#DatesWithDublin #4 – Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum

As part of my ever more enjoyable Dates With Dublin series, I’d planned to take a trip out to Glasnevin Cemetery last Saturday for a wander through the mausoleums and a mooch around the museum. I’d heard that the Glasnevin Trust have been doing some pretty amazing work developing the museum, as well as repairing and maintaining the vast cemetery in Dublin 11 – Ireland’s largest, by far and was looking forward to an afternoon hanging out with a bunch of the least argumentative people you could possibly encounter.

As chance, coincidence and plain old good luck would have it, I received an email from the lovely Darragh Doyle on Friday afternoon, inviting me along on a blogger’s tour of… you’ve guessed it, Glasnevin Cemetery, courtesy of the folks at Slattery Communications. I didn’t need to be asked twice, and at 12pm on Saturday, I found myself ensconced in the boardroom at Glasnevin Cemetery Museum, chowing down on sambos with the crème de la crème of Dublin’s bloggers, tweeters, and PR people learning the story of Glasnevin. From a personal point of view (and I know this is weird), death and funerals fascinate me. I find the traditions and the rituals around death interesting, particularly in Ireland, and I was looking forward to finding out a bit more about them from the experts.

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I know I won’t do justice to the national treasure that is Glasnevin Cemetery in this short blog post. I couldn’t.  You need to go and see it for yourself.  If you haven’t been, organise a trip, or hop on a bus and just go.  But I will tell you that while it’s not your regular tourist attraction, it’s a fascinating way of passing a half a day. Even if you’re not as big a fan of dead people as I am.

Our day started with a bit of background from Tipperary-born Mervyn Colville, who filled us in on the history of the cemetery, and about the work the Trust does. Mervyn was riveting – the story of Glasnevin is fascinating, and his passion for the job shone through with every word. Mervyn was ably assisted by resident historian and mine of information Shane MacThomáis (who later brought us on a tour of the treasures), and social media guru Luke Portess, who’s responsible for creative marketing and communications. Luke is doing excellent job of engaging with the public via contemporary media (you can follow the cemetery and museum on twitter and Instagram) and is one of the team responsible for the cemetery’s quirky new marketing campaign which, in a theme that consistently emerged throughout the day, is all about the people. Watch out for it

Glasnevin Cemetery

What it says on the tin

Some of the more fascinating facts about Glasnevin, in a nutshell:

  • There are 1.5 million people buried in the cemetery. That, my friends, is more people underground in Glasnevin than are over ground in the whole of Dublin City. Impressive, huh? And it’s still filling up rapidly, necessitating the formulation of contingency plans, before the cemetery runs out of space.
  • The first funeral in Glasnevin was that of eleven year-old Michael Carey, on 22 February, 1832. He wasn’t alone for very long.
  • There are approximately 200,000 gravestones in the cemetery. Many, before restoration began, were in a state of disrepair – cracked, sinking etc. About 60% of them have now been restored.
Repaired gravestones in Glasnevin Cemetery

Repaired gravestones in Glasnevin Cemetery

  • Glasnevin was the first cemetery in Ireland to blaze a trail (sorry) and open a crematorium. There are still only four in Ireland, though the number of people opting for cremations is steadily growing year on year. Pacemakers and artificial hips are not suitable for cremation – the former can explode, and the latter, well, nothing happens to them. Just so you know.
  •  Interestingly, there is no regulation governing cremation in Ireland at present. None.
  • There are, however, regulations in place in Glasnevin now regarding the type and size of headstone you can add to a grave, and the message you can write on it. This is to avoid political and overly personal messages. You can, however, use whatever font you like. No-one’s opted for Comic Sans … yet.
  • The cemetery is non-denominational – basically no matter what your religion, you’re welcome here. A cemetery “for all religions and none”.
  • There are watchtowers located around the cemetery, built to deter bodysnatchers. (Rumour has it that back in the day, Prime Minister Robet Peel, upon the subject of the body-snatchers, was heard to proclaim that it was “indeed, a grave matter”.)
  • There are many, many famous people buried in Glasnevin. Writers, politicians, characters from Ulysses – you name it, Glasnevin is home to them. On our short tour we “met” Michael Collins (and Kitty Kiernan, buried within a respectable distance), Eamon de Valera, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jim Larkin, Maude Gonne, Brendan Behan and Sir Roger Casement among others. And of course, Daniel O’Connell.
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Shane Mac Thomáis emulating Big Jim Larkin

  • Daniel O’Connell’s family tomb is located under a huge round tower monument that took 8 years to build, but was bombed by Loyalists in 1972, destroying the staircase and with it a spectacular view of the city. The plan is to rebuild the staircase in time and restore this unique and historic vantage point. O’Connell’s enormous coffin is placed within a tomb, through which you can see it, and reach in and touch it. Wow. In a separate room is the “family stack” where the lead-lined coffins of O’Connell’s family are piled up, almost carelessly, close to the great man himself.

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The great man’s great big coffin

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The O’Connell Family Stack

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Tantalising view of the top

There are at least a million more things to tell you about Glasnevin (probably 1.5 million, given that every body has its own story). You might say death is a great equaliser, but from the mass pauper graves homing the thousands of people who could not afford decent burials or died during epidemics, to the Angels plot, to the extravagant, ornate carvings which adorn the resting places of Dublin’s wealthy, all human life is here. The museum in particular is a poignant, yet powerful monument to the people within Glasnevin (who at all times remain the focus), telling as it does the stories of many who lie within the plots. The glass wall displaying symbols of the lives of a select few serve as a striking reminder of the purpose this place serves.

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Just one of the many stories of Glasnevin Cemetery

What struck me throughout our day with the team was the respect and sensitivity with which they spoke and with which they treat their surroundings – all are evidently keenly aware that the position they hold is one that brings with it great responsibility in terms of  maintaining, repairing, developing and marketing the cemetery, particularly given the need for greater commercialisation in order to generate funds for maintenance. I got the sense that every decision is debated, dissected and considered carefully, which is reassuring given the amount of stakeholders – dead and alive – who are potentially affected. Shane, in particular, you feel, has walked every inch of this ground hundreds of times and knows it intimately, and this very charismatic, warm and witty man’s affection for the place shone through in every word.  In what is becoming one of Ireland’s busiest tourist attractions, there is, oddly, a wonderful sense of calm and beauty, particularly in the older, green areas among the cemetery’s oldest residents.

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Tranquility for Taphophiles

The Glasnevin Trust has many more plans for the future. As well as restoring the O’Connell monument, there are still thousands of graves to be repaired and a memorial wall containing the names of all the dead from 1914-22 is being mooted. The cemetery lies a little bit away from the tourist trail, on the northside but is very easily accessible via public transport or you can drive and park. Hop on a bus or your bike and go! There’s a shop, café, all the information you can possibly consume, a genealogy centre and a myriad of guided tours and events in the pipeline. I really can’t encourage you enough to go see this piece of our history.

And go visit the Gravediggers afterwards. The hype is indeed true, and the pint I had there afterwards with my new blogging buddies was indeed one of the finest I have tasted above ground in Dublin. A fine end to a fine day.

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Thirsty tourists

Thanks to all at Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum, and the good people at Slattery Communications for the invitation – it was a pleasure to partake.

Bigotry, intolerance and marriage equality – a reply to Breda O’Brien

So much has been said and written on the marriage equality debate of late that I was reluctant to add my voice to the melee. Mostly because those who have written and spoken have done so regularly and in far more articulate and comprehensive terms than I could possibly hope to do within the confines of a single blog post. Colm O’Gorman, for example, every time he speaks on the issue does sterling work in debunking myths. And this piece by Carol Hunt in today’s Sunday Independent says it so much better than I ever could. With biscuits. However, reading Breda O’Brien’s defence of the status quo in yesterday’s Irish Times left me so bewildered that I felt compelled to reply.

It’s fair to say that Breda’s ideology and my own beliefs do not normally correspond. However, no matter how disagreeable her beliefs to me, I can acknowledge that O’Brien is occasionally capable of making a sensible argument.  In fact, I roundly applauded her piece on suicide and alcohol, published in January this year. Which makes it all the more remarkable that such a meandering piece could possibly, in O’Brien’s mind, advance her own cause.

O’Brien writes in reply to a piece published by the same newspaper by Fintan O’Toole, which suggested that the arguments against marriage equality were so flimsy that they essentially amounted to bigotry. O’Brien’s response was to argue that these arguments were not bigotry; rather that liberals like O’Toole were blind to the merits of conservative values and arguments, which in essence suggest that appeals to the greater good (“even, in this case, a child-centred good”) trump those “liberal” values of equality, choice and fairness.

At least O’Brien is admitting that, at the very least, opposing marriage equality is unfair.

I don’t know where to begin in terms of pulling apart her arguments. Many of them speak for themselves. But while they have already been addressed comprehensively, point by point elsewhere, I’ll reply to a couple that jumped out at me.

Firstly, there’s the lazy invocation of the tired old “liberalism vs. conservatism” argument. As well as being patronising and reeking of moral superiority (the essence being that conservatives make deeper, more rational considerations and that the former does not understand the rationale of the latter’s arguments) it takes no cognisance of the fact that 75% of the population, who support legislating for marriage equality, are rather unlikely to all classify themselves as liberal. This is not – or should not – be an argument based on political ideology, and on why conservatism apparently trumps liberalism when it comes to the greater good. Rather, the essence of the pro-equality debate is to show that we, as a society, value all members equally, regardless of their sexual orientation. To reduce it to a mere ideological argument exposes the detachment of those at the heart of the opposing debate from why this is actually important. It’s one-dimensional and, I would go so far as to say, irrelevant.

“Thoughtful conservatives are not bigoted, or intellectually inferior, or vile: they just see the balance of values differently”, says O’Brien. Indeed. In fact, if I were a thoughtful conservative, I would be deeply embarrassed by the fact that O’Brien claims to represent conservatives on this issue. Indeed, You need only look to New Zealand to see that some conservatives are capable and willing to embrace positive change.

O’Brien also says she believes marriage is a solemn covenant. So do I. So, I would wager do many of those gay couples who take the massive step of standing in front of their family and friends, publicly declaring their love for each other, and indicating their intention to commit to each other in a partnership for the rest of their lives. Based on love, that commitment to me is a sacred one (though crucially, there is nothing saying it has to be either sacred or based on love).

O’Brien states, however, that “society has a major stake because it provides the most stable environment for bringing up children, a physical and spiritual expression of the couple’s love.” This is incorrect. Obviously – and this has been effectively addressed a thousand times – this definition glaringly excludes those marriages that do not have children. It also, with no justification, calls into question those families who successfully bring up children without being wed. Rather, I see society’s stake in marriage as essentially ensuring that the contract I enter into, of my own free will protects me and my partner  and my home – and any children we may have – should anything happen to either of us. This, in addition to how I personally view marriage. The fact remains that civil partnership does not extend the same protection to same-sex couples. And it should. So yes, marriage is a personal relationship, but this is precisely why the state should take an interest.

It’s also churlish and petty of the Catholic Church to try to blackmail the state by implying they will refuse to carry out civil ceremonies in tandem with Catholic ones, as they have always done. Sadly, it’s also disenfranchising no-one but their own practising members.

O’Brien insists, once again that a “child needs both a mother and a father”,  despite there not being a shred of citable evidence available in the public domain that suggests that children do not fare just as well with same-sex parents. She suggests that in times when these ideals are not met, people “usually do their very best, and most times, the child turns out fine”. What a thinly-veiled, patronising insult to one-parent families, for example, to suggest that their family unit is less valid or desirable or even potentially damning to a child than the two-parent mother and father ideal. How judgemental. Legislating for marriage equality does not, as O’Brien suggests in a further challenge to the credibility of her own argument, declare that having both a mother and a father has no intrinsic value. And anyone who would suggest so is guilty of some rather poor spin.

(Interestingly, no argument either for or against marriage equality I have seen takes cognisance of the fact that children are not solely raised within the home. Rather, many influencers of children during their formative years are outsiders – be this extended family, teachers, youth group leaders, or indeed those further afield like say, media figures. So, just like those who confirm to the “ideal” family unit, parents in same-sex partnerships are not entirely responsible for how their children turn out.)

O’Brien’s piece then descends into further farce as she ties herself up in knots over the use of language and makes bizarre references to fictional characters like Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Wonderland in an attempt to legitimise her argument. Language is powerful, she says. Yes indeed, Breda. Language is very, very powerful. And language that says clearly to members of our society that they are not – or indeed, should not be equal or entitled to the same legal rights as others is powerful AND damning.

The most worrying aspect of the fact that O’Brien and the Iona Institute are allowed apparently unfettered access to our national airwaves on an almost constant basis, despite, in this case a lack of any relevant qualification, raises questions about the media’s difficulty in attempting to find qualified dissenting voices. While I for one am perfectly happy to see the Iona Institute rolled out as frequently as possible, because no-one does a better job of undermining their own arguments than they do themselves, ultimately the loser is society. Arguments not rooted in fact only serve to disarm the legislative process and the poor quality of opposition debate contributes to a corresponding decline in quality of legislation.

Ultimately, and happily, we all know that change is on the way. Even old conservative Ireland is gradually recognising that legislating for marriage equality won’t stop the world from turning, and will not impact on them in any meaningful way unless they choose to avail of it. But they are realising that it will make a positive difference to the rights of others, in addition to telling them that we respect and value them and their love equally. And that day is not far away.

I’ll leave you with this – a humorous and emotional celebration of marriage equality and what it really means by –  you guessed it –  a conservative.

#Savita, abortion, and why no-one is ever right

The findings from the inquest of Savita Halappanavar in Galway this week make for grim reading. As the days pass, and snippets of information are fed through on TV, radio and social media, with each sorry revelation we are slowly piecing together a tragic chain events. We are hearing of failures – both human and systemic – of frustrations, of fears and of the story of the very avoidable death of a young woman. What struck me most when that story came to light on 14th November 2012 was that happened to Savita could easily have happened to any one of us, our sisters, friends, daughters. And amidst the many, many elements of this complex tale – the reporting, the laws, the healthcare, what ensures this makes headlines day after day is not just the politics, but the very human face of the story.
Photo: IrishTimes.com

The discussion and debate around Savita’s inquest this week has been criticised for the level to which it has been hijacked and politicised by the two sides of the debate – the “pro-life” and the “pro-choice”. (Terms, incidentally, I detest.) Indeed, the crassness and closed-mindedness of some of the commentary has been nothing short of disrespectful in its militant determination to push its own agendas. Many of the pro-life side blatantly and robotically ignoring the fact that Savita was refused a medical termination was a key factor in the outcome. Many in the pro-choice camp ignoring the fact that in turn, medical negligence has clearly also played a large role. The complexity of the inquest means that both the abortion issue and the standard of the medical care received by Savita are relevant, and to deny either amounts to a deliberate obfuscation of the story in order to pursue a personal agenda. Which in itself is disingenuous and counter-productive, even disrespectful. This is not to mention the glee with which certain elements are attacking Catholics en masse, in what amounts to another form of thinly disguised bigotry. Not that certain members of the church can claim any degree of critical thinking in the debate, such is their adherence to tired Catholic dogma at the expense of the more Christian values of compassion and care.

However, we do need to have this discussion. And happily, we are hearing a little more from those who occupy the middle ground. Listening to and watching coverage of the debate on abortion in the Irish media over the past 20-odd years, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no middle ground. That everyone is either pro-life or pro-abortion. I have even heard arguments rubbishing the use of the term “pro-choice”, suggesting that those who use it are simply, “pro-abortion”, and why dress it up? This does a great disservice to the large proportion of people who may or may not personally agree with abortion, but fervently hope that they are never faced with that decision, and would not seek to deny others the choice of making it. I think of all the discourse I have read around abortion since November, Johnny Fallon summed up my own feelings best in this piece published in the Irish Independent. The issue is far from clear-cut, and despite what political commentators insist, I would hazard a guess that most reasonable, compassionate Irish people feel like this and above all, hope it is a decision they are never faced with.

What irks me most, I think within this debate, is that, within the pro-life lobby – apart from the frankly ludicrous women-queuing-up-to-have-abortions scenario they appear to envisage –  there is little recognition of the fact that even if abortion were readily available in Ireland, it is a path that many women, even those facing an unplanned or unviable pregnancy would not choose. Even among those who advocate for choice, it’s a safe to suggest that for some, it would not be a choice they would make personally.  Equally, what irritates me about certain elements of the pro-choice campaign is the inherent assumption that all pro-lifers are driven by a religious agenda.

Meanwhile, what scares me the most reading Savita’s story, is that as a woman of childbearing age, under current Irish law, I can present to a hospital, in physical and emotional pain, be told that my baby is going to die, and be forced, against all my wishes and instincts, to comply with a standard procedure – natural delivery – that prolongs that pain. Under Irish law, in this situation, I don’t have a say in my treatment. Whatever your views on abortion, forcing a pregnant woman who is miscarrying to carry through with a natural delivery (and placing her at a higher risk of infection) when there are medical options available to hasten the procedure is, in my mind, wrong. The thought of it terrifies me – Praveen and Savita are described as “begging” for a termination. How needlessly traumatic.  I’m not medical expert, but I can see no moral or ethical reason why she should not have had the choice of a medical termination in that situation. And I see no reason either why a middle-aged midwife should feel she has to apologise for explaining the cultural basis of our laws to a distressed woman why it is that her wishes had to be ignored.

Incidentally, neither do I, as a citizen of a supposed democracy, should I feel I should have to consider before attending a doctor whether their own personal beliefs will prevent me from accessing all the information I need to decide what course of action is best for me. While it’s natural that doctors hold personal beliefs, based on their own ethical and moral code, at the very least they should be obliged to provide information and contacts on all options, including abortion, should a woman seek them.

Using Savita’s death to call for “Action on X” makes me feel uncomfortable, however. In fact,  I have serious reservations about leglisating for X in its current form, but that’s a discussion for another time. My understanding and belief is that even had it been already enshrined in legislation, it would have done little to prevent Savita’s death, as it was not believed her life was in danger when the termination was requested. Had Savita been granted a termination when she sought one, however, and not been left vulnerable to infection for so long, it is likely and arguable that the sepsis which killed her would never have set in. (It is also likely, that had it been a surgical termination, she would have monitored more closely). That she did not, and was not is a direct consequence of our abortion laws. And who is to say that Savita is the first, or will be the last?

Ultimately, I am in favour of full choice for women when it comes to abortion. Yes, abortion “on demand” (what a dreadful, dreadful term) should be available, if a woman decides it is the option she wants to pursue.  I believe that any woman who honestly thinks an abortion is the best option for her should receive the necessary physical – and more importantly, psychological care, firstly to make that decision and secondly, to deal with the implications if she does. While I may hold my own beliefs, I cannot in good conscience say why they should prevent others from making a decision that involves their own body, based on their own instincts, conscience and beliefs. I would greatly welcome a referendum on full abortion; however I cannot imagine that happening in Ireland even within my lifetime.

I’ve been accused, perhaps justifiably, of passing the buck on this before. How I can advocate giving people the choice to “kill an unborn child”? Do my beliefs extend to giving women the option of third trimester abortions? Where I would draw the line and at what stage does an “embryo” or “fetus” become a “life”? Again, I have my own beliefs, but I still maintain it’s not for me to say. In the absence of proof, I’m not the one who should draw those lines definitively for others. All I can ever do is try, in as much as is possible, to control my own situation, and live by my own conscience and moral code when it comes to such matters, and importantly, allow others the freedom to do the same. And certainly where others are not in a situation to control their situations (e.g in the case of a pregnancy as a result of rape, or  where a pregnant woman has been told her fetus is incompatible with life) who on earth am I to deny them the means of dealing with it in the way they feel is right?

The bottom line is that with abortion,  no-one can ever claim to be really right.

Whatever your opinions on abortion, or indeed on religion or healthcare in Ireland, it is important and respectful to remember that at the heart of the evidence we are hearing this week lies a tragic story of a beautiful, healthy young woman, two bereaved parents living half a world away and a heartbroken husband who has lost his wife needlessly. With her, he lost the promise of a family, and whilst dealing with his own grief he has had to fight to have his story heard and believed. In doing so, he has done this country a huge service by making us confront an issue we have conveniently ignored for far too long. That should not be forgotten.

 Photo: D.B. Patil (www.thehindu.com)