Arbour Hill is definitely not one of Dublin's most glamorous cemeteries, but if you are interested in the Easter Rising of 1916 and/or Ireland's military history, you cannot avoid going here. You must not. If, however, you only have a passing interest and are limited on time ... give it a miss. The "sight" as such is nothing to write home about, to be brutally honest, it has been sanitised and the only thing worth seeing is the memorial to the executed leaders of 1916. It is the final resting place of fourteen executed nationalist rebels of the ill-fated rebellion, so if you start your tour at the GPO, walk to St. Stephen's Green, then visit the National Museum in Collins Barracks before going to Kilmainham Gaol and finally finish up here ... you really have followed the course of the Easter Rising.
Pros and Cons
Arbour Hill Cemetery is essential visiting for all those interested in the 1916 Easter Rising, simply because it is "hallowed ground", in both a religious and political (nationalistic) sense. Though there are some interesting British military headstones on site, most of these have been pushed to the side, relegated to a supporting role in the legend of Irish rebellions.
As Arbour Hill is quite out of the way (unless you are visiting Collins Barracks nearby), for most visitors with only a passing interest in historical events it will be a side street too far. To be fair, all in all, it is not a "Must See!" as such.
The cemetery on Arbour Hill was originally used by the British garrison of Dublin - the many interesting headstones from these times can still be seen and may be of interest to the antiquarian. Its place in the collective Irish memory was instantly created by another event, however, as in 1916 the executed leaders were anonymously buried together, in a mass grave and quicklime pit, within the confines of the military installation (which had no public access at the time, thus avoiding the creation of an instant pilgrimage site). Only later has the Irish government converted the military cemetery to the place of remembrance it is today.
Some Thoughts on Arbour Hill Cemetery
Arbour Hill used to be a cemetery, now it is more of a park - thanks to the Irish government's dedication to "clean up" the site, and focus the attention on the fourteen executed leaders of 1916. Which makes sense, as after all their bodies were unceremoniously thrown into a pit, covered with quicklime, their graves not even marked. As was a traitors' wont ... which today leaves the exact location of the individual bodies n some doubt, short of a full CSI-type exhumation and reburial nothing can be done to remedy this. And while Roger Casement's body was repatriated from an English gaol after decades (and exhumation), there seems to be no such plan afoot for the 1916 rebels buried here.
When Ireland gained sovereignty over the British military installations, it was almost inevitably decided to remodel the anonymous mass grave into a shrine - which it is today. Complete with names and a massive memorial featuring an excerpt from the text of the proclamation of the Irish Republic. At the same time the British headstones were removed, the graveyard converted into parkland, the far older memorials stored along the outer wall. For the historian many of these memorials may actually be more interesting than the modern monument to the rebels ... for the patriot, of course, even having the oppressor next to the oppressed in one cemetery might be a fly in the ointment.
By the way, the park is watched over by a quite interesting church, today used as the chapel of the Irish Armed Forces and decorated with flags and military emblems. Also sticking out like a sore thumb is a massive concrete wall with a modern watchtower. This is part of Arbour Hill Prison, where some notorious Irish criminals are locked away. Accessible through a gate in the rear wall is a memorial to Irish soldiers and gardai killed in UN service, centerpiece of its own small park.
A Final Verdict?
Is Arbour Hill worth visiting? Yes for the completist and historian, no for the casual tourist. Though access is relatively easy (the cemetery is just behind and signposted from Collins Barracks), it may be an unnecessary detour for most visitors.