Glasnevin Cemetery (Reilig Ghlas Naíon) is a famous Irish graveyard on Dublin’s northside, on the south bank of the Tolca river and not far from the Royal Canal and Mountjoy Jail. As well as those of other people of great fame and none, it contains the remains of the fallen in a number of battles. However, the cemetery itself has become something of a battleground of late.
There was the Alan Ryan funeral around this time last year, early September 2013. Ryan had been a prominent member of the 32-County Sovereignty Movement and allegedly head of the Dublin Real IRA (also now known as “the New IRA”) and was shot dead, reportedly as a result of a conflict with drug dealers.
Ryan’s funeral was a massive affair attended by hundreds of mourners; the Irish state police, the Gardaí, policed it heavily. The hearse and cortege were temporarily stopped at the cemetery’s entrance by uniformed and plainclothed police while the grieving mother and family members were taken out of their car, which was searched. Scuffles with police broke out a number of times as the latter even penetrated to Ryan’s graveside.
More recently, on 31st March this year, a commemoration in Glasnevin of soldiers of the British Commonwealth who had been killed in the First World War attracted a smallish protest from Irish Republicans and socialists across the road from the cemetery’s gates. These commemorations are viewed by Irish Republicans and many socialists as events glorifying Britain’s part in WWI and also an attempt to build unity between Irish people and the British Armed Forces. The Commonwealth event, the unveiling of a “Cross of Sacrifice”, was attended by a member of the British Royal Family, which added metaphorical fuel to the fire. However, there were real flames as a British Union flag, brought by the protesters, was set alight and Gardaí Special Branch rushed to apprehend the burners. In the melee, a number of protesters were handled roughly by the police, some were pepper-sprayed and one was handcuffed and taken away by Gardaí, reportedly beaten on the way. Another who objected to being jostled by Gardaí was also promptly arrested.
Most recent of all was the Hunger Strikers’ Commemoration in the Republican Plot inside the cemetery on 23 August. The event was organised by the Sean Heuston 1916 Society to honour the 22 Irish Republicans who have died on hunger strike between 1917 and 1981. The 1916 Societies is a broad collection of organisations of Irish Republicans in different localities who do not agree with the Good Friday Agreement and wish to see Ireland united and independent; one of their main objectives in the interim is to campaign for a referendum on the question of Irish unity. The commemoration was the second of its kind organised by the Sean Heuston 1916 Society and, as the previous year’s had passed without any untoward incident other than the usual Special Branch photographing and taking notes, they had no reason to believe that this year’s would be any different.
The event proceeded as planned with orations, song and laying of wreaths but the trouble came as people tried to leave the cemetery. They were waylaid inside the cemetery’s gates by plainclothes police of the Special Branch, i.e. the political police, and told to identify themselves and to give their addresses. Two who refused to do so unless they were shown reasonable cause were handcuffed and bundled into separate police vehicles. Others who had attended the event then blocked the police vehicles from leaving and many uniformed Gardaí arrived to assist the Special Branch. In the struggle, police were again quite rough and one punched a child in the face. Eventually the Gardaí were successful but both detained men were released later that day without charge.
Many visitors and unconnected mourners attending the famous cemetery were visibly shocked by the incidents. The organisers made it clear to the staff of the cemetery who it was who had initiated the disturbance and had chosen to do so inside the cemetery grounds.
Apart from general harassment and attempted intimidation of Irish Republicans, it is difficult to see what the Gardaí hoped to gain from this provocation and why they had escalated their behaviour at a peaceful commemoration. `One possibility is that the intention was to discourage the management of the Cemetery from permitting such commemorations in future. The organisers moved quickly to call a meeting with the Cemetery management, which has already taken place and reportedly concluded positively. And so it should.
The Republican Plot, managed by the National Graves Association, a voluntary body which does great work, is within the Cemetery. The graves of many Irish Republican and Socialist martyrs and prominent activists are within this plot and also in other places within the grounds. Some, like the great hero Anne Devlin, go back as far as the United Irish of 1798 and of 1803. James Connolly gave the oration here in 1913 at the graveside of the ITGWU martyr Jame Byrne, a victim of the State during the Lockout that year.
In 1915, Patrick Pearse gave his famous oration to a huge crowd at the Glasnevin graveside of the Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, whose body had been returned to Ireland by the IRB in the USA. O’Donovan Rossa had been jailed for planning an insurrection against the British in 1865 and, though released in 1870 as part of a general amnesty, had to agree to emigrate. In 1922, Cathal Brugha, having survived 14 bullet wounds during the 1916 Rising, was killed in O’Connell Street by Free State Army soldiers and his funeral cortege too, also to Glasnevin Cemetery, was a huge affair. In 1966, the remains of Roger Casement, hanged by the British for his role in the 1916 uprising (the last of the death sentences of the 1916 insurgents to be carried out), were brought home from England and reinterred in Glasnevin with an Irish state ceremony.
These historic moments and connections between Glasnevin Cemetery and the national and class struggles may be uncomfortable for some and the police harassment may be intended to deepen that discomfort. However, it is difficult to see how anyone, whether of State or of Cemetery management, could successfully impose a ban on commemorations within this famous graveyard where so many of the Republicans and Socialists of previous years lie and which has been the scene of commemorations for over a century.