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a living history

'It’s more about life than death' - Behind the scenes at Glasnevin Cemetery

Historian Conor Dodd talks to us about the enduring appeal of the place where 1.5 million people have been laid to rest.
IT’S ONE OF those places that kind of has a neverending story … there’s so much history and there are so many individual stories here.

IMG_6505 Órla Ryan / Órla Ryan / /

Conor Dodd is a historian at Glasnevin Cemetery – the iconic Dublin graveyard and crematorium that is the final resting place for about 1.5 million people.

IMG_6491 Conor Dodd Órla Ryan / Órla Ryan / /

Many of the veterans of the Easter Rising are buried here – as are many of the civilians who were killed at that time.

The cemetery will mark the centenary of the Rising with a series of events in 2016.

Dodd acknowledges the famous names associated with 1916 make up “a big part of the history” of the cemetery, but that the place is about much more than household names.

IMG_6599 Michael Collins' grave Órla Ryan / Órla Ryan / /

“We’ve a lot of famous figures here, whether it’s Collins or Parnell or Daniel O’Connell or any of those kind of characters, but essentially the ethos is built on what the cemetery originally was – in the sense that everybody is equal. Every story is just as important as the famous figures.”


The cemetery is currently in the process of restoring headstones and monuments that have been damaged over the years. The process was originally planned to take place from 2006-2016, but was delayed when the recession affected the finances available.

IMG_6474 Órla Ryan / Órla Ryan / /

Despite this setback, Conor says “huge leaps forward” have been made in this regard.

He notes that many people visit the cemetery to trace their ancestry, while a new generation of people are learning about its historical significance through tours and exhibitions.

Cremations and crypts

Conor says that by walking around the grounds people realise how “incredible” a place the cemetery truly is. He says people are fascinated by the amount of historical figures buried in such a small area in the Republican plot.

'It’s more about life than death' - Behind the scenes at Glasnevin Cemetery
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  • Daniel O'Connell's crypt

    Source: Órla Ryan/
  • Daniel O'Connell's crypt

    Source: Órla Ryan/
  • Daniel O'Connell's crypt

    Source: Órla Ryan/

He adds that the crypts “take people aback a little” as this type of burial is no longer very common.

“In the future we may well look back at burial as being an unusual form of funeral.”

Conor notes that cremation has become “much, much more popular” in recent years, especially in Dublin. “It’s overtaking burial in many ways.”

IMG_6525 Órla Ryan / Órla Ryan / /

Despite the rise in popularity of cremation, Conor thinks that graveyards will always have a place in society as the idea of coming to a cemetery to say goodbye is “embedded in us”.

People do like that connection to a cemetery, it’s something about the closure.

Glasnevin Trust runs several cemeteries and is the largest provider of funeral services in Ireland – carrying out about 2,500 burials and 1,300 cremations each year.

IMG_6472 A gravestone where a husband is chastising his wife over her drinking. Órla Ryan / Órla Ryan / /

There are people of all faiths and none buried at Glasnevin Cemetery, as per the mission statement handed down from when Daniel O’Connell set up the trust in 1828.

‘It’s not morbid’

Conor notes that the decision to make the cemetery non-denominational almost 200 years ago was “quite an unusual idea” and “a big deal” at the time.

IMG_6534 Órla Ryan / Órla Ryan / /

The historian notes that while some people view his job as morbid, he doesn’t agree.

You probably have to experience it to realise what it’s about – it’s more about life than death to be honest with you, the lives that people had. It’s not really that morbid idea of, you know, we’re only kind of into the grim idea of death.
Certainly that’s a big part of the story of the cemetery and what it’s about. It’s something that we all have to consider. It’s a fact of life – death goes hand-in-hand with it. But it’s that idea of looking back on those memories and stories and keeping those people alive and you feel that you do have a duty in some ways to tell those stories. That’s a huge part of what we do.

When the time comes, Conor would like to be buried here.

“Most people probably may look at it and say ‘Jesus, I wouldn’t fancy spending the rest of my days in my workplace’, but I’d be happy enough to end up here at some stage … hopefully it’s a while away.”

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

Read: This is how Ireland’s new crematorium will look

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