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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Hidden Ireland

Hidden Ireland: The capital’s oldest graveyard

Tales of grave robbing, boxing fights and destroyed high crosses are all shared during a visit to Bully’s Acre, which is normally closed to the public.

BEHIND A BLACK gate off the entranceway to the expansive grounds of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham – now the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) – lies a large, green field that is home to Dublin’s oldest cemetery.

Final resting place

At first glance, the uneven ground and large trees distract from the headstones, many of which are broken, or partially sunken into the ground. Walk down a track to the right of the field and you’ll find yourself in the privates’ burial ground, with its rows and rows of graves lying like broken teeth.

The front row holds large headstones, each declaring the origin of the person whose final resting place is beneath them. Many of these are men who spent their final years in the Royal Hospital, which was founded in 1684 by James Butler, Duke of Ormonde and Viceroy to Charles II, as a retirement home for soldiers who had served in the British army.

In the first part of this field is a large, dappled grey headstone which was erected by the Dublin Corporation to honour those who were buried in the Bully’s Acre area in the “distant past”. Bully’s Acre, next to the privates’ graveyard, was where Dubliners were brought to be buried, and the 3.7 acre site is hidden behind a tall stone wall and locked gate. Across the path from it is situated the officers’ graveyard; it too is locked and inaccessible to the public.

Together, the three sites give a glimpse into life in that area over hundreds of years, as the remains of ordinary people of Dublin lie alongside those of soldiers, criminals and celebrities.

Paul O'Brien. Pic: Aoife Barry/

These sites are usually not open to the public, but thanks to Paul O'Brien of the Office of Public Works (OPW), a military historian with a passion for Irish history, the story of these remarkable cemeteries can finally be told.

Last Sunday, he brought a number of people - including history enthusiasts and experts on Ireland's headstones - to this historic spot.

Bully's Acre

This is the largest of the three cemeteries, and as O'Brien explained as he led us through the site, was originally the location of a priory established soon after the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem arrived in Ireland in 1174.  Before this, it was the site of a religious settlement that St Maignenn set up (the name Kilmainham has its origins in 'Cill Maignenn', or Church of Maignenn).

In 1540, the priory was closed down after the reformation of Henry VIII and the lands were vested in the Crown, before becoming the site of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham. The cemetery was kept, and there lie the remains of hundreds of thousands of people, who were buried there for practical reasons: because it was hallowed ground, and because it was free.

The graveyard was at one time known as the Hospital Fields, but soon picked up the moniker Bully's Acre. O'Brien explained that this could be because Bully is a corruption of the word for 'bailiff' or 'baily', which was what the officials of the priory at Kilmainham were called, or else it came from the cemetery being used for boxing fights, a popular sport at the time.

The site wasn't always quiet or controversy-free: In 1737, officers stationed at the Royal Hospital complained about the large numbers of people who would visit there, as well as those visiting the nearby St John's Well. Public burials were banned in 1755 at Bully's Acre, and high walls were built around the graveyard. Gravestones were levelled, and a prominent high cross bore the brunt of this, being damaged in the act.

However, public outcry led to locals visiting the graveyard en masse, and tearing down the walls to make it accessible. In 1795, damage done to the graveyard was restored with funds from the Grand County Jury, and the shaft of the damaged cross was re-erected.

Today, it is no longer used as a graveyard, and the sprinkling of headstones gives no hint that there are thousands of bodies buried within the uneven land.

Officers' Graveyard

The Officers' Graveyard. Pic: Aoife Barry/

Across the path from Bully's Acre lies this cemetery.  This is where the higher ranking army officers were buried, and along with their bodies lie the remains of some of their family members. From the Bishops to the Dawbneys, the Crosbies to the Penderys, each grave tells a tale.

Some have heartbreaking inscriptions - "deposited here [are] the mortal remains of her sisters Anne and Ellen and her brother Samuel, all of whom died before their parents", "Erected by his widow in testimony of his great worth as a husband, father and friend" - while others outline the person's role in the Royal Hospital.

Here lieth the body of John Chapman, master of works to the Royal Hospital, which place he and his father held upwards of 60 years.
In loving memory of Captain William Strickland McGill, late 79th Cameron Highlanders, with which regiment he served throughout the campaigns of the Crimea and Indian Mutiny.

The prominent, sturdy headstones in this particular graveyard (some of which were specially constructed so that grave robbers couldn't access them) lie in marked contrast to the invisible paupers' graves across in Bully's Acre. The social divide between those who worked and lived at the Royal Hospital of Kilmainham and the Kilmainham locals is visible even in death.

Grave Robbing

Grave robbing might seem like the stuff of horror films, but back in the 18th century it was a remarkably common activity, and in one way actually contributed towards the evolution of medicine and surgery.

It was only legal for surgeons to carry out anatomies on the bodies of convicted murderers who were hung for their crimes - but as these usually numbered only around 20 or 30 a year, this wasn't enough to satisfy the need of the medical experts (who would perform autopsies to educate their students as well as learn more about the human body).

Grave robbing brought body snatchers money, while surgeons could charge money to people who wanted to watch a dissection.

O'Brien explained - while showing us a wooden shovel and sack like grave robbers used - that bodies weren't buried 6ft under in the 1800s as they are now, so opening a grave and taking a body out of a coffin (and the shroud that covered them, which was discarded) using a hook was not that difficult.

Those who couldn't take bodies sometimes took teeth, which were also valuable. The rate of body snatching declined after the Anatomy Act of 1832 was introduced, which stated that unclaimed bodies from workhouses could be used for dissection.

Well-known people buried there

There were many well-known people who were buried at Bully's Acre, and some who were buried and then removed. Robert Emmet was buried there in 1803 after being killed on Thomas St, but soon after this, his body was removed and buried in another unknown location. His final resting place is still unknown.

The famous Irish boxer Dan Donnelly was also buried there for a time, following his death in 1820. But his corpse was removed by medical students - and only returned, after public outcry, once an arm had been removed.

Pic: Aoife Barry/

The bodies of British soldiers who fought during the Rising of 1916 are also buried in the privates' graveyard, as is a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, who was shot dead by Irish Volunteer Commandant Eamonn Ceannt in the area of St James' Hospital during the Rising.

The youngest person buried there - in the officers' graveyard - was named Adeline Sabine Banks, the 'darling child of Langrishe Fyers and Anne Sabine Banks', who died at just 20 months.

Her grave carries this message to accompany her to the next life:  "Peace little loving sleeper/Close to thy saviour side/Rest with thy tender keeper/safe for the Lord has died."

Pic: Aoife Barry/


Bully's Acre closed to the public following the cholera epidemic of 1832, though some burials took place until 1835. When Glasnevin Cemetery was established, this became the main graveyard for Dublin.

Once the Royal Hospital was handed over to the Irish Free State in 1922, said O'Brien, Bully's Acre "became neglected and forgotten", though the officers' burial ground was used until 1954.

Though the headstones are sparse, there are thousands of bodies buried in Bully's Acre, people of all walks of life who shared a common resting place. Though some parts have been vandalised - notably the small graveyard housing some of the British Army soldiers - Bully's Acre remains peaceful and quiet despite being near major roads and Heuston station.

Now that people such as Paul O'Brien and the OPW are there to help bring the area's hidden history to the public, it is possible to take a guided tour of these graveyards, and get a glimpse into the not-too-distant past.

Additional information from Bully's Acre: Dublin's Oldest Cemetery, by Paul O'Brien.

Hidden Ireland: The capital’s oldest graveyard
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  • The officers' graveyard

  • Corporation stone

  • In the privates' graveyard

  • In the privates' graveyard

  • In the privates' graveyard

  • In the privates' graveyard

  • In the officers' graveyard

  • Broken headstone in the privates' graveyard

  • Paul O'Brien with the damaged high cross

  • A grave in the officers' graveyard

  • The officers' graveyard

  • Inside the officers' graveyard

  • The entrance lock to the officers' graveyard

  • In the officers' graveyard

  • Bully's Acre

  • Broken headstone in the privates' graveyard

  • The officers' graveyard

  • Gravestone in the officers' graveyard

  • Bully's Acre

  • Bully's Acre

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