I’ll put the moral of this story at the start. You should always talk to people when using public transport. Because it all started when I got on the train in Enfield and had the most entertaining encounter with an elderly man and woman, all of us strangers. Rolling by Glasnevin Cemetery, our lady companion departed from her fascinating life story to observe, “There’s Daniel O’Connell’s tower”. I’d often benignly noticed the impressive round tower from the train. “What do you mean?” I enquired. Her eyes widened. Never a good sign.
The tower was a monument to The Liberator, who was buried in a tomb underneath. I had no idea he was in Glasnevin at all, never mind that he had a tower. And I have a degree in History!
Needless to say I blame my parents. They are history fanatics but confine their interest to megalithic tombs and monasteries. Their disdain for our Republican heritage was such that my mother’s widely acclaimed interest in graveyards had not extended to the graves of our Fenian dead. Thus was Glasnevin excluded from our educational childhood tours, with the peace loving O’Connell an innocent victim of our lack of esteem for the nation’s freedom fighters. In college I opted for courses in the French Revolution, the English Civil war, the American Civil war, and really, any war apart from our own.
Later I asked my family; “Did you know Daniel O’Connell is buried in Glasnevin and has a tower?” “Who’s Daniel O’Connell?” asked the children. Oh Holy God. That was it. We were going to Glasnevin.
Off we went on Sunday, a perfect Autumn afternoon, for the 2.30 tour lead by the most charming man, Paddy Gleeson. Our group was aged from 8 to 80 and composed of multiple nationalities. He brought us around just a small portion of the graveyard. Most diplomatically and sympathetically, he described the interconnected lives and sad deaths, many brutal, of some of Glasnevin’s occupants.
O’Connell takes pride of place. There’s an underground burial vault with all his relations in coffins piled in a side room. Through the great stone and marble sarcophagus there’s space in the carving to put your hand through so you can touch his coffin.
Gleeson told us about O’Connell’s great work and his death in Genoa, Italy. He asked the group “Does anyone know O’Connell’s instructions for his burial?” The Irish looked at each other confused. A tourist, French I think, offered the answer. “My body to Ireland. My soul to heaven. My heart to Rome”. The words were painted on the walls of the chamber and yes, his friends had cut out his heart, put it in a silver box and it had resided in the church of St Agata dei Goti in Rome but has now gone missing. O’Connell’s heart is gone!
But that was just the start. Onto the grave of Eamon de Valera, a humble one, because its first occupant was not the man himself, but his son, Brian who died at just 20. Unusually, not during our conflicts but from a horse riding accident.
With the week that was in it, he pointed out the monument to Sir John Cray, the man who first piped water from the Wicklow mountains to Dublin. We spent a while with the Fenians of course, including O’Donovan Rossa.
During the Summer an actor performs Pearse’s famous oration daily. Near him is Jim Larkin. To commemorate the 1913 Lockout, his speeches were performed daily by an actor too. We finished up with Michael Collins and Paddy told us his tragic story so beautifully, pointing out Kitty Kiernan’s grave nearby, that our group was entranced, educated and highly entertained.
Driving home, my boys planned a movie based on the search for O’Connell’s heart. They know who he is now. A second moral: if you want to learn history, let the dead be your teacher.