“The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.” Oscar Wilde
You can take the 140 bus to the north side of Dublin and Glasnevin Cemetery. One and a half million people are buried here; the same number of people are living in the city that surrounds it. In 1832 Daniel O’Connell campaigned to allow Catholics to have their own dignified place to bury their dead and Glasnevin was the result. The cemetery first buried eleven-year-old Michael Carey from Francis Street. The cemetery is the setting for the “Hades” episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Today for my visit to the cemetery the air is freezing cold. The slabs, skies, and shadows are all shades of the same color. The magnitude and the beauty of it all is awesome, in the true sense of the word. The tour guide is telling us about all of the famous Irish men and women who are buried here, but the stories blur.
I would rather look at the names and the epitaphs engraved on the rows and rows of tombstones and try to imagine the lives of the people who were not famous. But because my tour guide is so passionate about the lives of those who are part of Ireland’s grand history, I do my best to pay attention. Maud Gonne and Michael Collins are my two favorites today.
Maud Gonne, who lived from 1866 to 1953, was an English-born Irish revolutionary, suffragette, and actress, but forget about all that. She is most famous for something that she didn’t really have much control over – merely that W. B. Yeats really, really liked her. He reportedly proposed to her twelve times, but she repeatedly turned him down. (Maud did marry someone else, but that turned out to be a complete disaster.) Yeats could have written, “I feel really bad that the woman I love doesn’t love me back”, but because he was Yeats he wrote,
“I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
Poets! I guess the mystery of love really is greater than the mystery of death.
And then later in life Yeats asked Maud’s daughter to marry him! Yikes. She said no as well – she knew he didn’t really love her, plus she thought it would probably upset her mother. (You can’t make this stuff up.)
So many of Ireland’s greatest patriots are buried here, but my favorite is Michael Collins, Ireland’s most beloved revolutionary hero, who was born in 1890 and assassinated at the age of thirty-one in 1922. And even though his political career is the subject of countless books and movies – in fact Michael Fassbender who is Michael Collins’ great-great grandnephew took on the role of the great leader in a play – it is his personal life that is most fascinating to me. His father, Michael Collins senior, was sixty years old when he married Mary Ann O’Brien who was only twenty-three. They had eight children together and Michael was the youngest. Michael had five sisters who doted on him. (In my experience, you can’t go wrong with a man who has been spoiled by his sisters.)
Because Michael’s father was seventy-five when Michael was born, Michael had a deep fondness and respect for older people for the rest of his life. His mother was strong, loving, and gracious. She was eulogized as “a hostess in 10,000”. Michael’s headmaster at school inspired his “pride of Irishness”. All of these influences resulted in one of the greatest leaders in Irish history.
He was nicknamed “The Big Fellow” as a child. He loved to wrestle. He was highly intelligent, friendly, and inclusive. He was a great listener – it was said that “he took advice from his chauffeur.” He could be demanding and inconsiderate, but he apologized with gestures such as candy and other small gifts. (To the males of the species, are you taking notes?)
Michael Collins was a people person whose patriotism was rooted in affection and respect for the people of Ireland. On the last journey of his life, he wrote his final entry in his pocket diary – “The people are splendid.”
To the English he said, “Give us the future…we’ve had enough of your past…give us back our country to live in – to grow in – to love.” His legacy lives on.