Over the last years, Glasnevin Cemetery has been transformed into a more visitor-friendly place on many levels. The access roads in the burial ground have been much improved, many crumbling and downright dangerous monuments have been fixed and others have been relocated. The newest addition was a purpose-built museum complex, modern and yet not overpowering, offering decent visitor facilities for the first time since the cemetery was opened. The necropolis reinvented as a tourist attraction ...
Changing Times at Glasnevin Cemetery
A few years ago, a visit to Glasnevin Cemetery was very much a self-guided, often confusing experience. Signposting wasn't all that good (even on the road to the cemetery), the sprawling acres of burial plots seemed to fall into serious disrepair at an alarming rate and finding individual graves was a lesson in research and navigation. Not always successful. And with a twisted ankle on some occasions. Yet people came. Not only to bury and mourn their dead (the cemetery is still active and growing), but also to see a slice of Irish history and culture.
What better idea than to supplement the costs of running Glasnevin Cemetery by transforming it, subtly and without detracting from its original purpose, into a tourist attraction?
The Glasnevin Trust tackled this task admirably and the result is obvious. A modern building organically fits in the road frontage as part of the outside walls, it provides a museum, interactive displays, archives, a café and a souvenir shop ... and also a great view of the burial grounds from the upper floor. Also provided are tours of the cemetery, helping you to locate (and interpret) most of the highlight. Plus a daily recreation of Padraig Pearse's oration at the grave of Jeremiah O'Donovan-Rossa ...
The best news - all this is optional! You can still visit Glasnevin Cemetery at your heart's content for free (though parking incurs a charge now, even on the public road), entry fees are for the museum and/or tour only (and are a "fiver" for both combined on Fridays, a bargain).
The Glasnevin Cemetery Museum - A Great Introduction
Many visitors will come to Glasnevin Cemetery because some great names are found on gravestones here - from the Big Fellow Michael Collins to the Long Fellow Eamon de Valera, from O'Connell to Parnell, from Roger Casement to Brendan Behan and Luke Kelly (who, by the way, does not rest in the main cemetery). These visitors will more than often not know the historical context which made Glasnevin Cemetery so important. And, unfortunately, unless having well prepared their visit, they will be left stumbling about somewhat aimlessly.
The new museum helps - it gives you a potted history of Glasnevin Cemetery in the basement. Complete with loads of interactive and audiovisual displays, life-size grave-digging (immediately followed by grave-robbing in a rather drastic style). This is all done in a slightly morbid, yet tasteful way. Seats in the small theatre are actually coffins, there is a skull leering up at you between the footboards, a rat scampers across a body about to be "resurrected" (for medical purposes only). I liked it, kids will love it, some more sensitive souls may take exception.
What you can't take exception with is the highly informative display on funeral culture in different ages and contexts - educational, interesting, but for many people maybe too specialised and not worth the effort of reading it all.
On the upper level displays continue. You learn about Daniel O'Connell, "the Liberator" (who invested a lot of energy into creating Glasnevin Cemetery as part of his campaigns), you can delve into genealogical research, you find out about the changing styles of grave ornamentation (along a glass front that provides a superb view of the cemetery) and you can explore timelines and connections between well-known "inhabitants" of Glasnevin Cemetery on a massive, multi-screen installation. The latter is worth the entrance fee alone, I felt, but then again I was the only visitor perusing it at the time and had the full freedom of it ... in a more crowded context the impact might be lost ... and you will need time to enjoy it.
The tours of the cemetery are educational and interesting, but you might want to explore for yourself and at your leisure. A free map highlights the most important graves, further literature is available for a fee. Anybody who has no firm grounding in Irish history should maybe take the tour just to make sense of it all. And also to see the inside of the crypt where Daniel O'Connell rests beneath a massive, over-sized round tower.
Fitting Glasnevin Cemetery Into Your Travel Plans
If you like visiting graveyards and are an aficionado of funerary culture, Glasnevin Cemetery is a must when staying in Dublin. Though it is out of the way (you need to take a bus or taxi, the walk from the city centre is long and uninspiring), it is worth the detour (and you may take in the neighbouring Botanical Gardens as well, while you are here). Also highly recommended for all history buffs.
Always remember that Dublin has a number of interesting cemeteries scattered throughout the area, but Glasnevin is, without doubt, the most important.
If you wish, you can make your way back to the city centre along the banks of the Royal Canal, encountering Brendan Behan (just past his home away from home, Mountjoy Prison) and passing the massive Croke Park stadium.