One Millions Dubliners
Glasnevin is one of Dublin’s, and Ireland’s, historical treasures, an intrinsic part of the city that offers a firm link to a long stretch of its history. It is fair to say that the cemetery really is the Irish equivalent of America’s Arlington (even if Glasnevin is actually older) and any mass resting place for the dead is bound to produce a certain curiosity, morbid or otherwise. But Glasnevin has the additional attraction of being the final point on life’s journey for such a wide cadre of major historical figures for this country, from O’Connell to Collins, and that means there is fertile ground for a loser look at just how things work in a place where there are, quite literally, one million Dubliners to be looked after.
Documentarian Aoife Kelleher takes an in-depth look at Glasnevin cemetery in One Million Dubliners, and the various parts of its day to day business. There’s tour guides for history, cremators for the more modern entrants to the graveyard, singers, foreigners and various different class of mourners. But what is it about Glasnevin that attracts so much interest?
One Million Dubliners could be accused of being overly sentimental or of trying to play on the emotions of the audience to an extent that borders on manipulative. But, in truth, I feel that the flaw in One Million Dubliners is more about the the overall point of the exercise. Documentaries must either inform or explore. One Million Dubliners does a good bit of informing, which is fine, but it is in the exploring that it sort of falls down.
That is not to say that One Million Dubliners is a bad film. It isn’t. Framing itself around the work of Glasnevin’s tour guide Shane Mac Thomáis, it jumps from topic to topic at a reasonable rate, showcasing many of the lesser known but still fascinating parts of how the people at Glasnevin – staff, mourners and visitors – do their thing. Some of the segments stand out more than others of course. There’s the rather disturbing glimpse at the people, many of them ignorant of the man before Neil Jordan’s biopic, who flock repeatedly to the grave of Michael Collins in a cult-like fashion. Seriously, some of those interviews were actually rather chilling.
There’s the cremators, who are so inured to the reality of their five a day job that their method can seem shockingly impersonal, and even disrespectful, to those viewing that job for the first time, though by the end of that segment I think that a good enough job had been done at engendering a a level of understanding about such a job. There are those who go to mourn deceased infants and the miscarried, denied access to the consecrated found of the main part of the cemetery, perhaps the most saddening part of the production. And there are the varied amount of staff, florists, receptionists and gravediggers, who man what has rapidly become a very popular tourist attraction thanks to more recent investment, as well as most hallowed ground.
There is plenty to be learned about the Glasnevin’s operation in One Million Dubliners, and that stuff is genuinely interesting. On an emotional level, One Million Dubliners is also a success, creating a narrative around its central players that is surprisingly affecting, especially because of its unexpectedly sad ending. I suppose it isn’t too hard to play on human emotions when the entire exercise revolves something like the final resting places of the dead, and you certainly feel something when you hear the top brass of the cemetery talk about how their stone fast policy is to never, ever, disturb the dead, even if coffins, due to soil movement over the years, encroach on other plots.
But I do think that One Million Dubliners goes off the rails a little bit, primarily when it tries to be deeper and more philosophical than it has to be. The recurring question asked of every interviewee and contributor is, essentially, “What do you think happens to us after we’re dead?” It’s a major question that does fit the surrounds of the documentary, but a big part of me felt like it was too simple an approach to make, and offered little to what else One Million Dubliners was trying to do.
Nobody that Kelleher talks to has anything particularly noteworthy to say on that score, or at least nothing that you haven’t heard before. An afterlife or nothing is what it boils down to, like it always does. More interesting to me were peoples opinions on the varying methods, especially burial or cremate, of how to treat bodies after death. Coming on the heels of an in-depth look at just what cremation entails behind the scenes, it seemed to be a far more pertinent question to be exploring.
Visually, One Million Dubliners is impressive, with lots of high quality camerawork showing off every corner of the cemetery. Yes, it gets a little bit repetitive, seeing the ranks and ranks of tombstones, but there is also an interesting variety in eve the bog standard editions. There are monuments and mausoleums of outstanding vividness and beauty in Glasnevin, and One Million Dubliners makes sure to show most of them off in their turn.
Kelleher makes the decision to stay behind the camera and let her subjects speak for themselves with only inferred direction, and this communal narration helps add the sense of the cemeteries various facets coming together to tell its story, with as broad a scope as possible. This approach helps to paint a large picture of the cemetery, and with just 83 or so minutes to play around with, I found this to be an impressive achievement.
There’s even room for a bit of music to be a part of the proceedings in One Million Dubliners, surrounding another of the graveyards more famous personalties, that of Luke Kelly. Much like Michael Collins, Kelly’s final resting place is a draw for a variety of people, though in the case of Kelly I felt like the obsession was based much more on a genuine feeling of connection. The use of Kelly’s rendition of “The Night Visiting Song”, twice, was perfect for the production.
One Million Dubliners will probably not live long in the memory, but still manages to offer a glimpse into the workings of one of Ireland’s more notable tourist attractions. Parts of it do not work as well as they possibly could, there is a sense that the production lacks a lasting point, and the sentimentality of the entire exercise could have been streamlined to a better extent. But in terms of this kind of attraction focused documentary, One Million Dubliners can class itself as one of the better ones. I’m reminded, looking back at One Million Dubliners, of the way that Mrs Browns Boys: D’Movie tried, and in my opinion failed, to glorify Dublin’s Moore Street as an intrinsic part of the city. One Million Dubliners, in a non-fiction way, does the same job far, far better.
Postscript: I must, unfortunately, register my displeasure at seeing this documentary receive an airing on terrestrial television so soon after its cinema release, a practice I find very irritating and disrespectful to cinema-goers. The system is designed so people pay for a ticket to avoid a significant wait to see the content for free on smaller screens. In the case of a documentary like this, this goes even further, lacking any kind of big budget visual element that would encourage seeing it on a big screen. Regardless of the why – creator decision, financing obligations or what have you – it is simply put that I would probably not have forked over the cash for a cinema ticket and associated costs if I had known I could have seen the same content, for free (or for whatever minuscule slice of the TV license it would have cost) such a short time later. For this reason, One Million Dubliners has slipped a bit in my estimation.
(All images are copyright of Underground Films).