Body Snatchers, Bloodhounds and Vandals: Saving Goldenbridge Cemetery
The nineteenth-century Dublin cemetery with a perilous history restored
and reopened to the public as part of Culture Date with Dublin 8
By Conor Linnie
The surgeons would arrive after nightfall, scaling the cemetery walls and fanning out among the headstones in search of one of the most prized commodities of nineteenth-century Ireland: dead bodies. Reviled by the public and criminalized by the British government as ‘body snatchers’, these medical students and professionals risked imprisonment and even execution to meet the huge demand of the Dublin anatomy schools for bodies to further their research.
The nightly raiding of graveyards was a notoriously common practice throughout the city during this time, with the recently deceased at the greatest risk of illegal exhumation. Working under the cover of darkness, the body snatchers would probe the earth around the burial plots with iron pokers, searching for the tell tale loose soil that marked out a newly dug grave.
Having identified their target, they would dig at the head of the grave to expose and then break through the coffin lid, pulling the body out by means of a noose around the neck before quickly tying it up in a large sack. The corpses were then secretly transported to the anatomy schools where they were dissected for examination typically within twenty-four hours.
The first momentous years of Goldenbridge Cemetery were darkened by the threat of these macabre intruders. The establishment of the burial grounds in 1829 on a small two-acre site bounded by the Grand Canal and Richmond Barracks represented an historic achievement for Catholic emancipation as the first official Catholic cemetery in Dublin. Until this time, the strictures of the Penal Laws had denied Catholics any burial grounds of their own in the city, forcing them to pay fees for the use of Protestant graveyards and to submit to restricted burial practices.
Predating Prospect Cemetery in Glasnevin by three years, the relative distance of Goldenbridge from the city centre in the village of Inchicore made it particularly vulnerable to the nightly raids of the body snatchers. The raising of high limestone walls and a wrought iron gateway around its perimeter soon proved insufficient protection and the cemetery hired night wardens, known as ‘Dead Watchers’, to guard the grounds.
Armed with heavy blunderbuss guns and fearsome Cuban bloodhounds, the guards and their dogs were housed in the vaults of the cemetery’s mortuary chapel. The tall neo-classical structure with its columned façade functioned as the elegant centrepiece of the cemetery while also providing the guards with a superior rooftop viewpoint from which keep watch.
As the cemetery became more established and the dangers of the body snatchers gradually diminished, a new threat emerged in the 1860s in the form of the 92nd Highland Regiment in residence at the adjacent Richmond Barracks. Their repeated complaints over the noise and commotion caused by passing funeral processions ultimately led to a city ruling that limited burials and future interments at Goldenbridge to those with existing burial rights only.
While new burial grounds such as Glasnevin expanded enormously over the following century, the contrastingly decreasing activity at Goldenbridge saw the cemetery gradually fall into disuse and disrepair. By the mid-twentieth century its former landscaped lawns and garden pathways were overgrown, the old mortuary chapel long since vacated.
In this neglected state, the cemetery fell victim once again to night raids. A series of vandalising attacks on the ground’s ornate Victorian and pre-Victorian monuments culminated in 2007 with the destruction of up to twenty-seven headstones. Following this incident, however, the periled fortunes of Goldenbridge began to change. A major restoration initiative was launched through the combined efforts of the Glasnevin Trust, Richmond Barracks, Dublin City Council, and local residents from the surrounding area to return the cemetery to its former dignity.
The reopening of Goldenbridge Cemetery on Sunday May 14th 2017 is one of the highlights of Culture Date with Dublin 8, a weekend-long festival of curated events, exhibitions, and family-friendly activities centred around Kilmainham and Inchicore celebrating the area’s rich historical and cultural life.
The opening ceremony, which will be marked by a concert with performers including the St. James’s Brass Band, represents the beginning of a new chapter for Goldenbridge Cemetery and the revival of its public significance with exclusive tours of the grounds to be provided by Richmond Barracks.
Visitors to the cemetery will learn about Goldenbridge’s rich heritage and present-day restoration, the grisly realities of body snatching, and the diverse array of people buried there. Within the small confines of the ground’s two-acres, historic Famine burial sites are situated alongside the individual graves of major political figures including the first elected head of the Free State government, William Thomas Cosgrave.