Ireland’s funeral traditions have been well documented and in modern times some of Ireland’s most famous citizens have been honoured with very large funerals. Today the ceremony and reverence displayed at a state funeral is often conveyed on television and with access to instant media, the large funerals of the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century have become less common. This is a list of thirty of the largest funerals ever seen in Ireland.
To attract an attendance of over 15,000 at your funeral in 1729 was a remarkable achieved both to your status and the efforts of those to attend in an era when transport options were limited. This though is the esteem to which William Connolly, known as The Speaker Connolly was held when he died in November 1729. Born in Ballyshannon the son of an innkeeper, Connolly rose to become the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and a popular politician. Once in charge of the Revenue Commissioners though his position as the Speaker he was the de facto PM in Ireland. His legacy was to build the impressive Castletown House as the family residence which can still be seen today.
In the mid-19th century with a growing sense of Irish nationalism in the face of the worst famine to hit the country, the funeral of the nationalist Daniel O’Connell was bound to draw a large crowd. O’Connell, after whom the main thoroughfare of our capital is named, died in August 1847 in Genoa, Italy and his body returned to Ireland for burial. According to the London Times 100,000 lined the streets of the city to bid farewell to the native of County Kerry.
In March 1861, the Evening Post reported that on a desperately wet day, over 20,000 people attended the funeral of Captain John Boyd O’Neill. O’Neill was Captain of HMS Ajax and had lost his life heroically saving others as a storm raged in the Irish Sea. He was buried in St. Patrick’s Catederal.
In November 1861, Fermanagh born Young Irelander Terence Bellew McManus died in San Francisco and his body transported to Ireland for burial. He had taken part in the 1848 Rebellion and having been convicted was sent to Van Diemen’s land. He escaped from Australia after three years and made his way to the United States. His funeral to Glasnevin cemetery according to the ‘The Nation’ newspaper was watched by over a quarter of a million people on the streets of Dublin. Of that total 50,000 marched behind the coffin as it made its way through the city.
When the Most Reverend Daniel O’Connor, the Bishop of Saldes died at the Augustinian Friary at John’s Lane Church in July 1867, fifty thousand Dubliners lined the cortege route from Thomas Street to Glasnevin Cemetery. Born in 1786, he joined the priesthood in 1810, he spent many years on the missions in India. He returned to Ireland suffering from ill health caused by the extreme tropical conditions to continue as a popular bishop in Dublin for over twenty years. These years included the worst of the famine years and the political upheaval caused by the growing rebellious movement across Ireland against British rule. He passed at the age of 81.
In May 1876, The Nation newspaper reported that a crowd in excess of 20,000 ‘sombre souls’ lined the funeral route for Joseph P Ronayne in his native Cork City. Born in 1822 the son of a Cork glass maker he made his name as a civil engineer especially through the expansion of the railways in Munster. He was elected as a Cork member of Parliament for the Home Rule League in a 1872 bye election, retaining the seat in the 1874 General Election. He died in Queenstown and in an obituary he was described as being ‘endeared by all, by a noble generosity, a genuine spirit of self-abnegation, a modesty that could conseal neither his remarkable powers not the brillancy of his wit. A gracious manner, open handed charity and a kindly heart.’
In October 1891, Dublin would witness one of the biggest funerals ever seen in the city, even to this day. Even at the relatively young age of 45 at his death, Charles Stewart Parnell left a lasting impression on his nation and a legacy that helped Ireland achieve independence. Born in Avondale, Co. Wicklow he was elected to the British House of Commons in April 1875 as a nationalist MP. His Home Rule party, The Irish Parliamentary Party struggled for the morale high ground with revolutionary nationalists like the IRB but his party in 1885 held the balance of power in Westminster and his support of the Liberal Government was conditional on Home Rule being adopted for Ireland. At the height of his success, a personal scandal when it was revealed that he was having a longtime affair with a married woman Kitty O’Shea and had fathered a number of his children irrevocably damaged his reputation and career. When he died in 1891 after a gruelling election campaign when he was already in ill health took his life, nearly a quarter of a million people lined the streets of cold snowy Dublin to bid farewell to the Irish patriot and statesman.
In a new century in March 1903, one of the old guard of Irish nationalism Charles Gavan Duffy died in France. His body was returned to Ireland where the Freeman’s Journal reported in excess of 20,000 on the streets of the capital to watch his coffin being transported from the docks to the Pro Cathedral and onwards to Glasnevin Cemetery.
One of the biggest funerals ever witnessed as an orchestrated piece of nationalist theatre. When the elderly leader of the IRB, Jerimiah O’Donovan Rossa died in New York, his body was transported back to Ireland in July 1915 for a stage managed funeral to Glasnevin which will historically be remembered for Patrick Pearse’s graveside oration which included the famous quotation, ‘they have left us our Fenian dead, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace’. The rallying cry was the opening verbal shots of the 1916 Easter Rising. Twenty thousand marched behind the hearse from the Pro-Cathedral on Marlborough Street to Glasnevin with the streets lined by over 150,000 according to Irish Independent and the Freeman’s Journal.
As the green fields of France turned crimson red with blood, a German U boat off the coast of County Cork caught the ocean liner The Lusitania in its torpedo crosshairs. On May 5th 1915, as she reached the conclusion of her cross Atlantic crossing from New York to Liverpool with 1,962 guests and crew on board she was sunk by German torpedoes. 1,198 people lost their lives in the icy waters off the Cork Coast. Bodies that were recovered were taken to Queenstown (Cobh) where a mass grave was prepared long before a DNA service could identify those who had no personal belongings to repatriate them to their families. According to British Pathe over 10,000 lined the route as one hundred and forty-eight unidentified victims were taken to a small cemetery the crowds made up of locals and military personal based in Cork.
The most deaths the following year was those executed in the aftermath of the Rising but they were not accorded a normal burial instead buried by the British in then unmarked graves. In September 1917 more than forty thousand lined Dublin streets in defiance of the British authorities to witness the funeral of Thomas Ashe who had died following complications in Mountjoy Prison when he was force fed by the prison authorities after being on hunger strike. The British in their clumsy attempts not to create another martyr for Irish nationalism offered the perfect patriot for a huge funeral on the streets of battle damaged Dublin.
Outside the capital, in Cork in November 1920 the Mayor of Ireland’s second largest city Terence McSwiney died on Hunger Strike at Brixton prison in England after 74 days on strike. Future Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh who was in London at the time of McSwiney’s death remarked, ‘a nation that has such citizens will never surrender’. After the murder of his mayoral predecessor Thomas McCurtain on March 20th 1920, McSwiney was elected mayor. He was arrested by the British military forces on August 12th and sentenced to two years in prison following a court martial charged with having seditious material. Thirty thousand filed passed his coffin at St. George’s Catederal in London. Fearing a massive Republican funeral in Dublin, the British forced his family to take his body directly to Cork. Despite heavy and at times brutal security arrangements put in place by the British, over 15,000 attended the funeral in Cork where McSwiney was laid to rest in St. Finbar’s Cemetery.
The politician who would deliver the graveside oration for Terence McSwiney would be the recipient of the next big funeral in Dublin in August 1922, when Arthur Griffith died. Griffith had headed the delegation that attended Downing Street for the Treaty negotiations at the end of the War of Independence. He worked tirelessly and even though ill continued a heavy workload leading to his collapse and death on a Dublin street on August 12th 1922. According to various newspapers reports of the day over 100,000 people lined the streets of Dublin from the Pro Catederal to Glasnevin cemetery four days later. One of the most high profile mourners was Michael Collins who would replace Griffith’s as the de facto head of state.
Collins himself morbidly would be the next big funeral in Dublin. Ten days after Griffith’s death, while touring his native County Cork, Michael Collins’s motorcade was ambushed near Beal na Blath outside Macroom. In the midst of a bloody Civil War, the Free State forces transported Collins’s body via ship from Cork to Dublin where his body lay in state at City Hall. The funeral mass was celebrated by the Archbishop of Dublin Rev. Byrne along with 300 priests. A gun carraige drawn by six black horses carried the coffin and fourteen further cars were required for the wreaths. To allow as many as possible to witness the occasion, the cortege left the Pro Cathederal and headed down Gardiner Street, over Butt Bridge onto Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street), around Merrion Square, onto St Stephens Green, down Grafton Street, through O’Connell Street and onto Glasnevin via Dorset Street taking over four hours to pass any one point on the route. A half a million people paid their respects to the fallen leader followed by a graveside oration delivered by General Richard Mulcahy before internment.
In April 1932, one of the largest funerals for a woman took place when the mother of the executed 1916 leader Patrick Pearse, Margaret passed away. Having lost two sons to the executioner’s bullets in 1916, Patrick and William, Margaret continued to be a political activist for the rest of her life. In 1921 she was elected as a Sinn Fein MP but having taken the anti-treaty side during the subsequent debates in Dail Eireann she left with DeValera. She helped DeValera found Fianna Fail and also strived to keep open her son’s school St. Enda’s in Rathfarnham raising thousands to keep it going. Her funeral, soon after Fianna Fail and DeValera had taken power for the first time was a propaganda coup for the new Government. An estimated 40,000 filed passed her coffin laying in state in City Hall and over 100,000 lined the four mile route from Westland Row to Glasnevin where DeValera delivered the graveside oration.
One of the saddest funerals in Dublin was that of three firemen Thomas Nugent, Peter McArdle and Robert Malone of Tara Street station who were killed as they fought a fire on Pearse Street in October 1936. Led by Eamon DeValera and members of the Government, along with the families of the fallen firefighters and colleagues from Dublin, Ireland and further afield, the cortege travelled from the con-celebrated Mass in Westland Row to Glasnevin watched by what the Irish Press estimated as 100,000 people but other sources put the total nearer 40,000, still an impressive turn out in tribute. A volley of shot was fired over the graves by colleagues of Robert Malone, who had served alongside DeValera in Boland’s Mill during the Easter Rising.
In November 1960, Ireland was taking its place amongst the nations of the world and lending its weight to UN peacekeeping missions around the world but events in the Congo would according to the Irish Independent bring 300,000 Irish citizens onto the streets of Dublin to pay tribute to 9 Irish soldiers murdered at the Niemba ambush in the Congo. Those who died were Kevin Gleeson and Michael McGuinn from Carlow, Hugh Gaynor, Peter Kelly, Liam Dougan, Matthew Farrell, Thomas Fennell, Anthony Browne and Gerard Killeen all from Dublin.
In the days before the Easter Rising, former British diplomat Roger Casement was arrested for treason for his contacts with the Germans as he attempted to land arms off the coast of Kerry. He was secretly transported to London where he was tried and executed at Penteville Prison. In accordance with most execution he was buried within the prison walls in an unmarked grave but as relations between the two islands thawed, Roger Casement’s body was returned to Ireland for burial at Glasnevin cemetery in March 1965. According to the Evening Herald 30,000 lined the streets of the capital as the cortege passed the GPO on its way to the northside burial grounds.
Dublin born Sean T. O’Kelly became Ireland’s second President in June 1945 and served two terms. A veteran of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, he served in various roles including Sinn Fein’s envoy to the US after the Civil War and in various Fianna Fail cabinets after 1932. He passed away in November 1966 with the Irish Press reporting 30,000 lining the streets of the capital to bid farewell to the former President.
As 1969 arrived the troubles in Northern Ireland intensified and in September 1971 the death of a fourteen year schoolgirl shot dead in Derry brought 10,000 out onto the streets of the Maiden city for her funeral. Annette McGavigan was caught in crossfire between an IRA unit and British soldiers near her home in the Bogside. She became the 100th civilian to be killed since the start of the troubles and her memory remembered in the ‘Death of Innocence’ mural in the Bogside where she is depicted in her green school uniform. Civil rights leaders including Ivan Cooper and John Hume attended the large funeral.
One of the survivors of the Easter Rising and a man at the heart of Irish history for over a quarter of a century Eamonn DeValera died aged 92 years in August 1975. His wife of 65 years passing away earlier the same year. Having cheated the executioner bullet after the Rising, he would go on to lead the anti-treaty forces during the Civil War and in its aftermath found a new party Fianna Fail who came to power in 1932. He led the Government until 1959 when he became President of Ireland serving two terms in Aras An Uachtarain. Over the first weekend of September, his casket lay in State at St Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Castle and according to the Irish Examiner more than 100,000 filed through the great hall to pay their respects. More than 100,000 lined the streets of Dublin as the cortege travelled up O’Connell Street passed the GPO and onto Glasnevin for burial.
One of the few sportsmen to make the list is the great Cork hurler Christy Ring. When he died in March 1979 he was a legend in the GAA. Just 58 years old when he suffered a massive heart attack as he walked along the streets of his beloved city, Christy’s prowess as a centre forward earned him nine Munster titles, eight All Ireland titles and eighteen railway cups hurling with Munster. In 2000 he was named as the right wing forward on the team of the millennium. The former Taoiseach and fellow Cork native Jack Lynch said upon his passing
‘As long as young men will match their hurling skills against each other on Ireland's green fields, as long as young boys swing their camáns for the sheer thrill of the feel and the tingle in their fingers of the impact of ash on leather, as long as hurling is played the story of Christy Ring will be told. And that will be forever.’
Two years later saw one of the biggest funerals ever seen on the island in May 1981. Following sixty six days on hunger strike at the Maze prison also known as the H-Blocks, twenty seven year old Bobby Sands died. During his strike and incasaration he was elected as a British member of parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Sands became the first of ten Reublican prisoners to die during that period as the Brotosh Government refused to give into the demands of the prisoners who were seeking political status rather than. Over 150,000 people lined the streets of Belfast as Sands was buried in the Republican plot at Milltown Cemetery.
In June 1996, as IRA subversives attempted to rob a cash in transit van in Adare, Co Limerick, the gang opened fire on two Garda special branch detectives who were protecting the delivery. Garda Jerry McCabe was shot dead, His funeral was attempted by in excess of 40,000 shocked locals lined the funeral route through Limerick City with mourners led by his wife Anne. Four IRA men were subsequently convicted of manslaughter of the Garda.
The sudden passing of motor cycling superstar Joey Dunlop following an accident in Estonia drew in excess of 50,000 to the small town of Ballymoney Co. Antrim. It took the hearse bearing the sports stars body who had made the famous Isle of Man TT races over an hour to travel the single mile from his family home to the local church for the funeral service.