KILMAINHAM is a town and townland in the parish of St James, within the boundaries of Dublin city, although originally part of Co Dublin. It’s probably best known for Kilmainham Jail, where the leaders of the 1916 Rising were executed. They, of course, are not the only people to be executed there; neither is Kilmainham Jail its only link with Irish history.
Dublin’s largest and oldest graveyard stands on the grounds of the Royal Hospital, also in Kilmainham, which is now the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), and off the entrance to that edifice stands a high wall with large black gates, which are locked. Behind these gates is Bully’s Acre. The Office of Public Works, in the person of Paul O’Brien, himself a military historian who has a remarkable passion for Irish history, has put that passion to work so that the history of this three-in-one graveyard is well documented.
Despite its name, Bully’s Acre (officially the ‘Hospital Fields’) actually covers 3.7 acres and is the last resting place of between 200,000 and 300,000 people. Over a thousand years’ old, it is believed that the bodies of some of those killed in the Battle of Clontarf are interred here, including a son and grandson of Brian Boru, and even Brian himself. Over time, Bully’s Acre became home to many different classes, including a section for British officers, and until recently was not available to the public.
In the early days, it was classed as a pauper’s cemetery because there was no fee to pay as it was treated as common ground. Many respectable Catholic families are also buried here; they had no other choice as, after the Reformation, there was no other burial ground available to Catholics in the city. Originally, the site was the home of a religious settlement set up by St Maignenn, which gave Kilmainham its original name of ‘Cill Maignenn’ or ‘church of Maignenn’. The field later became home to the original priory established by the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem soon after their arrival in Ireland in 1174. Their purpose was to provide hospitality for pilgrims and to look after the poor. Again, following the reformation of King Henry VIII in 1540, the priory was closed down and the lands vested in the crown, prior to becoming the Royal Hospital.
The duke of Ormond, on taking the position of viceroy for the second time in 1667, was responsible for the construction of the hospital, which was to house retired soldiers. The foundation stone was laid in 1680, with the first pensioners taking up residence in 1684. It was used by the British, even after independence, up to 1927, when it became the headquarters of An Garda Síochána, which it remained until 1949 when it was vacated because of its poor structural condition. It was revamped between 1980 and 1984 to its present magnificent condition; it is open to the public and well worth a visit.
The cemetery was retained as hallowed ground for free burials, which were common and increasing each day. A reasonable explanation as to why the name changed from the Hospital Fields to Bully’s Acre is that the word ‘bully’ is a corruption of the word ‘bailiff’ or ‘baily’, which the officials at the priory were called. It may also have been because of the fact that fights or boxing matches took place there with a lot of damage done by large numbers of spectators.
Those attending feast days treated them as a social occasion, the largest being the pattern on 24 June, which is also the feast and supposed birthday of St John the Baptist, when thousands travelled through the graveyard across the road to St John’s Well.
In 1737, officers stationed at the Royal Hospital complained about the large numbers of people visiting the site and the nearby well. In 1760, General Michael O’Brien Dilkes, an Irish soldier in the British Army and then governor of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, attempted to turn the graveyard into a botanic garden. Graves were levelled and a thick coating of lime was spread over the entire surface and a high wall built to enclose the area.
However, men from the Liberties, feeling that this was an offence to their ancestors and relatives interred in the graveyard, gathered together one night and fought a pitched battle against the British soldiers stationed there, then removed the wall and returned the cemetery to its original use.
In 1795, the graveyard was fully restored and the high cross repaired with funds awarded by the grand county court jury. Many headstones had been destroyed beyond repair and today only a scattering remain, despite the fact that so many are interred there.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the cemetery fell into disrepair. With little supervision, it became a target for body snatchers. This was a practice with a double purpose. One was the act of disinterment from graves and selling the bodies on to medical schools for the purpose of dissection or anatomy lectures to medical students. Those who took part in this practice were known as resurrectionists. The other was opening tombs or crypts and stealing from the deceased the personal effects, even teeth (which were expensive in this period), rather than stealing the whole body. Many made a living out of this practice and it was reasonably easy to remove a body, as in those days they were buried just a couple of feet below the surface.
Watchmen began patrolling the graveyard in an attempt to discourage this practice and those caught were severely punished. One of those who was caught in the act was prominent Dublin surgeon Peter Harkin, seized by watchmen while body hunting with some of his students. After a chase, Harkin got the students over the wall, but had difficulty getting across himself. The watchmen caught his legs while the students pulled the upper part of his body and this action would cause him injuries from which he died soon after.
Following his death on Thomas Street during rebellion in 1803, Robert Emmett was buried here and his body was soon removed by friends and interred somewhere else. His final resting place is unknown to this day.
One of the bodies taken from Bully’s Acre was that of the famous boxer Dan Donnelly, who was interred there in an unmarked grave following his death in 1820. Donnelly was born in Townsend Street, Dublin in March 1788. He was a pioneer of the sport of boxing in Ireland and became the first Irish heavyweight champion and was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, which is located in Canastota, New York, USA in 2008. He fought just three championship fights, winning all three.
The first was fought close to the Grand Canal, where Donnelly won easily. The next was against Tom Hall and this was fought in what was known at the time as Belchers Hollow, now known as Donnelly’s Hollow between Kilcullen and Newbridge on 14 September 1814. The bout was due to start at 1pm and by then over 20,000 spectators were in attendance, crammed along the sides of the hollow, while there was a roped off area at the bottom where the bout took place. Rounds ended when a fighter was knocked to the ground, and there were few other rules. Donnelly won when Hall refused to resume after having his ear smashed by his opponent.
His final fight was against a tough English opponent, George Cooper. This fight also took place at Donnelly’s Hollow on 13 December 1815 and again over 20,000 watched. In a toe-to-toe battle, with no quarter asked or given, Cooper, who was of gypsy stock, had the better of Donnelly for the opening five rounds, but then things changed and for the rest of the fight Donnelly was on top, knocking Cooper out in the 11th round. The cheering could be heard for miles around and as an exhausted Donnelly walked up the hollow, spectators dug up his footprints, which can be seen to this day and are one of Kildare’s main tourist attractions.
Although this may seem like a little sidetrack, it had to be included. Donnelly was a huge hero, not alone in Dublin and Kildare, but throughout the country. His body was brought to a Dublin surgeon, a Dr Hall, who organised Donnelly’s reburial, but before it was completed he cut off the right arm.
For many years, no-one paid any attention to the arm until it appeared on display in a glass case at the Hideout pub in Kilcullen in 1953. In 2006, it ended its time in the Hideout and disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. It was taken to the Irish Arts Centre in Manhattan for an exhibition. To the best of my knowledge, it is now back in the home of the Byrne family, who were the owners of the Hideout at the time the arm was on display, but I could not swear to it.
Dan Donnelly died penniless, aged just 32, but his funeral cortège was the largest seen in Dublin at that time. Thousands of his admirers lined the route to Bully’s Acre, followed by a fleet of carts and carriages laden with flowers as Dublin stood still in honour of its hero.
During the 1832 cholera pandemic (featured in an upcoming article), which lasted six months, 3,200 people were interred in Bully’s Acre, even though at this time both Glasnevin and Goldenbridge cemeteries were available and availed of by Catholics.
While Bully’s Acre is more like a green field site with only a few headstones left standing, despite the hundreds of thousands buried there, across the road in the officers’ graveyard most of the headstones remain standing. The youngest buried here is Adeline Sabina Banks, aged 20 months. Her headstone reads: ‘Peace little loving sleeper/close to thy saviour side/rest with thy tender keeper/safe for the Lord has died.’
The third cemetery was called ‘The Privates’ and was used up to the end of occupation, with British soldiers killed in 1916 among those interred there.