Irish Daily Mail
The Dubliner who turned Australia upside-down
Each of the million-plus people buried in Glasnevin Cemetery have their own unique story, including the Dublin man who shocked Sydney by gatecrashing the opening of the Harbour Bridge
AFTER the resounding success of the heartfelt documentary One Million Dubliners, Glasnevin Cemetery enjoyed a visitor boom. Up until now, the cemetery’s 50,000 or so annual visitors have been able to see the final resting places of the likes of Michael Collins, Luke Kelly and Daniel O’Connell on Glasnevin’s official tour. But this month sees the launch of a new tour, and, suffice to say, it’s not your common-or-garden visitor attraction.
The Dead Interesting Tour veers off Glasnevin’s well-worn path and hails the unsung heroes and characters among the one million inhabitants of the iconic graveyard. Most of them have ensured a small place in history for a bewildering amount of reasons. By turns compelling, macabre and downright unbelievable, the Dead Interesting Tour has no shortage of colourful characters. Here are just four who have been often overlooked, until now…
WICKLOW man James O’Connor came from a noted family: his father was an esteemed patriot and O’Connor himself was a journalist and Fenian known for his fiery reputation.
For all the turbulent goings-on in his professional and political life, his family life was famously marred by tragedy. In June 1890, his wife, four children and the family’s maid had gone out to collect mussels at Seapoint in south Co. Dublin. One daughter, Moya, had not been allowed to accompany her siblings due to some minor family disagreement.
The seaside trip would culminate in the death of all six as they died from food poisoning after consuming the mussels.
A newspaper report at the time said: ‘One or two of the elder children had, with the assistance of the domestic, these shellfish stewed and of the dish thus prepared, everyone of the family partook in a greater or less degree. The poisoning symptoms must have set in very rapidly, for when Mr O’Connor arrived at home from Dublin he found the whole family displaying alarming symptoms of illness. All that medical skill could suggest was doubtless performed, but without avail.’
In later life, Moya, the surviving child, would become a close confidante and courier for one of Glasnevin’s most notable occupants: Michael Collins.
The memorial on the grave for the O’Connor family, above, features cherubs that represent those lost on that fateful day – mother Mary, aged 35; Annie, aged 13; Eileen, aged 11; Kathleen, aged seven; and Norah aged five.
TO paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to be buried in Glasnevin once is unfortunate, but to be buried twice is downright careless. But that’s exactly what happened to 54-year- old Maria Higgins from Haddington Terrace in Dublin. Her first funeral, held on July 31, 1858, after Maria died suddenly from a short illness, was unremarkable and like any other, on the face of it.
After a two-day wake, Sweeny’s undertakers took Maria’s coffin to its assigned plot in Glasnevin cemetery. It was tradition at the time for the bereaved to enter the details of the death and funeral in the burial register.
So far, so unremarkable… until the day two years later, when a woman walked into a solicitor’s office on Nassau Street and declared herself to be Maria Higgins. The coffin was exhumed from Glasnevin and found to be full of soil and stones. It transpired that Maria had been left a sum of money – £500, a fortune back then – in a will. The money would only be release on her death for the benefit of any children she might have. Keen to get his own hands on the coffers, her husband Charles Higgins hatched a wily plan; to free the money with a fake death. And after a doctor agreed to confirm Maria’s death for £10 and a bottle of whiskey, it was nearly a perfect crime.
No one knows the reason why Maria decided to come clean to the law, but once she did, her husband and his conspirators were rounded up for trial. Charles was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to two years in prison.
Maria was also found guilty, but escaped prison as she was deemed by the judge to be working for her husband under duress.
She died on July 24, 1871, and was buried close to where her first funeral had taken place. Her death was then duly recorded in the burial register, for a second time.
FRANK DE GROOT
MANY Irishmen have become the stuff of legend in Australia – and for a wide range of reasons – but Frank de Groot found himself front and centre of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, for all the wrong reasons.
The Dubliner of Dutch descent joined the merchant navy at 13 and emigrated to Australia in 1910, aged 18, where he enjoyed a career in antiques and as a soldier. He returned to Ireland briefly, and met and married his wife Mary Elizabeth before returning to settle in Sydney in 1920.
He became a renowned furniture designer and maker. His politics veered to the right and became a zone commander for proto-fascist Eric Campbell, a political rival of the Labour prime minister of the time, JT Lang.
Campbell was determined that Lang would be upstaged at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and de Groot appeared only too happy to oblige.
Mounted on horseback, at the crucial moment, he slashed the opening ribbon with his sword, declaring the bridge open ‘in the name of the decent and respectable people of New South Wales’ in front of 300,000 people. Though convicted of offensive behaviour, de Groot served a writ on the New South Wales police alleging wrongful arrest, ultimately securing a tidy out-of-court settlement.
In the wake of the scandalous event, he became a hero and villain in equal measure to the Australian public. Still a figure of infamy by the time he returned to Dublin in 1950, de Groot had a quieter life once he got home, dabbling in antiques and becoming a member of the Irish Australian Society. He died in a nursing home in 1969, however, his act of valour (or insanity) is still a talking point among Sydneysiders.
THE tour runs every day at 1pm. Tickets cost €13 for adults and €10 for seniors, students and children. Visit glasnevintrust.ie