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Dublin: 7 °C Sunday 23 November, 2014

Column: Shane MacThomais was a tireless champion of those forgotten by our history books

Following the untimely passing of the Glasnevin Cemetery historian Shane MacThomais, his friend and fellow historian Donal Fallon remembers a man who was “beloved of Dubliners of all classes and professions”.

Donal Fallon

FEW FINAL RESTING places in Ireland command the respect of the round tower tomb of Daniel O’Connell. Forever immortalised in Irish school books as ‘The Liberator’, O’Connell is just one of the one-and-a-half million people whose mortal remains rest in what is officially known as Prospect Cemetery. The story of Ireland can be told by walking the grounds of this amazing place.

There is the tragic young Sean Healy, a 15-year-old rebel who perished in the rebellion of 1916, gunned down on a Phibsboro street corner. There are ‘characters’ of centuries past like Michael J Moran, or Zozimus as he was known, the blind bard of nineteenth century Dublin who captivated Dubliners with song. There are shocking reminders of the wrongs of Irish society in recent times too, with many victims of the Magdalene Laundry system to be found within the cemetery.

Shane MacThomais understood that each and every human being buried within the walls of the cemetery he loved so passionately had a story, and his ultimate ambition was to tell as many of those stories as he could.

I had the good fortune of encountering this ambition of Shane MacThomais first-hand. My great-grandfather was one of the tens of thousands of Irishmen who would die as a result of the First World War, though lacking a heroic ‘over the front’ battlefield death and the Commonwealth Graves headstone that might come with it, rather dying months later in the Richmond Hospital in Dublin. A working class statistic of the most horrific war in human history, MacThomais was able to help my family locate the paupers’ grave in which he now rests. It may have been far from a round tower, but to my mother it was a spot to stand and pay homage to a man she had heard so much about, and an emotional experience. This was only one part of Shane MacThomais’ job, but all who knew him knew it was an important part to him.

The people missing from our history books

In all the time I was fortunate to know Shane, he was a tireless champion of the underdog in Irish history. Only last year he passionately argued for Dublin’s newest bridge to be named after a woman, Rosie Hackett, arguing that “all too often the role of Irish women is forgotten in our history books.” There has often been much else missing in our history books in Ireland, such as the victims of tragedies like tenement collapses and tuberculosis outbreaks.

These things were not missing from Shane’s books, however, or from his much-celebrated walking tours, which were as much passionate performances as they were historical exercises. A tour guide myself, I could only watch in awe on the occasions I saw Shane move crowds through almost the entire spectrum of human emotions in a single walking tour. In his tours and books , the famous and infamous shared space with the ordinary Dubliner. The tale of three firefighters who perished in a tragic blaze on Pearse Street in 1936 was often told by Shane on his tours of the cemetery, and while the men may have lacked the household name recognition of other visited graves, the passion in the telling of their story of brotherly comradely, bravery and sacrifice left a profound impact on many.

Promoting a shared history that respected all kinds of Irishness

A republican in the finest tradition, MacThomais truly capitalised on the shared nature of Glasnevin Cemetery, by making it a place where all traditions felt welcomed, always promoting a shared history that respected all kinds of Irishness. It would perhaps have seemed impossible to anyone who recalled Ian Paisley and his followers clutching ‘No Mass, No Lemass’ placards during a visit north by Sean Lemass in 1965 that the same man would lay a hand on the tomb of O’Connell in 2010, or hear of republicans like Roger Casement, hanged for his efforts to free his country from British rule.

Shane not only loved Dublin, her history and her people – he wished to spark a dialogue around it, encouraging people who may have felt a lack of formal education or a lack of a particular degree ruled them out of engaging in historical discussion. Over 12,000 people have liked and engaged with Glasnevin Museum on Facebook, where interesting little historical snapshots from Shane and others have captured the imagination of many, while his voice was frequently to be heard in media outlets like RTE’s The History Show. For me, it was on radio that his characteristic humour and oft cheeky nature could shine best; and his likeability stemmed from his ability to speak in a way that made people want to listen, even those for whom history may have been nothing but a tiresome school subject. He was a born broadcaster, unsurprising as it flowed in his veins.

Beloved of Dubliners of all classes and professions

In the introduction to his highly readable Dead Interesting: Stories from the Graveyards of Dublin, a book that has the very rare ability of being able to make its reader laugh and also cry depending on the page they should open, Shane recalled being at the funeral of his father, Eamonn Mac Thomais, and the incredible mix of individuals he saw before his eyes. He noted that “lollypop women stood beside Trinity professors, while balladeers and newsreaders looked at each other’s shoes.” If Eamonn was beloved of Dubliners of all classes and professions, his son has proven likewise since his untimely passing, with such an incredible outpouring of grief evident.

Like Eamonn, he supported all endeavours that encouraged Dubliners to greater engage with their past, and was a much welcome and needed guiding hand to younger historians. Like many people, I am shattered by the loss of a friend, but Dublin as a whole is a poorer place without Shane.

Donal Fallon is one of the writers behind the Dublin history website Come Here To Me and a tour guide of the city.

Read: Glasnevin historian Shane MacThomais dies

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