Friday, 27 May 2016

Grangegorman Military Cemetery

Grangegorman Military Cemetery is back in the news again. Yesterday morning Canada's Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin Vickers, pounced on a protester during a State ceremony to remember the British soldiers killed in the Easter Rising.

Seems the man had the audacity to stand up and shout "This is an insult," just before the wreath-laying ceremony with the colour party and the Union Jack.

But even in Canada, not everybody on the Twitter machine was enamoured with the ambassador's gung-ho reaction to what was - let's face it - a legitimate protest rather than a terrorist military attack.
The scene wasn't what you might call "diplomatic". But back to the cemetery itself. Most Dubliners have probably never heard of it. And don't go looking for it in what we now know as Grangegorman, because until the 19th century "Grangegorman" encompassed a much larger area just outside the city walls, right up to what is now Blackhorse Avenue by the Phoenix Park and today's entrance to the cemetery.

There's another sense in which the cemetery is usually "off the radar". As the Irish History Podcast people put it, "its anonymity is more to do with those buried there than its location."

Many of the graves are of British Army soldiers killed in the Easter Rising in Dublin. Some were involved in atrocities that should have been treated as war crimes. Others were casualties in the subsequent War of Independence.

There are tombstones, too, of those who fell in (other) foreign fields, from France to the Crimea. One of the earliest graves is of a survivor of the Light Brigade - a Captain Clarke, "one of the 600 at Balaclava". Another, from 1957, is of a soldier who survived the Boer War, and his wife from County Clare.

Besides Irish soldiers who fought in the British Army during the first World War, there are English graves, and Scottish and Welsh too, and even Australians, wounded in the trenches then sent to Ireland to convalesce, and who later died here.

After the new Irish State was established,  the Irishmen who had fought in the British Army were frowned upon - to put it mildly. Later, too, Irishmen and women who enlisted with the Allies to fight Hitler and fascism became persona non grata.

So, for many reasons, the Grangegorman military cemetery fell off the radar in recent decades. Many would probably regard it today as the very antithesis of another British military cemetery in Dublin, the one at Arbour Hill, which became a national shrine after most of the executed 1916 leaders were buried there.

Grangegorman also lacks the scale and grandeur of the memorial garden in Islandbridge to the 49,400 Irish soldiers who died in the first World War. The Grangegorman cemetery has no major monuments, just neat lines of gravestones that tell more individual stories.

The grounds at Blackhorse Avenue are very well kept, with tall trees and long walkways. It is much bigger than the cemetery in Arbour Hill, though much smaller than the overall park at Islandbridge.

Arbour Hill, by comparison, is very much a multi-functional space: it's the grounds of the church of the Defence Forces; it's also a major 1916 memorial; and as I've mentioned before, it acts simply as a park for locals to walk the pram or run the dog - between its main gate and the UN memorial garden it's also a great shortcut between Oxmantown Road and Arbour Hill road.

The Islandbridge memorial park is also part of a multi-functioning public space. It fell into a bad state by the 1980s, but was eventually restored and reopened to the public in 1988. The memorial area itself is a relatively small zone at the centre of a much larger park.

This overall park at Islandbridge must be bigger than Stephen's Green and Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square combined, and the grounds feel very open, with long lanes and hurling grounds and several main entrance points. Its northern side also leads directly down to the waters of the Liffey.

So Arbour Hill and Islandbridge are very much multi-purpose public spaces. By comparison, while a few locals do use the Grangegorman cemetery as a park, it acts more as a destination in its own right rather than a place to walk through. It feels cut off, literally, walled off, with the one main gate, and one main purpose.

It still feels very much like a "working" graveyard, in the sense that you will often find fresh flowers or paper-and-plastic poppies on some of the graves, and people with Liverpool or Birmingham or Glasgow accents asking "We're looking for a particular grave, do you know if there's a register or a guide?"

Grangegorman military cemetery is open to the public all year round from 10 am to 4 pm - apart from when it's closed off for one of these invitation-only State ceremonies involving VIPs and relatives, and the occasional protester who manages to sneak through.

For more on the cemetery's history, check out its Wikipedia entry and the always excellent Come Here To Me blog.