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The Darker Side of Bully’s Acre


The Darker Side of Bully’s Acre: Grave Robbers and Riotous Behaviour
Grave robbers or ‘sack em up’ men. by John Keane

Graverobbers, also known as bodysnatchers ‘sack-em-up’ men or
‘resurrectionists’ were busiest in Ireland from the late 17th century to 1832,
when the Anatomy Act of 1832 permitted the unclaimed bodies from work or
poorhouses to be used for dissection, thereby easing demand for illegally
obtained corpses. However, prior to 1832, fresh corpses were in high demand
and the bodies unearthed and stolen by graverobbers were sold to surgeons or
anatomists for dissection and examination in medical theatres in front of fee
paying spectators.

According to Dublin writer Paul O’Brien, whose book Bully’s Acre provided the
inspiration and some of the material for this article, body snatchers could sell a
corpse for 12 guineas each. The surgeon or anatomist would charge a fee of 12
guineas per spectator and, according to O’Brien, with an audience of up to 160
spectators, the anatomists or surgeons could make up to 480 guineas per
session, which O’Brien estimates would be worth between 30,000 to 40,000
Euros in today’s money.

Bully’s Acre was one of the graveyards frequented by the bodysnatchers.
Having used women to pose as mourners during the funeral to identify the age
and sex of the deceased as well as identify the graves location, bodysnatchers
would enter Bullys Acre and other cemeteries after dark. The bodysnatchers
had to contend with various dangers, such as watchmen and their fierce guard-
dogs, corpses with infectious diseases and angry relatives camping out beside
the graves of their loved ones.

Bodies of that period were usually buried less than a foot deep. Carrying the
tools of the trade which were a wooden shovel, a length of rope and a sack,
the graverobbers would unearth the coffin. The wooden shovel, which made
less noise than a metal one, was used to break open the coffin, the corpse was
lifted out and its burial shroud removed and discarded in the graveyard. Then
the corpse was tied up with the rope neck to heel, put in the sack, lifted over
the graveyard wall and carried away by hand cart to a medical hall for sale to
an anatomist or surgeon.

Although, Bully’s Acre was officially closed in 1832, some unofficial burials still
took place. Due to the 1832 Anatomy Act, there was a readier supply of bodies
from the poorhouses for dissection and study. However, as late 1842, Paul

O’Brien describes a case of grave-robbing from Bully’s Acre. In that case, a man
walking in the vicinity of Dolphins Barn was asked to participate in a coroner’s
court by a police constable, only to realise that the body was that of his
deceased father, which had been buried a week earlier in Bully’s Acre.
An investigation found that a doctor and coroner had been in collusion and
had been stealing bodies from the graveyard, dressing them in old clothes and
dumping them in the canal. These bodies had provided extra work for the
coroner’s court, increasing the coroner’s payments. If the bodies had been
found to have been damaged by a collision with a barge, a doctor had been
required to carry out a medical examination thus increasing his fees too. As a
result of the enquiry, both the doctor and the coroner were dismissed from
their positions.

The Feast of Saint John’s.
Bully’s Acre was close to Saint John’s Well, Kilmainham, which was situated at
the junction of St John’s Road and the South Circular Road. The presence of
this holy well, perhaps of pagan origin, may have played an important part in
Saint Maighnenn’s decision to build his monastery close to that place.

In Christian tradition, Saint John the Baptist, the prophet who foretold that the
messiah Jesus Christ was soon to come, was also closely associated with water
because of his association with the River Jordan with which he baptized Jesus.
It was believed that the sacred waters of Saint John’s Well, Kilmainham had
the power to cure sickness and sinful ways. As a result, Bully’s Acre became a
focal point of communal pilgrimage and was especially busy from the early
hours on the Feast of Saint John, the 24th of June each year, and there were
scenes of drunken, unruly behaviour from the crowds who had gathered there
from the previous night of the 23rd .

The celebrations to mark Saint John’s Day were common throughout Ireland
and began with the lighting of bonfires at sunset on the 23rd of June or Saint
John’s Eve. There were family fires and also large community fires. The oldest
person in the family and in the community lit the bonfire while the youngest
member threw an animal bone into it. In fact, the origins of the word ‘bonfire’
are to be found in the latter tradition. Literally, bonfire means ‘bonefire’.
In 1737 there were attempts by the authorities at the Royal Hospital
Kilmainham to limit the large numbers of drunken, unruly people, using the

Hospital Fields, as Bully’s acre was then known, to access Saint John’s holy
well. Attempts to suppress this riotous behaviour failed however due to legal
proceedings and rioting led by the notorious ‘Liberty Boys’, a gang of
protestant weavers based in the Liberties area of Dublin, who, from the mid-
Eighteenth century onwards, often clashed with their main rivals, the Ormond
Boys, a gang of Catholic butchers based in the south side of Dublin.

Bully’s Acre, enclosed behind stone walls and locked iron gates, is closed to the
public today. It stands as a quiet, melancholic reminder of times past and it is
difficult to imagine the events described above as they must have played out in
the 18 th and 19 th centuries. However, for a fully immersive experience of this
unique location, there are occasional guided tours of Bully’s Acre organized by
the Office of Public Works. They can be contacted by email at:

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