‘They burst the patent coffin first
And then cut through the lead
And they laughed aloud when they saw the shroud
Because they had got at the dead’
– from Southey’s ballad ‘the Surgeon’s Warning’
The 18th and 19th centuries brought a lot of advancements in the area of science and the growth in the study of human anatomy brought about a huge thirst for cadavers for trainee surgeons and doctors. Due to this a lucrative trade in corpses developed on quite a large scale in Dublin. The body-snatchers were also known as ‘resurrection men’ or ‘sack-’em-ups’ and it seems that almost all graveyards were fair game. There are many recorded incidents of corpses being taken from St Andrews’ Church graveyard – the current home of the Dublin Tourism Office, and also at Glasnevin. Many different methods were used to counteract the body-snatching epidemic, some families placed large iron frames around the graves, also there was a marked increase in the number of incredibly heavy grave-slabs used rather than tombs, but the biggest deterrent was the watchtowers erected during the 1700s to meet the ‘sack-’em-ups’ with a little more firepower!
Of course the watchtower in Glasnevin cemetery is one of the most well known and finest examples of this form of defence, however the country is dotted with these towers truly showing the extent of the problem. At Cruagh a pre-Norman church stood for many years on the site of the current watchtower. During the 1700s a lot of the old parishes were amalgamated so a functioning church may no longer have been needed at Cruagh but the dead still needed protection. The tower was built around his time and all that remains of the old church are the overgrown and scant ruins of the Western and Eastern gables.
To this day a large imposing window on the towers north face looms over the surrounding collapsed and forgotten gravestones apparently the tower stretches a few feet underground but is currently inaccessible.
Cruagh Watchtower is a unique place, standing in a walled corner of a newer, functioning cemetery, the fears and worries about the body-snatchers just a distant memory.
GPS: 53.25753, -6.30173