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Glasnevin Cemetery: A case study of the use of cemeteries in the teaching and discussion of conflict history

Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin is Ireland’s largest cemetery with over 1.5 million burials. Its interments represent and reflect the multifaceted history of the city and Ireland but it is also steeped in political meaning and significance. Its foundation in 1832 was in its own right a form of political activism by Daniel O’Connell, the Catholic Association and its supporters in the midst of the Penal Laws and restrictions in relation to Catholic burial rights. Glasnevin later became particularly well-known as a place of burial for those associated with the physical force republican and nationalist movements of the 20th century, particularly the 1916 Rising, War of Independence and Civil War. The prominence of those well-known figures buried here resulted in a distortion of public perception and knowledge in relation to the cemetery. The truth was that those interred alongside one another came from a diverse range of political and ideological viewpoints.


This paper proposes to discuss the background of Glasnevin Cemetery to place in context the journey that the cemetery and its committee have embarked upon over the past decade. The construction of a museum on the cemetery grounds and the introduction of formalised guided tours in 2010 was followed by significant interest from, and engagement with, primary and second level schools who particularly valued the ways in which tours could be linked to curricula while engaging children through the use of personal biographies, case studies and tangible connections to the past. The number of educational visitors rose to some 20,000 annually and with this came a significant responsibility on the part of the cemetery to ensure that information relating to contentious aspects of Ireland’s past was disseminated in an impartial manner and that visitors had the opportunity to view these events from a multiplicity of perspectives. This has also led to the introduction, this year, of a programme Engaging with Our Past, Exploring Multiple Narratives, in collaboration with Trinity College Dublin and Marino Institute of Education (teacher training college), which supports teachers and students in the learning of these events. Also of importance has been a commemorative programme that has hosted and facilitated a wide variety of commemorations associated with Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries using these as a platform to inform the public generally about the diversity of Glasnevin’s past.


The story of Glasnevin shows how cemeteries can be used to give a tangible link to the past and facilitate educational initiatives in post-conflict societies that go beyond over simplified interpretations of history and encourage empathy, understanding and engagement with various perspectives while imparting upon visitors the realities of conflict and war.