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Bully’s Acre Kilmainham

Bully’s Acre Kilmainham by John Keane – A fascinating history from our newest addition to the FRG Journalist team

This cemetery lies within the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, at the Richmond Gate end of the Royal Hospital directly opposite the historic Kilmainham Gaol. Kilmainham is named after the 7th century Irish saint, Saint Maighnenn. Cil Mhaighnenn, which is Irish for the Church of Maighnenn, was later anglicized to Kilmainham. Saint Maighnenn’s Monastery was founded in 606AD. In common with other monasteries of the time, it may have included a hospital or hospice for the sick and dying.

The cemetery, which today is made up of two burial sites separated by a public area and pathway, was originally attached to Saint Maignenn’s settlement and church and was in use from the monastery’s founding in the early 7th century to its official closure 1832, although unofficial burials continued for some years after this.

It is believed that Brian Boru and his army camped here before the battle of Clontarf in 1014 and his slain son Murrough and grandson Turlough are reputedly buried near the shaft of the 10th Century ‘Termon’ or boundary high cross which stands in the larger cemetery today.

The larger graveyard was once known as ‘the Hospital Fields’ but later became known as Bully’s Acre. There are two possible explanations for the origins of the name. It may refer to the word baily (or bailiff), which was a title of officials of the priory of Kilmainham or may just refer to the word ‘bully’ because this was a place where boxers or ‘pugilists’ fought in bare knuckle boxing matches. In fact, Dublin’s legendary bare knuckle boxer Dan Donnelly is buried there. Donnelly became an Irish hero following his defeat of the formidable English boxer George Cooper on November 13th 1815.

In all likelihood a result of his excessive drinking, Donnelly died on February 18, 1820 at the age of 31 and was reportedly buried near the shaft of the High Cross. However, soon after that, his body was disinterred by graverobbers and sold to a Dublin surgeon for dissection and examination but because of public anger and threats towards the surgeon, the body was returned to its resting place in Bully’s Acre, minus its right arm, which the surgeon had removed and preserved in red lead.

After a public appeal for funding, a table tomb to Donnelly was erected. Its inscription ends with the lines

“Lament the man who fought to crown your fame,

Laid prostrate Cooper, Oliver and Hall,

Yielding to none but Death, who conquers all.”

Following his execution outside Saint Catherine’s Church, Thomas Street on November 20 September 1803, Robert Emmet, the leader of the 1803 Rebellion is rumoured to have been temporarily buried at Bully’s Acre beside the body of a man named Felix O’ Rourke. Soon after that, his body is said to have been removed and buried in an unknown location.

This burial ground was not only used to inter soldiers up the rank of warrant officer but also the citizens of Dublin across the whole social spectrum, from Dublin’s poor, who could be buried there for free in land that was considered ‘common land’, to knights, merchants and princes, who could afford the fee to be buried in ‘hallowed ground’ or holy ground belonging to the monastery.

The final official burials there took place during the ‘Great Cholera Epidemic’ which devastated Dublin in 1832, when within a period of just 6 months, approximately 6,000 burials took place there. Bully’s Acre was officially closed as a result of these mass burials although some unofficial burials did take place afterwards. The tombstones which remain there today date from 1764 to 1832.

The ‘old soldiers’ burial ground is at the northern end of Bully’s Acre. It is separated by a stone wall from the main cemetery. The gravestones there commemorate British soldiers killed during the fighting of the !916 rebellion in Dublin such as members of the Sherwood Foresters regiment killed at the Battle of Mount Street Bridge.

Officers Burial Ground

The Officers Burial Ground is separated from the larger burial ground by the Western Avenue. It was used largely for deceased officers who had been in-pensioners at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham and its use continued into the second half of the 20th Century.

There are 67 headstones here. The most poignant of which is that of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Harold Blackburne (D.S.O), a veteran of the Boer War, the battle of Ypres in World War One and the 1916 Rebellion in Dublin.

Lieutenant Colonel Blackburne, along 9 year-old son Charles and 11 year old daughter Beatrice, died when the S.S. Leinster, on its way from Kingstown (now named Dun Laoighre) to Birkenhead in England was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in the Irish Sea on the 10th of October 1918. His wife Emily, whom he had met and married in South Africa, survived the tragedy. A total of 501 passengers died in the S.S. Leinster’s sinking. Lieutenant Colonel Blackburne was buried alongside his son in the Officers Burial Ground on October 21st, 1918.

The last burial took place took place on June 5th, 1954, when Etienne Walter Bishop, a former infirmary sergeant, who died age 86, was buried there.


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