasnevin Cemetery

The largest memorial in Glasnevin Cemetery is the O’Connell tower. Standing at 170ft tall, the tower dominates the landscape of the grounds and beneath it in the vault rests the body of Catholic emancipator Daniel O’Connell along with ten members of his family. The tower was built from funds collected from public subscription and O’Connell’s entombment epitomises the ambition and grandeur of his extraordinary life. 

Just a few feet away from the tower is the resting place of Nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell. In contrast with the magnificence of the O’Connell’s memorial, Parnell's tombstone is modest with no eulogy in praise of his political achievements. A single boulder of granite from his native Wicklow mountains sits on top of a mound of grass reading ‘Parnell’.

His funeral in 1891 drew an unprecedented crowd to the cemetery and its subsequent commemorations are a result of spontaneous actions of those who attended. As thousands of mourners filed into Glasnevin, many pulled ivy leaves from the walls of the cemetery and wore them as buttonholes as a mark of respect. This tradition continues as Parnell’s anniversary on October 6 has been known as Ivy Day ever since. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Shane Macthomais, Resident Historian at Glasnevin Cemetery, reveals some of the unique historical items donated by the public which are on display at an exhibition in Glasnevin Cemetery Museum to mark the centenary year of the Irish Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers

Another significant figure in Irish life buried in Glasnevin is poet, novelist and playwright Brendan Behan. The self-proclaimed ‘drinker with writing problems’ is memorialised at his burial place with a headstone and a sculpture of him writing, which sits in a hollowed-out hole in the stone. The sculpture was stolen twice in 1978 and has never been recovered.

Those who flocked to Behan’s grave invented a novel way of paying their respects by placing a pint of Guinness, beer cans and glasses of wine on his headstone. Given Behan’s infamous relationship with alcohol, which ultimately was a contributing factor to his death at the age of 41, some may question whether this is fitting tribute.

But Behan glorified alcohol during his lifetime and his admirers continue to do so in their commemorative rituals. A new sculpture was recast in 2014 an unveiled in a ceremony that coincided with Behan’s fiftieth anniversary.

From RTÉ Archives, 'Radharc' presents a short history of the beginnings of the graveyard back in 1965.

Commemorations in recent years have unsurprisingly been dominated by the Decade of Centenaries. Glasnevin Trust has erected a plethora of memorials in order to instate its position as an appropriate place of commemoration for both domestic and international visitors. July 2014 saw the unveiling and dedication of a Cross of Sacrifice to the memory of soldiers from Ireland who died in the World Wars.

The ceremony was attended by President Michael D. Higgins, accompanied by His Royal Highness Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent and featured traditional military music and salutes. The commemorations were disrupted by protestors on the outskirts of the cemetery chanting ‘shame on you’ in objection to the formal unveiling of the memorial.

The Cross of Sacrifice is just one of the many memorials erected by Glasnevin Trust in an attempt to ensure it remains a prominent shrine for rituals of commemoration. 2016 was a year of momentous centenaries with the 1916 Rising being the most prominent, particularly during the first half of the year.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, John Green, Chairman of the Glasnevin Trust, discusses a new monumental 'Cross of Sacrifice' at Glasnevin Cemetery to commemorate the Irish soldiers who died in WWI and WWII.

Glasnevin Cemetery inserted itself into the 1916 commemorative pantheon by unveiling a memorial wall dedicated to all the individuals who died during the Rising. The wall caused much controversy because of its spelling mistake and an act of vandalism was carried out shortly after it was unveiled

In September 2016, Glasnevin Trust erected a Celtic cross memorial to Ireland's one million famine victims who died during The Great Hunger between 1845 and 1849. This unveiling took place on during the second half 2016 when centenary commemorations had eased somewhat, allowing the cemetery to gain publicity after a reduced commemorative schedule and after the summer tourist season had passed.

Read: Doing time: dark tourism in Ireland
Read: Why history should remain compulsory for Junior Cycle

While these memorials are undoubtedly respectful of the memory of those they commemorate, their positioning within the cemetery grounds has no direct link to the deceased and the prime location of the memorials within the tour route in the cemetery is unlikely to be coincidental.

Commemorations allow the past to be rewritten by the present. Whether commemorative rituals continue traditional rituals or create new ones, they do not exist as independent entities of the past.

Each ritual of remembrance is socially and culturally constructed by selecting individuals and events worthy of commemoration and we must be reminded that with every act of remembrance, we inevitably forget someone or something else.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.