The last people I expected to find in Arbour Hill were Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, and Sean McDermott. I would have bet money that they were all safely ensconced in Glasnevin. But I’d have been wrong.
Arbour Hill Cemetery is in the grounds of the Church of the Sacred Heart, which doubles as a prison chapel and a church for the Defence Forces. Right next door is Arbour Hill prison, home to Ireland’s male sex offenders. The nineteenth-century building with its wildflower gardens looks like anything but a prison. The juxtaposition of the church and the gardens makes it all a tad surreal. We walked in the main gate, unchecked, and dropped by the reception office to ask directions to the cemetery. While we were there, we asked if the prison was open for tours. Yer man is still looking at us. I swear though, it looks nothing like you’d expect a working prison to look like.
The work of British Surveyor General of Convict Prisons Joshua Jebb (also credited with Mountjoy) and Irish architect Frederick Clarendon (better known for his work on the Natural History Museum), it was built to house military prisoners. It wasn’t until 1975 that the military moved out and the civilians moved in.
The cemetery next door in the grounds of the Church of the Sacred Heart is the last resting place of British military personnel (and their wives and children) who died in and around Dublin in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The old garrison schools are still there and behind the back wall is the Irish United Nations Veterans’ Association house and memorial garden. Who knew! It opens 10 till 2 on weekdays so note has been made to come again. Another thing we missed is the tunnel which runs from nearby St Bricans Military Hospital, under the prison to Collins Barracks.
The Office of Public Works (OPW) has done a great job with the place, an oasis of green among the terraced houses of Arbour Hill. I was gobsmacked to find the graves of 14 of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. I’d have bet money that most, if not all, of them were buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. And I’d have been wrong.
Apparently, after the boys were shot in Kilmainham Jail, their bodies were taken to Arbour Hill and buried in a mass grave in the old prison yard. Being thrown in a pit and covered in quicklime hardly seems a fitting end but for those burying them, they were traitors. Their names are inscribed in both Irish and English. Along the back wall is a huge memorial emblazoned with an excerpt from the proclamation of the Irish Republic in both languages. The irony was not lost on me – Irish patriots buried alongside their British oppressors, shot in one prison, buried in another.
The prison walls, complete with watchtower, add to the surrealness of the place.
As you walk in, there’s a magnificent cedar tree, planted by the President of Lebanon in 2003 in memory of the Irish defence forces who served as part of the UN Peacekeeping mission. Today, surrounded by the dead of yore, parents and kids play in the park. Others walk their dogs. Arbour Hill really is a lovely example of a community cemetery, a place where the dead are shrouded in history and the living get on with life.