Bully’s Acre (officially, the Hospital Fields) is a former public cemetery located near the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin.
Behind a black gate off the entranceway to the expansive grounds of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, now the Irish Museum of Modern Art, lies a large, green field that is home to Dublin’s oldest cemetery.
In the first part of this field is a large, dappled grey headstone which was erected by the Dublin Corporation to honour those who were buried in the Bully’s Acre area in the “distant past”. Bully’s Acre, next to the privates’ graveyard, was where Dubliners were brought to be buried, and the 3.7 acre site is hidden behind a tall stone wall and locked gate. Across the path from it is situated the officers’ graveyard; it too is locked and inaccessible to the public.
There was a graveyard on this spot for over a thousand years. The graveyard is believed to hold the graves of some of those killed at the Battle of Clontarf, including a son and grandson of Brian Boru. Over time it became more famous as a pauper’s cemetery, as the land was believed to be common ground, and no charges were required for burials. But not only paupers were buried here, as many respectable Catholic citizens made use of the land, as after the Reformation there was no official Catholic graveyard in the city.
The site wasn’t always quiet or controversy-free: In 1737, officers stationed at the Royal Hospital complained about the large numbers of people who would visit there, as well as those visiting the nearby St John’s Well. Public burials were banned in 1755 at Bully’s Acre, and high walls were built around the graveyard. General Dilkes, Commander of the Forces, caused the gravestones to be levelled, and a prominent high cross bore the brunt of this, being damaged in the act.
However, public outcry led to locals visiting the graveyard en masse, and tearing down the walls to make it accessible. In 1795, damage done to the graveyard was restored with funds from the Grand County Jury, and the shaft of the damaged cross was re-erected. Today, it is no longer used as a graveyard, and the sprinkling of headstones gives no hint that there are thousands of bodies buried within the uneven ground.
Grave robbing back in the 18th century was a common activity and actually contributed towards the evolution of medicine and surgery. It was only legal for surgeons to carry out anatomies on the bodies of convicted murderers who were hung for their crimes, but as these usually numbered only around 20 or 30 a year, this wasn’t enough to satisfy the need of the medical experts (who would perform autopsies to educate their students as well as learn more about the human body). Grave robbing brought body snatchers money, while surgeons could charge money to people who wanted to watch a dissection.
There were many well-known people who were buried at Bully’s Acre, and some who were buried and then removed. Robert Emmet was buried there in 1803 after being killed on Thomas St, but soon after this, his body was removed and buried in another unknown location. His final resting place is still unknown.
The famous Irish boxer Dan Donnelly was also buried there for a time, following his death in 1820. But his corpse was removed by medical students – and only returned, after public outcry, once an arm had been removed. In 1953 the arm ended up on display in the Hideout, a public house in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, for many years.
Bully’s Acre closed to the public following the cholera epidemic of 1832, though some burials took place until 1835. By this time Goldenbridge and Glasnevin cemeteries were available for Catholics.
Photo: Bully’s Acre Graveyard in Kilmainham, Dublin 8