Sometimes the easiest things to overlook are the ones that can be the most important. Take Glasnevin Cemetery, the subject of a new documentary film: One Million Dubliners. The iconic O’Connell tower is familiar to anyone living in the capital, and for most folk settled in Dublin it is likely that they know someone interred within its long grey walls. As the title suggests, there are
almost as many dead buried (around 1.5 million, but maybe that doesn’t sound as snappy) in the 124 acres of the cemetery as there are people living in the city – and yet it remains a place almost
permanently in the background of our lives.
The work of Underground Films (the same people who brought the Rossport and Shell Oil standoff to our screens in 2010’s The Pipe), One Million Dubliners may not seem to offer the same amount of immediate conflict or drama, but it quickly becomes evident that there are multiple layers of depth at play. Ostensibly the film traces the evolution of the cemetery, from its emergence against a background of Penal Laws and partiality, through its popularity after the War of Independence, to the non-denominational melting pot that it has become today – a space where young and old, rich and poor, religious and non-religious all end up side by side.
As fascinating at Glasnevin’s origins are, there is so much more than a history lesson on offer here. Director Aoife Kelleher has done a stupendous job of weaving intricate and intimate strands of story together to create something that feels truly profound. The film gently moves into other facets of life (and death) at the cemetery, including some of the quirkier elements like the infatuation
attached to revolutionary figures, particularly Michael Collins – whose grave attracts reverent admirers from around the world, some of whom have visited several times a year for decades.
Then there’s an insight into the inner workings of the death industry – the practicalities of plot planning, the challenge of restoration projects, and the necessity of maintaining a steady income following the economic collapse. There is also the nuts and bolts business of cremation and burial, with incredibly insightful interviews from workers who have built their careers in the business. It is within these interviews that the film shifts gear from being a documentary about a place, to being a documentary that explores greater notions of tradition and transcendence, belief and non-belief, and ultimately how we choose to live and die as individuals.
The day-to-day stories from the tour guides and the graveside mourners emerge as the real heart of the film. There are rare moments when a piece of art seems to capture something beyond itself – when the constituent elements at play all seem to line up perfectly, and this is undoubtedly one of them. One Million Dubliners is a prime example of how film can be so much more than just a medium that carries information or entertainment – a film can be as potent as a deathbed conversation or as intimate as a final kiss. And as well as showcasing an aspect of reality, a well-crafted film like this can challenge you to change it. One Million Dubliners is one of the most surprising and poignant films of the year. It may be a little inaccurate to say that you only live once – you have a chance to live every day, but you only die once. So for those of us still possessing the luxury of choice, do yourself a favour and put going to see One Million Dubliners at the top of your bucket list.