February 17, 2019

Overseas and Off-Campus Programs Blog

Grave Robbing at Glasnevin Cemetery

Author Name

Hannah Meggitt-Nxumalo

Author Program

Ireland: Social Sciences

Program Semester and Year

Spring 2019

Student Major


The 124-acre plot of Glasnevin Cemetery is the final resting place for approximately 1.5 million people (just for reference, the current population of Dublin is 1.3 million). From the outside, the cemetery looks like a fortress, it is surrounded by a large stone wall and seven imposing watch towers. In the years after it was built, the cemetery would also have had several mobile watch towers that could be positioned around newly dug graves. As our tour guide explained, these served to deter grave robbing. which was quite popular at the time. Grave robbing was something of a family business, the mother would be charged with keeping watch while the father dug a hole and the child climbed down into the grave to tie a rope around the body so that it could be pulled up. The popularity of grave robbing around Ireland was due to the fact that bodies could be sold to medical schools here of exported and sold to schools in England and Scotland for a considerable amount. One night of grave robbing could support a family for up to two months. 

Our tour guide told the folk tale of two men who attempted to rob the grave of the recently deceased Marjorie McCall. Once they had retrieved the body they heard people approaching and knew they couldn’t get away with the body. They had noticed a large ring on her finger and decided to take the ring and leave the body, unfortunately the ring was stuck so they had to cut off her finger to get it off. As they cut her finger Marjorie awoke from a coma, the robbers fled in shock, and Marjorie proceeded to walk home (where her funeral was being held). There is still debate as to the accuracy of this story, but you can still visit her grave today in County Armagh, Northern Ireland where her head stone reads “Marjorie McCall; Lived once, buried twice”.

Some of the most prominent figures in Irish History are buried at Glasnevin, including major figures of the Easter 1916 rising, the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. We visited a number of these on our tour. Our first stop was the 180 foot round tower that tops the crypt of Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847). O’Connell is celebrated for his commitment to an ending British rule in Ireland and emancipating the Catholic people. Upon his death every effort was taken to honor his last words, “my body to Ireland, my heart to Rome, my soul to God”. The first and last statements were the easiest to honor; he was buried in Dublin and all anyone could do about his soul was to say their prayers for him. His second statement was taken quite literally and his heart was cut out and sent to the Irish School of Rome in an ornate silver casket. It was kept there until 1920s when the school moved, and the building became a bank. The casket was accidentally left behind and by the time the mistake was realized and a young priest was sent back to retrieve it, the casket had gone missing and it has not been seen since.

The second stop on our tour was the grave of Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1890), an Irish nationalist politician and leader the Home Rule League which aimed to establish legislative independence for Ireland. Parnell’s dying wish was to be buried with the people of Dublin. In accordance with this, he is buried with approximately 11,000 Dubliners that died of cholera. Another example of how last words can been taken a little too literally.

The final stop on our tour of Glasnevin was the grave if Michael Collins (1890-1922). Collins was one of the most influential figures in the Irish struggle for independence. He was one of the members if the first Irish Parliament (Dáil Éireann) and one of the signatories of the 1922 Declaration of Independence. There are always fresh flowers on Collins’ grave, all given by members of the public that want to pay they’re respects. Our tour guide pointed some of the people who regularly send flowers. One of these is a French woman named Veronique who travels to Ireland and visits the cemetery about four times a year. Another is an anonymous person, known only as “The Yank” that regularly sends flowers topped with an American flag.