Waking the Dead: the Battle of Glasnevin Graveyard

Take one angry mob (half-naked), a dead body (two days old), a gang of grave robbers, trigger-happy watchmen (possibly drunk), the cops (also possibly drunk), an arsenal of assorted weaponry, stir violently and serve in a freezing cold graveyard.

Dr. John Fleetwood’s wonderful book ‘The Irish Body Snatchers‘, published by Tomar in 1988 now seems, sadly, to be out of print and rather hard to get. It’s a brilliantly written book: at times grim and scientific and at others hysterically funny and eye-opening.
In his book, Fleetwood extensively quotes from Saunders’ Newsletter. Published between 1746 and 1879, it’s a wealth of contemporary information relating to Sack ’em Up’s and Resurrection Men: a subject which never seems to have failed to sell newspapers.
Grab yer pitchforks!
One of the most remarkable incidents chronicled in Saunders’ Newsletter is the ‘Battle of Glasnevin Graveyard’ (also known as Prospect Cemetery) which took place in January 1830.

The remains of the late Edward Barret Esq.,
having been interred in Glasnevin churchyard on
the 27th of last month, persons were appointed to
remain in the churchyard all night to protect the corpse
from the ‘Sack-’em-Up gentlemen’, and it seems
the precaution was not unnecessary, for, on Saturday
night last, some of the gentry made their appearance,
but soon decamped on finding they were likely to
be opposed.

Endeavouring to get it on
Ok, so far so creepy. Men want to steal a corpse and get chased off. Much like any other weekend in Dublin. But they weren’t put off and came back.

Nothing daunted however, they returned on
Tuesday morning with augmented forces, and well armed.
About ten minutes after two o’clock, three or
four of them were observed standing on the wall of
the churchyard, while several others were endeavouring
to get on it also. The party in the churchyard warned
them off, and were replied to by a discharge from
firearms. This brought on a general engagement;
the Sack-’em-Up gentlemen fired from behind the
tombstones. Upwards of 58 to 60 shots were
fired, one of the body snatchers was seen to fall;
his body was carried off by his companions.
Some of them are supposed to have been severely
wounded, as a great quantity of blood was
observed outside the churchyard wall,
notwithstanding the ground was covered with

And, just when things were looking pretty grim for the enterprising body snatchers, they got a bit grimmer.

During the firing, which continued for
upwards of a quarter of an hour, the church bell
was rung by one of the watchmen, which with the
discharge from the firearms, collected several
of the townspeople and the police to the spot – several
of the former, notwithstanding the severity
of the weather, in nearly a state of nakedness; but
the assailants were by this time defeated and
effected their retreat. Several headstones bear
evident marks of the conflict, being struck with balls etc.

Graveyard Watchtower, GlasnevinWe’re gonna need a bigger coffin
So. Body snatchers, watchmen, half-naked angry villagers and the law engaged in a graveyard gun battle in the middle of a January night. You honestly couldn’t make this stuff up. That said, you would be forgiven for thinking that being chased over the wall of a graveyard by a gun-toting, pitchfork-wielding mob whilst hoping that your innards don’t spill out of the fresh bullet hole in your gut would have been enough to put the graverobbers off. But, no. Unbelievably, they returned the following night.

On Sunday night or early Monday morning a party of
persons who are familiarly called the sack-’em-Ups
visited Glasnevin Churchyard. An armed party was
watching a corpse that had been deposited there
during the day and observing those humble friends of
science and humanity getting over the wall they
fired on them. Some of them must have been wounded
as blood was afterwards discovered on the wall.
The same party stationed themselves in the
churchyard the following evening when they
discharged a few shots to let the resurrectionists
know they were at their posts.


Watchtowers and unmarried women
Glasnevin graveyard still bears the scars and effects of the time; the watchtowers of the ever-vigilant guards are still visible today. If anyone can find any bullet holes, please snap a picture and send it to us.
Glasnevin is the last resting place of many famous men and women, political figures and revolutionaries alike. It is, also, now home to the remains of Ireland’s forgotten and unwanted; the group known as the Magdalene women, those unfortunate women who committed no other crime than to fall foul of Ireland’s fear of unmarried sex.


Find out more:
National Library records of Saunders’ Newsletter
Glasnevin graveyard (tours available)
Waking the Dead:
Full list of all articles in the Waking the Dead series

Damien DeBarra was born in the late 20th century and grew up in Dublin, Ireland. He now lives in London, England where he shares a house with four laptops, three bikes and a large collection of chairs.


  1. Hey guys,
    It was so terrific to meet you, and I’m enjoying reading my way round blather.com, and the articles.
    Our website is about to be revised, so it should look much better soon. But the information on the current format is all good.
    I look forward to seeing you at Babalon performance on Friday, 16 December, at the RADA theatre. Perhaps we can go for a drink after – except dave who has his Greenpeace warehouse rave to attend to.
    I may submit some short pieces to Blather, as I am a writer of short, quirky weird shit. Publish or reject as you prefer….
    Speak soon,

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