The archaeologist who designed the monument to Ireland’s golden age

The O'Connell Memorial at Glasnevin

After reading Peter Carvill’s comments on the “Monuments and created and appropriated continuity” post about the O’Connoll memorial at Glasnevin, I decided to have another look around the site. Glasnevin is an excellent example of a created continuity. The site today appears to have a vestige of antiquity about, but is in fact an invention of the mid-nineteenth century.

As part of the project of Irish national development the early archaeologist George Petrie was invited in 1851 to design a monument for the Irish nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell. Petrie, regarded by some as the founding father of Irish archaeology, had been head of the Placenames and Antiquities section of the Irish Ordnance Survey and President of the Royal Hibernian Academy. In 1833 he was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Irish Academy for his essay Origin and Uses of the Round Towers of Ireland that proved beyond challenge that the most prominent monuments in the Irish landscape, the Round Towers, were not built by invading Danes but by the Irish of the Early Christian era. In the following years the Round Tower had become one of primary symbols of Irish national resurgence.

The site chosen for the monument to O’Connell was not a historical site like the Hill of Tara, with its existing history and mythology, but the site of the new catholic cemetery established in 1832 under O’Connell’s patronage in the Dublin suburb of Glasnevin. The Committee of Glasnevin Cemetery, whose members were largely drawn from O’Connell’s Catholic Association established in 1823, had appealed to the O’Connell family for the body and had then paid for it to be returned from Italy where he had died. With O’Connell’s remains at Glasnevin the Committee planned to build a tomb and monument on the site. Although this was a new site the monument still had to refer back to what was perceived as the Irish golden age and Petrie was chosen as the acknowledged expert. His vision was to recreate the core structures of an Early Christian monastic site, the Round Tower, Church and High Cross. O’Connell’s tomb was placed in the crypt, which took the form of a circular barrow or burial mound enclosed by a ditch that gave access to the crypt beneath. Atop the barrow a massive 51m Round Tower was constructed, the largest ever built in Ireland. However, Petrie’s original plan was not fully realised as the whole plan was not completed. The mortuary chapel was not built until 1870 and the High Cross was never completed.

The result was an extraordinary monument and statement of national resurgance. O’Connell’s monument is a good example of the creation of continuity. The national icon O’Connell was not memorialised on an old site or at an old monument with its own history and mythology but at a completely new site where a new history and mythology were being created. Yet the form of the monument still looked back to and improved on an idealised golden age. Here at Glasnevin a new mythology could be developed by a new rising elite freed from the shackles of history but looking back to and claiming continuity with an imagined golden age. Here also one of the founding fathers of Irish archaeology found a role as the architect of the link to Ireland’s golden age.

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. The archaeologist who designed the monument to Ireland’s golden age. The Charles Mount Blog, June 29, 2011.