Books

Shaking hands with the dead
Grave Matters: Death and Dying in Dublin from 1500 to the Present ed. by Lisa Marie Griffith & Ciarán Wallace (Four Courts Press, €24.95)

One of the stranger experiences of  my childhood was a visit to the vaults of  old St Michan’s where it was then possible not only to see the coffins of the patriot Sheares brothers, but also to shake hands with the mummies of a supposed crusader and a nun. 

This is no longer done and in any case the bodies were not quite as advertised, being rather more modern than medieval.

In fact they fell into the period of modern Dublin covered by this most interesting book. Death is an event where pain,  joy, pride, unsettling hopes for the future, and regret for the past all come together.

Experience

It is the common experience of mankind, but every culture, indeed every Christian culture has their own way of dealing with it. 

This is true of  Ireland, and as this book reveals, especially true of Dublin, which has always had its own ways (however much they may be overlaid with rural customs and modern American ways of doing things imported, like so much in our society, from the US).

It consists of some 14 papers given at a conference in Glasnevin back in 2014. One of the papers deal with post-mortem memorial photography - though not quite as graphically as that remarkable book Wisconsin Death Trip (1974) by Michael Lesy - which laid bare the urgency to preserve something of the living in a permanent way, when mere faith seems not to answer.

Theme

But the theme of any book such as this must be the conflict between our hopes and fears, between the inevitability of change, decay, and death, and the striving for permanence, summed up in Shelly’s ‘Ozymandius’. 

This book touches on many themes of life and history in Dublin and can be highly recommended to all readers, grim and haunting though the topics covered are.