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My Grandfather's Grave

The following article is the winner of our recent Clann Competition. A copy of "Caomhánach" - People, Places & Papers is on its way to Owen Kavanagh.


I vividly remember that warm Dublin afternoon in 2001. It was mid-August and the heat rose in waves from the pavement as I crossed the road to the car park in Glasnevin Cemetery. I had accomplished what I set out to do; I found where my grandfather was buried, but there was no sense of satisfaction, only sadness. I felt cheated and I wondered, did my grandfather, somehow, feel cheated too?

Owen Kavanagh

I never knew my grandfather, Owen Kavanagh. Indeed, my knowledge of him was very limited. Over the years I’d heard only little snippets of information about him. He was a carpenter, he travelled to Belfast and England to find work, he sang in a choir, his name was inscribed on a plaque in a church, he hid in a sewer to escape from the “Tans” and he was only in his forties when he passed away. I remember once asking my mother where my grandfather was buried and if she and my father ever visited his grave on their trips to Ireland. She told me he was interred in Glasnevin and that they had gone there once in the 1950's. Unfortunately, it was nearly closing time when they arrived and, as a result, they weren’t able to look for the grave site. She added that they never returned to the cemetery after that day.

Mary Dench

That conversation stayed with me through the years and when I finally returned to Ireland in 1996 I was hopeful I could develop some information that would lead me to my grandfather’s grave. But, vacations in Ireland can be hectic with most of your time devoted to looking up relatives and sightseeing. There is usually little opportunity to make side trips. I wasn’t able to get to Glasnevin Cemetery, but did manage a visit to the General Register Office in Lombard Street. I was successful in locating the record of my grandfather’s 1900 marriage to Mary Dench, but I couldn’t find anything on his birth or death.

Several days later, during a visit with cousins from the Dench side of my family, it was mentioned that my grandmother was buried in Deans Grange Cemetery in Blackrock. I thought it was strange for a husband and wife to be buried in different cemeteries and when I asked how this came about, no one knew the answer. It was a wonderful vacation, but I returned home to the States without having made any real progress in my search. All I learned was that my grandparents did not share the same final resting place.

I came back to Dublin in 1997 and one of the first things I did was visit Glasnevin Cemetery. Based on conversations with my mother years before, I believed that my grandfather had passed away in 1918 or 1919. I supplied this information to one of the clerks in the cemetery office and was directed to the grave of an Owen Kavanagh who died in 1918, but there was no headstone at the site. Believing that this was my grandfather’s plot, I built a little cairn of stones and promised that he would have his memorial. Luckily, when I went back to the office, the clerk checked the 1918 register further and found that this particular Owen Kavanagh was 73 years old at the time of his demise. He couldn’t be my grandfather; he was too old. Damn it, I was back to square one.

It was another four years before I returned to Dublin. When I came back in 2001 I started the search all over again. I made a second trip to the General Register Office which ended with the same result - I could not find a record of my grandfather’s death. I was still without the starting point I so badly needed. It was at this juncture that I made a fortuitous decision: I would visit the church in Upper Gardener Street and view the plaque my mother told me about.

St. Francis Xavier is a beautiful old-style church on the north side of Dublin’s City Centre. It didn’t take long to locate a large golden plaque that was dedicated to the deceased members of the Confraternity of St. Francis Xavier. Half way down the left hand side of the tablet, in bold letters, was an entry that read, “Owen Kavanagh 1 October 1922.” What a rush! Could this be the date of my grandfather’s passing? Yes, the church office confirmed it was. Now I had something to go on. My next stop would be Glasnevin Cemetery.

I made sure I arrived at the cemetery with time to spare, quickly filled out the required form and waited expectantly. It didn’t take long for the clerk to return with a large volume that listed burials for the year 1922. A check of the register revealed that my grandfather’s grave was located in the St. Paul section just across the road from the office. The entry stated that Owen Kavanagh, 45, carpenter, of 611 North Circular Road, Dublin, died of heart failure at the City Hospital of Dublin on 1 October 1922 and was buried on 4 October.

The clerk said there was additional information I should know before we went to the site. He told me that the register also showed that Mary Kavanagh, my grandmother, purchased the grave site and made a down payment of 3 pounds 6 shillings. No headstone was ever erected and, unfortunately, she never finished paying for the grave. Under the terms of the contract, if payment was not made in full, ownership of the site would revert to the cemetery and after 30 years the plot could be resold. Glasnevin eventually resold the grave to a family named Kehoe. James Kehoe was buried there in 1958 and his wife, Mary, in 1992.

It was with terribly mixed emotions that I walked to the St. Paul section. The gentleman from the office quickly located the grave which featured a beautiful black stone with gold lettering and the plot was obviously well cared for. As I stood there, thoughts of my own father raced through my mind. When did he visit the cemetery? Was it in 1955 or 1956? Why hadn’t he gone back? I knew he would have paid the balance of the bill if he had been made aware of it. Then another thought struck me. Was it possible, on that day long ago, that my parents did arrive early enough to learn, as I did, that the grave site had been resold? Were they too embarrassed to ever talk about it? I’ll never know the answers to these questions.

I’ve travelled to Ireland every year since 2001, but just like my father, I’ve never gone back to Glasnevin Cemetery. Sometimes when I recall these events, I wish to God I hadn’t been so persistent in my search. But, there are other times when I think about the possibility of purchasing a plot in St Paul’s and erecting a memorial to my grandfather.

Perhaps the search will not end until I do something that will finally mark his passing.


Owen Kavanagh - Clann Member