On a fresh bright morning, the clock struck 10am on the recently restored clock in the tower at the Brú Chaoimhín on Cork Street.
There was a distant hum of pneumatic drills from a nearby building site on Cork Street, near the bottom of Marrowbone Lane.
Dusty builders in orange and yellow hi-vis jackets emerged from behind scaffolding on a morning break. Few of them seem to notice the quiet and empty green space beside the red-brick James Weir Home for Nurses.
Retired planner and local resident Kieran Rose wants that to change. This green space is the historic Quaker burial ground, a final resting place for the Dublin’s Quaker community in centuries past.
Rose says it has been overlooked, and that it has potential to add to the rediscovery of the history of the wider Liberties area.
Sinn Féin Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh has been pushing for that, too.
“For me, it is about actually preserving it and showing it some tender loving care,” she says. “In my opinion, no graveyard should ever be neglected. It’s a place of rest.”
Quakers in Dublin
At the graveyard gates, the twitter of birds is audible.
There are piles of brown, windswept leaves along the edges of the boundary wall, with some rubbish: disposable coffee cups, white plastic lids, and empty milk cartons.
On a carpet of grass, a single gravestone sticks up into the air. Several others lie flat.
Back in the 17th century, the Liberties and the south-western part of the city were industrial areas, says Rob Goodbody, a Quaker historian.
“Very important for merchants, artisans, and whatever, weavers that sort of thing, in the 17th century,” he says. “That was the heart of the Quaker community in Dublin at the time.”
There was once a Quaker burial ground on Stephen’s Green, but it was small and filled up. So they bought land on Cork Street in the 1690s, he says.
Quakers were somewhat separate at that time from the many of the major religious communities within the city, he says.
They weren’t among the Catholic majority, but didn’t fit in with mainstream Protestants either, he says. “They wouldn’t take oaths for one thing.”
Back then, men had to take oaths to enter university, take office and – for a while – even enter trade guilds, he says.
In time, Quakers broke this last barrier because they were so prominent among merchants and traders in the city, he says. “The system began to allow them to get in without making an oath.”
Quakers played major roles in the social life of the Liberties and Dublin as a whole, he says. “One of the things that Quakers would be known for was their philanthropic works, their works with the poor.”
They were involved in setting up the Cork Street Fever Hospital, which is over the road from the Cork Street graveyard at Brú Chaoimhín.
They also set up a school for the poor people of the Liberties – the largest school in Dublin in its day, which was near where the Guinness brewery is now, he says.
Over time, the Quaker population in the Liberties fell. From the 19th century, many moved out to around Churchtown, Rathfarnham and Monkstown, says Goodbody.
“As their businesses were taking off, they were becoming more … prosperous,” he says. So they fled the gritty air and poor water and sanitation for cleaner, greener areas.
Rose, the retired planner, points to the famous Bewley family, who owned the coffee houses on Grafton Street, Westmoreland Street and Aungier Street.
Eventually the family gave the business to their employees, to run as a workers’ cooperative, he said.
Other notable members of the community included Joseph Fade, who was a successful banker – and had Fade Street named after him.
His house has just been restored on Thomas Street, where Frawley’s shop used to be, says Rose.
Rose also highlights how many Quakers emigrated to the United States in the 17th and 18th century and set up Quaker towns.
It’s unclear how many people are buried beneath the grass in the plot at Cork Street.
“It would be hundreds,” says Goodbody. He’s tried to look at the records, but they don’t always have enough information to tally.
The graveyard has 17 visible headstones with dates written on them from between 1848 and 1860. The majority are horizontal on the carpet of green grass.
One headstone still stands upright. It’s light grey, about half a metre high, and is engraved with the names of two siblings, Sophia and Frederick Webb, who died at the ages of 3 and 7, and were the children of William and Mary Webb.
Beneath a huge beech tree is a family plot for three members of the Edmundson family. The three headstones are engraved with dates: 1849, 1848 and 1859.
Only one headstone is upright for a reason. Up until 1855, the Quaker community didn’t allow its members to put any kind of markers on their graves, says Goodbody.
“The general feeling was that it was the community that mattered, not the individual,” he said.
Quakers didn’t put up monuments to anybody. Even portraits were frowned upon – at least until the middle of the 19th century.
When, at that time, the rules eased up, a few people with family buried in Cork Street put up grave markers over the stones.
Some of the dates on the gravestones are before 1855, but the stones weren’t put there until afterwards, he says. “That’s one of the reasons it’s such a low-key place.”
Because the idea of having grave markers was such a brand-new thing, the format hadn’t been decided.
“Lying them flat was the original idea,” Goodbody says. “Very quickly, they started to put them upright and it was only one in there.”
Rose says that there needs to be a survey of the burial ground, and steps should be taken to preserve and take custody of the site. “The Quaker history is very much undocumented and not really understood,” he says.
What Kind of Space?
At the end of the 19th century, the Quakers sold the burial ground to the Cork Street Fever Hospital because they wanted to build a nurses’ home.
That was built at one end, and the rest is the gardens – and now it’s a home for the elderly, says Goodbody.
Ní Dhálaigh, the Sinn Féin councillor, says there seemed to be a cool reception to the idea of preserving the graveyard at first from the Department for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
That’s changed, though, and the department has agreed to work on the idea, and asked the Minister for Health to ask the HSE – who lease the burial ground – to take a look at what can be done.
The National Monument Service has visited the site to offer advice as part of that, said Ní Dhálaigh.
Rose says it’s a chance to “take advantage of our rich historical assets” in the Liberties, building on the successful restoration work that has been carried out at St James’ Church, which is now the Pearse Lyons distillery.
The dilapidated burial site could be integrated into the development plan for the 4.6 hectare Marrowbone Lane site nearby, he says. The council has plans to redevelop its large depot there.
“We have a duty of care for this [burial] site for posterity,” says Rose. It could start with simple measures like restoring the wall, as was done at St Catherine’s Lane, off Thomas Street.
Goodbody says he thinks there should be as little done with the space as possible, beyond tidying it up and preserving its history.
That would be in keeping with the ethos of Quaker burial grounds. “There was never, back at that time, much of a tradition of visiting graves and things like that,” says Goodbody.
Graveyards were well-kept, the grass trimmed, but that was about it. “You respected the dead by leaving the ground unbuilt on and well-tended,” he says.
Ní Dhálaigh said she noticed the burial ground when she was asking for the jagged barbed wire to be taken off a nearby site, and then noticed the lovely green space.
“I kind of felt a bit guilty that I didn’t know about it,” she said. It’s a side of the Liberties people don’t hear about that much – its long history of religious minorities and immigration.
She said there are good examples of graveyards being preserved and adding to the visible history of a neighbourhood: St Luke’s Church down the road, or the St Catherine’s graveyard, she said.
You have to make sure they’re safe spaces, she says. But “you can be a graveyard and a public space”.
“The first thing they need to do is actually to address the shameful neglect,” she says.
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