Almost as soon as the new cemetery opened the ghoulish practice of graverobbing began. Medical colleges were growing in size and importance but, thanks to earlier laws, only the bodies of unbaptised infants and hanged criminals were allowed to be used for dissection. People, especially the poor, tended to be buried soon after death in those days. No sooner were their remains interred, and with the approach of darkness, shadowy figures climbed over walls and set about their grim work. They dug up the loose earth around the heads of those most recently buried and dragged out the corpse by placing a hook under the chin. Quickly placing the body in a sack they scarpered out of the cemetery and galloped away as quickly as they could, often pursued by armed night watchmen and vicious Cuban bloodhound dogs. No questions were asked at the receiving door of the medical colleges and the appropriate fee was handed over. When the Anatomy Law, allowing dissection of officially donated bodies, was passed in 1832 it put an end to this dreadful practice. The high walls and watchtowers still standing around Glasnevin date from this time.
Many illustrious personages, especially those associated with a resurgent Ireland or yearning for independence from England, made their last journey to Glasnevin, sometimes accompanied by massive crowds. They included politicians (including O’Connell), churchmen, magistrates, poets, writers, artists, singers, industrialists, revolutionaries and soldiers from all sides of conflict. Burials were often used as occasions for displays of dignified civil protest and even once for the official ‘launch’ of the 1916. Rising! Now associates, competitors and former enemies all lie together in equality and peace.
Of course, there were the forgotten and the ignored. Tens of thousands were buried in mass graves –those who died in the cholera outbreaks, during famines and from smallpox outbreaks. Throngs of the underprivileged were buried in the ‘poor ground’. A disgrace of times past was when up to 50,000 unbaptised babies, usually stillborn, were anonymously buried in what is now honoured as the Angels’ Memory Garden.
If you normally see cemeteries as Dickensian, haunted or places of decay you will be surprised at the pristine condition of Glasnevin. Huge restoration of its thousands of monuments, some spectacular; has been undertaken and there is also an incredible museum where you can even trace your family history.