Tour guide recalls the lesser-known stories of Glasnevin’s dead in new book

Tour guide Warren Farrell tells the lesser-known tales of Glasnevin’s dead in new book “So Once Was I: Forgotten Tales from Glasnevin Cemetery”.
Tour guide Warren Farrell tells the lesser-known tales of Glasnevin’s dead in new book “So Once Was I: Forgotten Tales from Glasnevin Cemetery” (photographer: Paul Sharp).

Share On:

Glasnevin Cemetery on Dublin’s northside is a place where the famous, forgotten and overlooked lie side by side, waiting for someone to stop and remember them. Ahead of the launch of his new book “So Once Was I: Forgotten Tales from Glasnevin Cemetery”, tour guide Warren Farrell reminds us that every grave has a story. 

Most people in Dublin, and indeed Ireland, have some connection to Glasnevin Cemetery – it is a place of burial, mourning, remembrance and national heritage. This cemetery is the final resting place of 1.5 million people, including some of the most famous names in Irish history. Their gravesides rightfully receive countless visitors each day. Beyond the well-known graves, however, lies a hidden necropolis, where narratives have slipped from the public’s memory and faded into the past.

Glasnevin cemetery was established in 1832 as non-denominational by Daniel O’Connell and today covers 140 acres – the equivalent of nine times Croke Park. It is the final resting place for Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera, Constance Markievicz, Maud Gonne MacBride, Brendan Behan, Roger Casement, Grace Gifford, Liam Whelan and Charles Stewart Parnell. All are visited by thousands of people each year, but my book looks at the cemetery’s lesser traversed pathways.

Over the past four years, I have been trying to choose who to write about as part of my book So Once Was I, which explores some of the lesser-told legacies of those at rest in Glasnevin. With one and a half million candidates, it took some narrowing down. The stories I ultimately selected represent a cross-section of Irish society over the past two centuries and include revolutionaries, rebels, zookeepers, actors, writers, poets, religious figures, inventors, pioneers, aviators, architects, artists, sporting heroes, barristers, politicians and several who died in strange circumstances or tragic disasters.

"So Once Was I: Forgotten Tales from Glasnevin Cemetery” by Warren Farrell and published by Merrion Press.
“So Once Was I: Forgotten Tales from Glasnevin Cemetery” by Warren Farrell and published by Merrion Press is on sale now.

The book is based around a topic that many prefer to treat as taboo: death. Where and how people are laid to rest, however, is important. It is the final act of love or devotion a family or loved one can bestow upon someone. Their headstone is a reminder that they were us, once upon a time.

They say you die twice: once when you die and a second time when people say your name for the last time. Every generation worries that the one behind them might not keep their stories alive and in today’s fast-paced world, there is even more truth to this. For some in Glasnevin, their graves are marked by impressive monuments, yet they are hardly talked about. For others, they lie in unmarked plots and their legacies lie undiscovered, waiting to be told.

Sign up to our newsletter

Tour guides, historians and passionate staff have ensured that Glasnevin today is a place that both fascinates and maintains its secrets. It is a testament to the many people before my time working as a guide, including historians and internal staff, who made this book possible. But in Glasnevin, new stories will be added each day and its history will continue to reveal itself long after I have joined the “faithful departed”, as Joyce refers to the large population of Glasnevin.

Ireland’s necropolis

In 2014, I hesitated in agreeing to go see the award-winning documentary One Million Dubliners with my father at the now-demolished Screen Cinema on Hawkins Street. In truth, I had to be convinced that watching a film about a cemetery and death on a cold night in Dublin was a good idea. With just four other people in the audience, we watched as the late historian Shane MacThomáis spoke about the history of Glasnevin.

That was the first time I realized how important the cemetery was. I did not know it then, but much inspiration for my book would come from reading Shane’s earlier publications on the notable dead of the cemetery. His words from Glasnevin: Ireland’s Necropolis (2010) stick with me each time I walk the grounds:

“Rest assured for every poet noted, we may be sure there are another hundred. For every patriot, statesperson, scholar, hundreds more. For every ordinary citizen of Dublin pointed out, tens of thousands more.”

Shane is now resting in Glasnevin with his equally famous father, Éamonn MacThomáis, and they are buried right beside Frank Ryan, who led the Irish Brigade in the fight against fascism in Spain.

I later applied for the position of tour guide in the cemetery in December 2015 as part of the ongoing Decade of Centenaries (2013–23) and to my surprise, Dublin Cemeteries Trust gave me the opportunity to tell visitors the stories of some of the most significant graves in the cemetery – a job I feel privileged to do, and one I continue to do to this day. My book, however, is a personal one to me, independent of my role as a tour guide. It all began as a passion project to keep busy during the COVID-19 lockdowns and to help me learn more about this historic site.

Author and tour guide Warren Farrell in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Author and tour guide Warren Farrell in Glasnevin Cemetery (photographer: Paul Sharp).

Forgotten tales from Glasnevin Cemetery

My book features 84 grave locations, with 74 of them having their stories fully retold. Dublin Cemeteries Trust has immaculate records that date back to the first interment in Goldenbridge Cemetery in 1828. This means that the records pre-date the establishment of Prospect Cemetery (today Glasnevin). Initially, only basic records were kept detailing first name and surname along with the person’s last known address, age, grave location and date of burial.

From 1872, the cemetery began to record a lot more valuable information, including first name, surname, age, gender, last known address, address where they died, plot number, date of death, date of burial (sometimes the time of burial), religion, occupation, marital status, cause of death, who informed the cemetery of the person’s death and the date that the issuing order for burial was made. These records enabled me to identify some of the forgotten tales I chose to focus my research on. There were some people whose histories really stood out to me.

>>> READ MORE: Tracing your roots online using old records of Irish gravestone memorials and “Mems Dead”

The cemetery’s largest monument, visible for miles around, is the O’Connell Round Tower. It was the work of Patrick Byrne (1783–1864), who, ironically, lies today in an unmarked plot in Glasnevin’s Garden section. Byrne was a master church builder and many of his works can still be visited in Dublin: St Paul’s on Arran Quay (1835), St Audoen’s on High Street (1841) and St James’ Catholic Church on James Street (1844). If you wish to sit and think about his legacy, take a walk on your visit to Glasnevin towards his original entrance gates beside Kavanagh’s pub. The enclaves that act as seats are also his work. Here, you can look out over the cemetery and view his epitaph with his round tower straight ahead.

The O’Connell round tower in Glasnevin was designed by architect Patrick Byrne.
The O’Connell round tower in Glasnevin was designed by architect Patrick Byrne (© Warren Farrell).

The name Stoker will forever be associated with Dracula and its author, Bram Stoker, but the writer’s second cousin, Frank Stoker (1866–1939), remains to this day the only rugby international to have also won Wimbledon. With his doubles partner Joshua Pim, they won both the 1890 and 1893 Wimbledon championships and Stoker was capped five times for the Irish international rugby squad between 1886 and 1891. His grave is in the St Brigid’s section of Glasnevin.

Frank Stoker, Wimbledon champion and Irish international rugby player
Frank Stoker, Wimbledon champion and Irish international rugby player.

>>> READ MORE: From rackets to rugby: Dubliner Frank Stoker and his sporting triumphs

The cemetery also tells stories of both the revolutionary period and World War 1. In the Garden section, two graves lie side by side belonging to Sergeant Patrick Dunne and Volunteer Edward Ennis. Dunne enlisted with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers during World War 1 and died from meningitis on 30 June 1916. He was 20 years old. Beside him lies Ennis, who worked as a chimney cleaner in Dublin. He joined the Irish Volunteers and died during the 1916 Rising on 29 April along the railway line at Grand Canal Street. He was 31 years old. Their headstones tell two very different stories.

Glasnevin is also the final resting place for many forgotten music and acting personalities. For instance, Jimmy O’Dea (1899–1965), who became a central part of the Irish comedy scene both on stage and on screen in the 1950s and 1960s. His biggest legacy for some was his depiction of King Brian in Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). To others, it was on the stage, as his leading female character persona “Biddy Mulligan, the Pride of the Coombe”.

Another example is the popular Dublin singer, pianist and entertainer Margaret Tisdall (1906–79), better known by her stage name Peggy Dell. She appeared alongside names like the aforementioned Jimmy O’Dea, Noel Purcell and Jack Cruise, who together nurtured a highly popular variety scene in Dublin. Later in life, an appearance on the Late Late Show in 1973 sparked a late revival in her career on television. Her grave in the St Patrick’s section of Glasnevin remained unmarked until a campaign organized by Rob Twamley through GoFundMe finally raised enough money to give Tisdall a headstone in 2021.

Grave of Margaret Tisdall (aka Peggy Dell).
Grave of Margaret Tisdall (aka Peggy Dell) in Glasnevin Cemetery before her headstone was recently erected (© Warren Farrell).

In the South New Chapel section of Glasnevin, you will find the grave of Hollywood actor Kathleen Ryan (1922–85). She starred in the 1947 film noir classic Odd Man Out as Kathleen Sullivan. Her career ultimately did not reach the heights that many had imagined it would. A combination of bad scripts, sub-standard films, a hit-and-run accident she was involved in resulting in a man losing his leg and the break-up of her marriage meant her Hollywood career today is remembered as “what might have been”.

Kathleen’s name is inscribed on the side of a rectangular headstone, with a white statue of the Virgin Mary on top. It was built as a remembrance to her family, the Ryans, as merchants, politicians and nationalists. The Ryans set up the highly successful “Monument Creamery” chain and Kathleen’s father, Seamus, was a long-time friend of Éamon de Valera and founding member of Fianna Fáil. During the Irish War of Independence, the Ryan family regularly aided the IRA. Many of their shops were used as safe houses and meeting places in Dublin. The family were also friends with the likes of Dan Breen, Seán Treacy, Sean Hogan and Séumus Robinson. John, Kathleen’s brother, organized the first Bloomsday event in 1954 with novelist Flann O’Brien. He also purchased The Bailey pub in Dublin in 1957, which became a literary haunt in the city.

Donate to Irish Heritage News

Stories like these serve as a reminder that among the grandeur of Glasnevin’s famed monuments, an intricate mosaic of forgotten lives is waiting to be rediscovered. These forgotten stories highlight the possibility that one day, someone might attempt to tell our stories, long after we’re gone – how will we be remembered, or forgotten?

Pick up your copy

So Once Was I: Forgotten Tales from Glasnevin Cemetery published by Merrion Press (Irish Academic Press) is now available to buy in all good bookshops, including Chapters Bookstore, which is hosting the official launch this Thursday, 16 May, in their premises on Parnell Street, Dublin 1. Well-known social historian and podcaster Donal Fallon will be the special guest speaker at the event. Everyone is invited to attend but please remember to RSVP to info@merrionpress.ie for more information.

So Once Was I: Forgotten Tales from Glasnevin Cemetery by Warren Farrell book launch.
Book launch for “So Once Was I: Forgotten Tales from Glasnevin Cemetery” by Warren Farrell will be held on Thursday, 16 May, in Chapters Bookstore.

You can also purchase the book directly from the publisher through their online store, where it is available in e-book format as well.

Warren Farrell from Inchicore, Dublin, is a first-time author with a passion for social history. A Maynooth University graduate in politics and history, he furthered his education with a master’s in secondary school education. He has since shared his love of history and politics as a secondary school teacher with many students in Dublin. Warren now works as a coordinator for Trinity Access Programmes at Trinity College Dublin, where he works with students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as working as a tour guide in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Sign up to our newsletter

Subscribe to the Irish Heritage News newsletter and follow us on Facebook, X and Instagram for all the latest heritage stories.

READ NOW

Bringing the 1318 Battle of Faughart and Edward Bruce back into focus

Galway’s award-winning digital graveyard project records over 40,000 memorials

New series “Taoscadh ón Tobar” showcases Ireland’s rich musical heritage

What the census tells us about Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde

Share This Article

Facebook
Twitter
WhatsApp
Pinterest

Related Articles

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

History

Archaeology

LEGAL DISCLAIMER
Irish Heritage News is a participant in Amazon Associates – Amazon’s affiliate marketing program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

Genealogy

Folklore

Breaking News

Join Our Newsletter

Recent