A Short History of Dublin’s Mount Jerome Cemetery

“St. Michan’s Church.” The Dublin Penny Journal 2, no. 79 (1834): 209–10. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30002982

By the early 19th Century, Dublin’s churchyards were dangerously overcrowded, unsanitary and a threat to public health. Many of the churchyards were small, often less than an acre of ground, and had been in use for centuries by both Protestants and Catholics. Burials were taking place in churchyards which could not decently or properly accommodate further coffins, as described in 1835 by Thomas Fitzpatrick, M.D., of Park Street, who attended the funeral of a lady to St Bride’s Churchyard, which was on the corner of Bride Street and Bride Road until 1900.

‘On arriving there, I was surprised to see a coffin on the ground tied with ropes, and in so shattered a condition as to permit a partial view of the body which it contained. On making inquiry, I ascertained from one of the attendants, that owing to the crowded state of the churchyard, it was necessary to lift up this coffin in order to make room for that of the lady, and while they were removing it to a short distance it broke asunder, and the body, in an advanced stage of putrification, fell to the earth, creating so disgusting an effluvia as obliged the gravediggers to retire to a distance. On the occasion alluded to, a gentleman and I recognised the head of a friend who had been interred in the same grave two years previously; the muscles and the lower jaw were removed, but the scalp being perfect, the peculiarity of the hair and the formation of the skull satisfied us of its identity.’

Daniel O’Connell. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek – Austrian National Library – Public Domain

New land for cemeteries outside the city needed to be found and Daniel O’Connell, Member of Parliament for Co Clare, and champion of Catholic rights, campaigned for the opening of a burial ground in which both Catholics and Protestants could give their dead a dignified burial. On 21 February 1832, Glasnevin Cemetery on the north side of Dublin was consecrated and opened to the public. O’Connell was soon to be involved in the campaign for the opening of another cemetery.

Glasnevin Cemetery. Finerty, J. F. (John Frederick). (1898). Ireland in pictures: a grand collection of over 400 magnificent photographs of the beauties of the Green isle … wth historical and descriptive sketches. Chicago: J. S. Hyland & co. Public domain

On 17 February 1834, a petition from subscribers to the Dublin Cemetery Company was presented to the House of Commons, seeking permission to establish a general cemetery in the neighbourhood of the city of Dublin. A petition was also presented from the churchwardens of the city of Dublin and from the Board of Health, in favour of the cemetery.

The Sun (London) – Friday 28 February 1834

The company’s petition was referred to a committee, headed by O’Connell, and on the committee’s reporting on 28 February, O’Connell and Christopher FitzSimon, Member of Parliament for Co Dublin and O’Connell’s son-in-law, were ordered to bring in a Bill in compliance with the petition. The Dublin Cemetery Bill passed the Commons on 12 May and after undergoing several amendments in the House of Lords, the Bill received the royal assent on 27 June 1834.

The Sun (London) – Friday 16 May 1834

In January 1835, the company came to an agreement with Michael Keogh for the purchase of his interest in the lands of Mount Jerome, at Harold’s Cross on the south side of Dublin. Mount Jerome was originally part of lands belonging to St Thomas’s Abbey. After the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century, the lands were granted to the Brabazon family, later the earls of Meath. The origin of the name Mount Jerome can be traced to the Reverend Stephen Jerome, Vicar of St Kevin’s Parish in 1639, who leased the lands from the Brabazons and established an estate there.

Extract from A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland 1837 by Samuel Lewis for Harold’s Cross

A legal difficulty regarding title and John Chambré Brabazon, the 10th Earl of Meath, being away on the Continent, meant the Dublin Cemetery Company did not obtain possession of Mount Jerome until November 1835, but they immediately set to work. The 25-acre cemetery grounds were laid out under the direction of Ninian Niven, curator of the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, with 600 selected species of rare and beautiful trees including yew, cypress and weeping willow, planted as an arboretum and a stone wall surrounding the grounds was built.

Ninian Niven. Nelson & Marshall, Dublin. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On 19 October 1836, Dr Richard Whately, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, signed the deed of consecration, setting apart the lands of Mount Jerome as burial ground for ever. The Dublin General Cemetery was to be multi-denominational, so why was the Roman Catholic Archbishop not in attendance, too? The Irish newspapers give no reason but according to a scathing anti-Catholic piece in the London Morning Post of 22 October 1836 ‘A deputation waited upon the titular Archbishop, Dr Denis Murray, to know if he would consecrate any part for Roman Catholics who might think proper to select that place for themselves or their friends. He made no objection at the time, but requested a copy of the Act of Parliament, under which the institution was formed, in order that he might look into its provisions. After some time he returned for answer that, on consulting with his clergy, he must decline consecrating any part of the ground.’

The Cusack vault. Photograph by William Murphy from Dublin, Ireland, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The cemetery became the burial ground for Dublin’s Protestants and more popularly known as Mount Jerome Cemetery. On 5 November 1836, the Warder and Dublin Weekly Mail declared, ‘About sixteen persons have already been interred in this place, which is termed the Protestant Burial Ground of Mount Jerome, near Harold’s Cross.’ It was not until the 1920s that the first Catholic burials took place there during a gravediggers strike at Glasnevin Cemetery.

Photograph by William Murphy from Dublin, Ireland, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Mount Jerome Cemetery website states ‘The first burial took place on 19 September 1836 of the infant twins of Matthew Pollock’ but curiously, according to Saunders News-Letter of 20 October 1836, a Mr Pollock ‘one of the most active supporters of the institution’ was the first to be buried there.

The chapel. Photograph by William Murphy from Dublin, Ireland, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The mortuary chapel, designed by William Atkins, was built in 1847. It was the first Puginian gothic church in Dublin and in 1874; the cemetery expanded to its current 48-acre size.

Mount Jerome Cemetery. Finerty, J. F. (John Frederick). (1898). Ireland in pictures: a grand collection of over 400 magnificent photographs of the beauties of the Green isle … wth historical and descriptive sketches. Chicago: J. S. Hyland & co. Public domain

During the second half of the 19th Century, most of Dublin’s city churchyards were closed for further burials and over the course of the 20th Century, some were built over, turned into car parks and others into public parks.

St Catherine’s Graveyard and Park behind the church on Thomas Street. The graveyard was closed to burials in 1894

In 1984, the Dublin Cemetery Company went into voluntary liquidation and by the late 1990s, Mount Jerome Cemetery had fallen into a serious state of neglect. In 1998, the cemetery was purchased by Massey undertakers and a crematorium was opened in 2000. This reversal of fortunes means the cemetery will not fall into decline again.

Photograph by William Murphy from Dublin, Ireland – MOUNT JEROME CEMETERY – SESSION ONE AUGUST 2017 [HAROLDS CROSS DUBLIN]-131402, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With its Victorian funerary art, including ornate memorials, shrouded urns, tombs, angels, vaults and crypts, the cemetery has often been compared to Père Lachaise in Paris and Highgate Cemetery in London. The cemetery contains over 300,000 burials including the artist Jack Butler Yeats, Sir William Wilde, ‘Oculist to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria’, and the father of Oscar Wilde, the author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, playwright John Millington Synge, judge and M.P. Thomas Langlois Lefroy, who had a youthful flirtation with the author Jane Austen, and members of the Guinness family.

Dublin, Ireland, July 1887. The city is struggling in a seemingly never-ending heatwave and Will receives devastating news from his father. John has only months to live but his dying wishes leave Will reeling. With the Fitzgeralds suddenly facing money worries, some difficult decisions must be made. Can Will and John repair their complicated relationship before it’s too late?

When a tragic accident brings unexpected truths to light, Isobel discovers a forgotten life intertwined with her grandmother’s. Nothing can prepare her for Lily’s story but will learning of their families’ pasts bring Isobel peace or further heartbreak?

Read an excerpt from Chapter One…

Tess, one of Will’s parents’ house-parlourmaids, admitted them to number 67 Merrion Square at eight o’clock and while Will ran upstairs to fetch his father, Tess showed Isobel into the morning room. Sarah, seated as usual on the huge sofa upholstered in green velvet, put a periodical on a side table and gave her a puzzled frown.

“Isobel?”

“Both Will and I have called and Will is bringing John here. There is something John wants to tell you.”

“Is there,” Sarah replied in a flat tone as the door opened and the two men came in.

“Mother.” Will went to her and kissed her cheek. “Father has something he wants to tell you.”

“So Isobel has just informed me. Well, John, you had better sit down.”

John’s face was ashen as he went to what had once been his armchair, and Isobel squeezed his hand as he passed her. Taking her arm, Will led her to the far end of the room, pulled the chair out from the writing desk and she sat down.

John informed his estranged wife of his impending death and cremation remarkably calmly and when he sat back in the armchair, Sarah got up and stood on the hearth rug with her back to them and her hands on her hips, just as Will had done earlier.

“Mother—” Will began, but she held up a hand to stop him from continuing.

“You shall have the front guest bedroom, John,” she said. “It is the smallest and will be easily kept warm when the weather breaks. The bed shall also be positioned that you can look out over the square and—” Her voice broke, she ran from the room and Will ran after her.

Isobel went to the door and closed it, hearing Sarah sobbing in the breakfast room. She went to the drinks tray on a side table in a corner of the room and poured an inch of whiskey into a glass. She handed it to John, then bent and kissed his cheek.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, and he replied with a weak smile before they both jumped as the door was flung open and Sarah strode back into the room with Will right behind her.

“Cremation,” Sarah said, her voice little more than a squeak. “So half your ashes can be buried with her. Well, if you expect me to be buried with the remaining half – the second-best half – you can think again. To you, I have always been second best and I refuse to be second best in death.”

“That is entirely up to you, Sarah. I was merely affording you the courtesy of informing you that soon you will be free of me.” Passing the glass back to Isobel, John struggled out of the armchair. “Good evening to you.”

John left the room and Will nodded to the glass, silently telling her to make his mother drink the whiskey. Will then followed his father, closing the door behind him.

“Come and sit down.” Isobel ushered Sarah to the sofa, sat her down, and sat beside her. “Drink this.” She put the glass in Sarah’s hands and, to her relief, Will’s mother drank the contents in two gulps. “More?” she asked, and Sarah shook her head.

“Oh, Isobel.” Sarah squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. “I shouldn’t have shouted at John. I must apologise and—” She went to get up, but Isobel grabbed her arm.

“Wait a little while – Will is examining him,” she said and Sarah sighed and nodded.

“I have wanted to be free of John for so long – but not like this. I hoped against hope that the laws surrounding divorce might be relaxed, but they remain unchanged because the laws were drawn up by men and it is far more acceptable for a man to have a mistress than a woman to have a lover.”

“That is true.”

“And cremation, Isobel. What are people going to think?”

“I can hazard a guess, which is why Harriett should be told. She will persuade her friends and acquaintances – who amount to most of Dublin society – that cremation will become the norm one day.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Why were Mount Jerome Cemetery and Glasnevin Cemetery opened?” Isobel asked and Sarah gave her a blank stare. “They were opened because the parish graveyards were all but full. Also, compare the size of a container of ashes to the ridiculously big and heavy coffin my grandmother Greene was buried in. Cremation is practical and sanitary and it will save space and reduce the expense of funerals.”

“Isobel, I don’t want people to think we cannot afford to give John a decent Christian burial.”

“Harriett will assure them that is not the case. May I inform her tomorrow, or would you prefer to inform her yourself?”

“Please do it now, Isobel. I believe she is at home this evening. I shall attempt to gather my thoughts while you are out.”

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