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Double Take

Double Take: The hidden Dublin graveyard that's more than 1,000 years old

The many plots of Bully Acre’s incredible past.

ENCLOSED BY A stone wall at the back gate of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Kilmainham, is a modestly sized burial site.

Bully’s Acre, an unassuming area sparsely decorated with decrepit headstones, is more than a thousand years old – surpassing both Glasnevin Cemetery and Mount Jerome to be Ireland’s oldest graveyard. And although there are fewer than eighty headstones on the site, countless bodies were buried at this location. 

The remarkable history of Bully’s Acre tells an encompassing history of a changing Ireland. From the Battle of Clontarf, to cases of body snatching; Bully’s Acre is one of Dublin’s greatest hidden gems. 

Located on the site now known as The Royal Hospital, previously the Priory of Saint John, Bully’s Acre was established by the Knights Hospitallers in the twelfth century, as documented on Buildings of

Buried there are several notable figures from Irish history, including Brian Boru’s grandfather and son – both of whom were killed during the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.

Robert Emmet was also laid to rest in Bully’s Acre following his 1803 execution on Dublin’s Thomas Street. However his body was later secretly dug up and taken elsewhere – its final resting place is still the subject of controversy.

The unusual name may have been inspired by some of the characters associated with the location. In Sean Murphy’s detailed document about the cemetery, he suggests that “‘Bully’ was a corruption of ‘bailiff’ or ‘baily’, one of the officials of the Kilmainham Priory”. Another possibility is that the area was a popular place “where…boxers fought.” 

In fact Dan Donnelly, the first Irish-born heavyweight boxing champion, was laid to rest here in 1820, aged 32.

By the eighteenth century, Bully’s Acre had developed a reputation as a “pauper’s cemetery”, as noted on Stair Na Heireann. It was seen as common ground, so there were no fees for a burial.

But Dublin’s upper classes continued to choose the Kilmainham grounds for their family plots. There was a “motivation of desiring burial in holy ground connected with a monastery”, Sean Murphy notes.

The gates of the graveyard were locked to the public on two known occasions. The first was in 1755, when public burials ceased and construction of the surrounding wall commenced. Public dissatisfaction towards lead to severe damage to the surrounds.  

The final closure of Bully’s Acre was a direct response to a cholera epidemic that devastated Dublin in 1832. The same year, Glasnevin Cemetery began serving the country as a Catholic graveyard.

The final burials in Bully’s Acre took place in 1835. Since then, the gates of the grounds have remained locked with limited public access.

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