St. Stephen's Green and Charlemont are some the most desirable places to live in Dublin. But after death, the place to be is Glasnevin. When I visited historic Glasnevin Cemetery in northern Dublin, it seemed like everybody who's anybody is buried there.
Heading to a cemetery may seem an unusual stop as part of your tour of Ireland's fair city but it is rich in history and artistry and well worth the visit. This 124-acre graveyard is the resting place of 1.5 million souls. But even if boneyards give you the willies, the neighbourhood is still worth exploring. Slip through the cemetery gate and the world goes from the black and white of solemn monuments to the technicolor of blooms at the National Botanic Gardens.
After being up on a plane all night, my brain was too fried for museums. But strolling between graves and flowers was the perfect jet lag activity.
Who's Who at Glasnevin
Just going by monument size, Daniel O'Connell is the winner. The 19th- century nationalist leader, nicknamed The Liberator, has an enormous tower that dwarfs the surrounding angels and Celtic crosses. Loyalists bombed the tower, an icon of Irish nationalism, in 1971. Its metre-thick walls saved it from total destruction and protected O'Connell's remains.
Many 20th century revolutionaries lie beneath Glasnevin's stone monuments. Michael Collins, founder of the Fine Gael Party, died in an ambush when he was only 32. Countess Constance Markievicz, on the other hand, became a revolutionary at the age of 40 and was one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. Unlike some of her comrades, she and her dog Poppet avoided execution, instead serving a jail term. Afterwards, she became the first woman elected to the British House of Commons.
These are just a few of the most famous residents. Many ordinary people are buried here, too, including thousands of 1845 famine victims who share a mass grave. In 2016, the Glasnevin Trust erected a large, 19th century Celtic Cross as a famine memorial.
I have long loved cemeteries, and have visited quite a few. But never have I seen the amenities offered at Glasnevin. Every serious, self-respecting cemetery offers a guided tour — Glasnevin has two — but how many can boast a museum, gift shop and café? Museum exhibits trace the cemetery's history, explain the ins and outs of grave robbing, and allows visitors to peruse digitized burial and cremation records in the genealogy research area. The gift shop offers an excellent selection of history books, and fun stuff like a Michael Collins coaster set. Visitors can dine graveside while contemplating their mortality at the Tower Café. I recommend the superfood salad with sweet potatoes and quinoa if you want to keep the Grim Reaper at bay a little longer.
The Garden Next Door
Just as spring follows winter, I crossed through a gap in the cemetery wall and found myself surrounded by flowers. This time they were growing abundantly, not picked and wilting on graves.
I liked the botanical garden so much that I visited it twice — on my first day in Ireland, and on my last. At 22 degrees Celcius, the day of my second visit was roasting by Irish standards. People in sundresses and tank tops filled the gardens, pushing strollers, sitting with friends on benches, relaxing by the pond. It was late May and the rhododendrons and irises were in full bloom.
The garden traces its roots back to 1790, when the Irish Parliament granted funds to establish it. At first, the garden focused on the scientific study of agriculture. Interest shifted to a more general pursuit of botanical knowledge, and by the 1830s, the garden was collecting plants from around the world. Richard Turner, a famous Dublin ironmaster, built a greenhouse to house the tropical plants. More greenhouses followed as the collection expanded. These white wrought iron Victorian greenhouses are still the garden's most memorable feature. The Turner greenhouse and the 1884 Great Palm House have been restored and won EU heritage awards.
An Outdoor Break
Dublin is one of those cities that oozes history and a long checklist of attractions. Visitors may feel compelled to fill every minute inside museums, waiting in line at Trinity College waiting to see the Book of Kells, or in bars filling up on Guinness and Irish whiskey. But history is outside, too. The garden and boneyard await, ready to whisper their stories to visitors.