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Double burials and dead parrots: Strange and unusual stories from Glasnevin Cemetery

A range of untold, fascinating tales are told on the new Dead Interesting tour at Glasnevin Cemetery.

IMG_13023 Source: Conor Dodd/Glasnevin Cemetery

FROM THIS MONDAY, 27 February, a new tour will be coming to Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum that will tell visitors some of the most unusual and quirky stories about some of the million and a half people interred there.

A Jesuit who fought in the American Civil War, a priest who returned home scarred after witnessing the horrors of the WW2 concentration camps, an Irish Wimbledon champion, and a woman who was buried in the graveyard twice are just some of the fascinating stories that are told on the Dead Interesting tour.

Running for the past few weekends, but launching for its first weekday this Monday 27 February, TheJournal.ie was given a sneak peak of the tour earlier this week.

Despite the strong winds and heavy rain of Storm Doris on the day we visited, historians Conor Dodd and Paddy Gleeson filled us in on some of the strangest, inspiring and tragic stories from people buried at the cemetery, and about the site itself.

1. The Rock of Cashel chapel

The area with the round tower and the chapel was the brainchild of a man who Dodd called the “father of Irish archaeology” George Petrie in the 1850s following the death of Daniel O’Connell.

The chapel that was built was based on Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary, which is itself cross-shaped. Architect JJ McCarthy was tasked with the design of the new chapel – with one bricklayer dying while tearing down the previous one.

“People look at this, and they often just walk by it,” Dodd explained. “They don’t really realise what’s involved in it. The equivalent cost of it today would be €9 million. The granite is from Wicklow, stone from Cannes in France and Bath in England, they brought in metal workers, tile workers, stained glass workers etc.”

Running along the sides at the top of the church are carvings of faces done individually, by hand, that would usually go unnoticed unless you had a good look at the chapel.

Those carvings were actually done by James Pearse, the father of Willie and Patrick Pearse.

IMG_1265 Source: Conor Dodd/Glasnevin Cemetery

Above one of the windows, a colour variation can be seen in the stone, which was actually caused by the UVF bombing of the round tower in 1971.

“You can actually still see the crack that the bomb caused going all the way up the inside of the tower,” Dodd added.

2. Sick as a parrot

Centenary Commemoration of the Funeral of O'Donovan Rossa Source: Brian Lawless PA Archive/PA Images

Armed guards were stationed at the round towers around Glasnevin in the late-1800s and early 1900s, with grave robbers one of the key reasons for this being brought in.

The tedious guard duty meant that some security staff got “trigger-happy” and would occasionally take pot shots of things they saw to pass the time.

One of the issues they had with this practice occurred in October 1911. One of the gatekeepers, a man called James Horton, was walking down the cemetery and saw something colourful among the trees. He decided the safest thing to do was to shoot it.

What fell down was an extremely rare macaw parrot.

The guards thought it was strange to find a parrot there, but didn’t think anything more of it until a man called William Fogarty came to the gate and said: “Has anyone seen my parrot? I’ve lost it.”

Horton pulled out the parrot and apologised for shooting it.

A legal letter was sent to Glasnevin the following week saying that, unless they replaced the parrot, they would be sued for compensation.

Acquiring a parrot was no simple task back then, but Horton managed to keep his job and Fogarty was apparently well compensated for the loss of the parrot.

3. Buried twice in the same graveyard

Maria Higgins has the ignominious title of being the only person to be buried in Glasnevin Cemetery twice.

Gleeson called her story the “strangest one of all”.


Higgins died in 1858, and was buried at the cemetery following a wake and a large funeral.

“That’s the end of the story,” Gleeson said, “until, three years later, Maria Higgins walked into a solicitor’s office on Nassau Street.

It was certainly her, alright. She had been left £500 in a will, but was set for it to be left to her children, if she had any, or to the beneficiary of her will. Her husband decided that “we can’t be waiting around that long”, because she was 54 at this stage, so he came up with this plan.

They managed this elaborate fake-death scam with the unwitting help of a doctor, who went in to examine the “body” at Bishop’s Street, where there was a closed coffin.

He asked to examine the body, and Charles Higgins, the “grieving” husband, said: “You can of course. But, alternatively, over here is a £10 note and a bottle of Powers whiskey”.

It is believed the doctor opted for the latter choice, even appearing at the wake to continue drinking his fill of whiskey.

The husband went even further then, borrowing £275 on the strength of the money that was coming, but the pair had unwittingly changed the money to a relative at the last minute.

When he pleaded that he couldn’t pay the money back, the couple made off with £775.

When Maria Higgins died 13 years later, she was buried, for the second time, at Glasnevin Cemetery.

“It was probably the biggest scam ever carried out here, as far we know,” Gleeson added.

4. The Irishman at the centre of 19th century world history

JJ O’Kelly was born in 1842.

During his early life, he was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and fought in the French Foreign Legion in north Africa and South America.

He deserted from the foreign legion and moved to New York, and became a reporter with the New York Herald.

While working there, he was sent to Cuba to cover their war of independence from Spain. He went behind enemy lines to talk to the Cubans. He was captured by the Spanish and sentenced to death, before a diplomatic intervention was made on his behalf.

shutterstock_252138682 O'Kelly was present for the aftermath of Custer's last stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn Source: Shutterstock/Everett Historical

O’Kelly then joined up with the US cavalry for the Sioux wars in the 1870s. He was with General Custer and witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Little Bighorn.

The journalist reported back what he saw and called for a public inquiry into the battle, which saw hundreds of US soldiers killed.

After that all finished, he returned to Europe and met Charles Stewart Parnell. O’Kelly then became a supporter of Home Rule and also became a member of parliament.

PA-8684558 O'Kelly became close to Charles Stewart Parnell in the late 1800s Source: AP/Press Association Images

JJ O’Kelly died in December 1916, and Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond paid for his plot in Glasnevin.

“He’s an incredible fellow, altogether. I really can’t believe they haven’t made a film about this guy yet,” Dodd said.

5. The Confederate Jesuit

The Jesuit plot in Glasnevin is just one of many plots dedicated to different groups, with other plots set aside for the Royal Irish Constabulary, Dublin Metropolitan Police, plots for homeless people with nowhere else to buried and plots for people who donate their bodies to science.

“People may not always be aware of exactly what is in front of them when they’re here, and that’s what we’re trying to fill people in on this tour,” Dodd said.

John Bannon is buried in the Jesuit plot and, during the American Civil War, was known as the Confederate Fighting Priest.

16195684_1280654088645004_4771828641146610766_n Source: Glasnevin Cemetery via Facebook

Born in Roscommon, he became a Jesuit and moved to St Louis in Missouri. During the civil war he became a chaplain with a Missouri artillery regiment.

“Away from the issue of slavery, [Bannon] saw the war as a much more non-Christian, commercial capitalist type of north imposing their views on a much simpler, agrarian south,” Dodd explained.

He was present at a number of battles, including the battle of Elkhorn Tavern, where he started fighting despite it being something “he wasn’t supposed to do”.

Captured, and later released, he was sent to Ireland to try and stop Irish people from emigrating to the US.

They were coming off the boat in New York and being enlisted to fight for the union straight away.

He stayed in his home country following the war and died in Ireland.

6. The Irish priest at Bergen-Belsen

Father Michael Morrison was born in Listowel, Co Kerry, in 1908. He became a Jesuit and chaplain and served with the British Army in north Africa before joining the ranks in Europe.

Dodd explained: “He was present at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He witnesses the worst of the worst.

It was built for 10,000 people. When Father Morrison arrived, there were 60,000 people there and 13,000 unburied dead bodies. He writes home and he talks about it.

“It affected him for the rest of his life. He never quite got over it.”

BACK TO BELSEN Official British photo of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after liberation Source: AP/Press Association Images

Here’s what Morrison wrote in his letters home:

What we saw within the first few days is utterly beyond description…people crawling on their hands and knees because they have not got the strength to walk, or see them drag themselves along until they fell in the gutters to remain there, was ‘harrowing’.The majority of these people were too weak to leave their beds, so perhaps you get just a faint idea of the atmosphere… The work has been physically the most revolting that I have been called on to do, but it has also been the most consoling.

This selection is just over a handful of the stories being told on the Dead Interesting tour, which kicks off tomorrow at Glasnevin Cemetery.

Read: ‘It’s more about life than death’ – Behind the scenes at Glasnevin Cemetery

Read: ‘What I’ve learned from working in a crematorium for 33 years’

About the author:

Sean Murray

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