Glasnevin Cemetery Dublin: A Haunted History and Body Snatchers
Before venturing outside of Dublin, we explored some of the more macabre places throughout the city. Glasnevin Cemetery had to have been our favorite. A historic, non-denominational cemetery established in the eighteen hundreds, this liminal place looks like something right out of an Anne Rice novel. With 124 sprawling green acres of land, today there are at least 1.5 million graves on the premises. So you know there are bound to be ghosts and ghouls about. Come with me on a long stroll through Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, Ireland and meet some of its famous phantoms and hear creepy stories of body snatchers and murder.
What and Where is Glasnevin Cemetery?
Glasnevin Cemetery is located in the Glasnevin neighborhood in Northern Dublin, Ireland. It is a non-denominational cemetery established in 1832 in response to a large populous of Catholics unable to perform their funerary rites at local Protestant cemeteries. Daniel O’Connell, known as The Liberator, was a political leader in Ireland in the nineteenth century who was internationally known as an abolitionist and a Catholic reformist. He is also credited with the establishment of Glasnevin Cemetery and is buried and memorialized in the famous tall tower at the entrance of the cemetery. Interestingly, his heart isn’t there though. It’s buried in Rome according to his wishes.
The neighborhood Glasnevin itself is steeped in history and is known to be haunted. With its name translating to “Stream of Infants”, I got the chills just thinking about the reasoning behind the name. And the possible double entendre there. Was it because the area experienced a surge of births? Or something more sinister?
Glasnevin was originally a monastery established by Saint Mobhi in the sixth century. A settlement grew around the monastery but would see tumultuous times during the Viking Age when Vikings regularly raided the coasts of Ireland. Record shows the settlement was destroyed by Vikings but would later come to be rebuilt and absorbed as part of Dublin city.
The Creepy Crypts of Glasnevin
In addition to the elaborately, intricately decorated mausoleums and memorials throughout Glasnevin, there is a circular crypt in the middle of the cemetery that houses dozens of dead families. My friend and I were drawn to the crypts and decided to explore them a bit, and if you do so, you’ll notice you have to walk down a set of stairs to get to the crypts. It feels and is quite chthonic…like you’re descending into the Underworld. You can walk around the entire circle and then up the other side. Then down through the middle of the crypts, as well. Each crypt has a rusted old door and a lock, a name and date (sometimes more is written), and if they had extra money, a cross or statue in memorial on top of the crypt. Each door also has two holes at the top…I’m not sure if this is for circulation or what but it’s creepy nevertheless.
Unrest in Crypt #1 and a Sealed Off Crypt
As we walked passed one particular crypt, my friend said “I hear something moving in there.” I stopped what I was doing and listened. She was right! There was a subtle rustling noise undulating from somewhere behind the rusty door. “Must be a mouse…right?” I asked her nervously. If you visit Glasnevin Cemetery, stop and have a listen at crypt #1: Lynch 1842.
Further along, we came to a crypt that appeared to have been sealed off. Where there was once a metal door, there is now bricks cemented in. I wondered why they had sealed in that crypt…could it have been a superstitious reason? Perhaps a fear of vampires or witches returning from the dead? Believe it or not, people still had a fear of these things in the ninteenth century. Just read our article about Vampire Origins and scroll down to the New England Vampire Scare to learn about poor Mercy Brown.
The Rabitte Crypt Statue…Eyes that Follow You
After we had walked the entire crypt circle, we returned to the beginning and I noticed a creepy statue sitting on top of one of the crypts. On the Rabitte crypt to the right of the staircase. A man holding two children…his gaze seems to follow you wherever you walk in the area. He spooked me so bad, I told my friend we needed to get away from him.
My friend’s interest in what was behind the crypt doors grew into wanting to have a look for herself. I told her she could, but I wasn’t going to look. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a chicken sh*t. She had a peek through the hole at the top of the crypt door and said she couldn’t see much. It was very dark in the crypt but that there was also a sort of gate inside. “I’ll bet they put those in to keep people from grave robbing,” I recall saying. Later, at the Glasnevin Cemetery museum, we discovered that was actually true. The locks, gates, and even the watchtowers around the cemetery were put in place to keep people from robbing graves for goods…and bodies.
The Glasnevin Cemetery Watchtowers and Real Body Snatchers
In the eighteen hundreds, the medical field experienced a surge of advancements. And that was partly because of human beings’ nature of curiosity. And partly because we executed on that…we wanted to find out what was inside the human body. We wanted to study its organs, muscles, and contents enough to understand how to treat disease and operate when necessary. But there was a problem…the training surgeons and doctors needed bodies. Enter the real life body snatchers…
Body snatching was a lucrative business during this period of time, not only in Ireland but in the UK. The Irish Times provides further detail on exactly how these men would dig up freshly buried bodies. But essentially, they waited until night time, used special tools to dig and break through the coffin lid. Then pull the body out of the grave and over the cemetery wall. Sounds super easy and sanitary, right? Anyway, there was an incident reported of gunshots between mourners and body snatchers at Glasnevin in the 1830s. This isn’t a myth, it was real life.
The bodies would then be sold to local doctors or universities to keep the medical students busy and continuing to enroll. The watchtowers at the corners of Glasnevin were for this purpose – to watch over the graves and ensure the bodies weren’t taken for nefarious (or medical) purposes. However you’d like to look at it.
The Ghosts of Glasnevin Cemetery
The paranormal encounters at Glasnevin Cemetery seem to be pretty tame. Even with its history of body snatching and grave robbing. Most of the ghosts seen or felt hear are of a benevolent or neutral temperament. One of the more famous is of a sea captain’s loyal furry friend…
The Captain and His Dog
Captain John McNeill Boyd lost his life in an attempts of rescuing drowning men at Dun Laoghaire in 1861. His faithful, loyal canine friend, a black newfoundland hound, apparently haunts his grave at Glasnevin Cemetery. And has also been seen at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Legend has it that Captain Boyd was buried at Glasnevin and a huge funeral was held in his honor. His pup sat on his grave until it died of hunger…so grief stricken. And in death, he still guards his master’s grave. People frequently see a large black newfoundland running about Glasnevin and sitting beside Boyd’s grave.
Watchful Mary’s Statue and My Frozen Camera
The entire time we walked through Glasnevin, I felt mostly positive energy. There was one particular grave we stopped to investigate. It wasn’t that much different from the others, and I wish I had gotten a better picture of it. But I was filming a video of it with my phone, and as I filmed my camera froze and the app shut down. I took that as a sign that the spirit there didn’t want to be video-taped. It was a grave with a Mother Mary statue guarding it. I will post the actual video on my Instagram account, for those interested in seeing it.
Marie Kirwin’s Grave and Murder on Ireland’s Eye
Towards the end of our stroll through Glasnevin Cemetery, my friend pointed out a somewhat simple grave. It was odd because it stood out among the other decorative, elaborate graves and memorials. A small, dark cross (I believe it’s wooden) that says “Sarah.Maria.Kirwin. Died Tragically Irelands Eye. 6th Sept. 1852. AgeD. 28.” My friend’s intuition cued into this gravesite, I believe. The fact that this person had “died tragically” and that was written on her grave caught our attention. No other grave in the cemetery made mention of traumatic deaths. I snapped a photo and took a video of Miss Kirwin’s gravesite…with her permission, of course.
Not fifteen minutes later, upon visiting the Glasnevin Cemetery Museum gift shop, did I come across a book among many. The book was titled “Death on Ireland’s Eye: The Victorian Murder Trial that Scandalised a Nation” by Dean Ruxton. I picked up the book and read the synosis on the back. Indeed there was an entire book written on our friend Maria Kirwin! I have yet to read the book, but once I do I will update this article. It felt like Maria was reaching out to us from beyond the grave. Essentially, Maria drowned mysteriously while out with her husband on Ireland’s Eye (an island). But her “accidental drowning” might have actually been murder…You can pick up a copy for yourself here:
The Woman who was “Buried Twice”
You’ve heard the saying “saved by the bell”, right? This phrase has a macabre origin. Before the twentieth century, people were sometimes buried alive. Terrifying, yes. But also true. Apparently we didn’t know how to truly tell if someone was dead or not back in the day. And at some point, bells were attached to strings and the strings were buried with the person so as to give that individual a chance to ring the bell and be dug up from an early grave. But onto my story of the woman who was “buried twice” at Glasnevin…
Maria Higgins had a wonderful husband named Charles Higgins. Charles knew that were his wife to die, he would receive her will of $500…which was apparently a small fortune back in the eighteen hundreds. So he bribed a local doctor to confirm Maria’s death and then arranged for her funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery. Turns out, Maria wasn’t dead at all and the grave was empty. When they were found out, all involved in the crime were charged…but Maria was let off the hook because she “acted under her husband’s will”. Then, when Maria actually died in 1871, she was buried in Glasnevin…for the second time.
If you visit Glasnevin Cemetery…
If you decide to visit Glasnevin, I recommend taking a half day to explore the property…there’s SO much to see there. The graves and memorials are so beautiful, with large, stately statues of politicians, Celtic crosses, priests, nuns, Mother Mary, angels, and much more. And walking through the pathways there truly feels like you’re walking through a gothic movie of some sort. Visit the museum and buy a book or souvenir to support the cause. Then grab a quick bite to eat in the cafe, before heading over to John Kavanagh’s Grave Robbers Pub.
If you need recommendations on where to stay, we stayed at the Academy Plaza Hotel in downtown Dublin. I will warn you, some of the rooms overlook a bar that is quite noisy at night. But it is central to many restaurants, shopping districts, and historical sites. It was about a 45 minute walk to Glasnevin from the hotel. Consider visiting Knockma Hill in Galway to feel the fairies’ presence there, as well as Clonmacnoise in Offaly to visit a site with angelic and alien sightings.
More on Haunted Places & Ghosts:
- Types of Ghosts: Residual, Poltergeist, Astral Doubles and More
- Haunted Summerwind Mansion
- Anne Boleyn: Witch and Ghost