In the opening sequence of Aoife Kelleher‘s One Million Dubliners a funeral is being set and there is an incredibly pertinent quote from James Joyce‘s Ulysses: “In the midst of death, we are in life,” which is a careful reminder to us that even though we are inching closer to death with each day, there is still life to be lived. While pertinent, it may not make much sense to us in the beginning of the film as we allow ourselves to be taken on the journey that Kelleher takes us on in chronicling the history, the energy, the pulse of Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, Ireland.
What is largely regarded, if unofficially, as the national cemetery of Ireland, Glasnevin which opened in 1832 sitting on 140 acres is where a large portion of famous Irish historical and artistic figures are buried. Among those buried there are Michael Collins, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, Maude Gonne MacBride, Countess Markievicz, Eamon de Valera, Roger Casement, Cathal Brugha, John Devoy, Brendan Behan, Donavan Rossa, Luke Kelly and many others. So if you know your Irish history, this is a veritable who’s who of Ireland. But this film isn’t to memorialize these folks. It’s a tribute to the 1.5 million people buried there (more than the entire living population of Dublin now), from those mentioned above to the cholera victims buried in a mass grave to the Angels Plot where children up to the age of seven are buried.
At the beginning we are introduced to Shane Mac Thomáis, resident historian of Glasnevin, who gives walking tours of Glasnevin like his father before him and he, too, becomes the de facto tour guide of the film. His astute observations of how people who still bury their loved ones there show their reverence (much in the same way they show the reverence to the more famous residents of Glasnevin) are really poignant. He has the much talked about ability of the Irish to weave an incredible tale and it’s on full display here. He is as much of a character in the film as the cemetery itself.
Kelleher doesn’t just leave us with Mac Thomáis to flesh out the skeleton of Glasnevin. We get access to people like John Campbell, the gentleman who runs the crematorium onsite to the ladies who run the flower shop in the cemetery telling tales about the patrons who order flowers/balloons/cards to leave on the graves of folks like Collins for Valentine’s Day. We even get the perspective of folks like Bridget Sheerin, another tour guide, who tells about how Glasnevin was one of the few places where children who were stillborn were allowed to be buried since in the Catholic faith they weren’t allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. When she tells matter-of-factly how her own daughter is buried in that same plot, it really hit me what a powerful place Glasnevin is. Mac Thomáis points out that people like O’Connell got their big monuments, but it’s these stories that are emotive. This is even furthered when Mac Thomáis himself tells of how he buried his father in Glasnevin and later that afternoon, he gave the 2:30 tour for his father. Gutting, for sure. And it’s hard to expect that a film about a cemetery won’t have it’s sad parts, you know? And I wish I could say that they stopped there, but I can’t. The film comes full circle from its opening scene with a reveal that left me shocked enough that I am emotional writing this now. What a testament to the story that Kelleher and her crew have told in One Million Dubliners, one that touches on so many aspects of human existence that transcend country and nationality.
I spent the better part of a day in Glasnevin on my honeymoon back in 2004 and it was one of the most emotionally overwhelming days I’ve ever had. Between being in the same place where many of my personal heroes are buried, getting to be where Michael Collins final resting place is, and see the graves of the children buried there, so many with toys, pinwheels and wind chimes adorning the trees above the headstones, it is an experience like none I’ve ever had before or since and one that I will never forget. Glasnevin is a fascinating place and this film brought that experience all back to me. That it was done with such care and respect is a credit to director Aoife Kelleher and her production staff.
At this time, One Million Dubliners, is not yet available in the United States, although the folks at Underground Films are hoping to bring it stateside via film festivals with eventual US distribution after. A big thanks to Underground Films for sharing the film with us here at Reel News Daily. If you get the chance to see this film, by all means RUN to do so. It’s enlightening, engrossing and endearing in a way that only the Irish can get away with.