Seanad Éireann - Volume 105 - 19 September, 1984

Adjournment Matter. - Mount Jerome Cemetery.

Mr. FitzGerald: I thank the Chair for permitting me to raise this matter on the Adjournment this evening. From talking to the Minister I appreciate that he understands the urgency of the matter we are to discuss. I hope also that he will not mind my straying a few hundred yards into his constituency or away from mine in relation to the matter that is before us. What concerns me and has concerned a number of Members of these Houses, particularly Deputy Shatter, in recent weeks, are reports in the press relating to the abandonment of Mount Jerome Cemetery and the dismissal of the ground staff. That is to take effect from next Friday. To the knowledge of many people, even some who are here at this moment, Mount Jerome Cemetery is a very historic and probably the largest of the older cemeteries in the city. In that regard I quote from page 166 of Samuel Lewis's A History and Topography of Dublin City and County which was published first in 1837:

[419] Mount Jerome, a beautifully picturesque demense, adjoining the village, has lately been purchased by the Dublin Cemetery Company, formed under the provisions of an Act of the fourth and fifth years of William IV, for establishing a general cemetery in the neighbourhood of the city of Dublin. This cemetery comprises twenty-five acres of gently elevated ground embellished with lawns and shrubberies, and wholly surrounded with lofty trees of venerable growth, giving it an air of seclusion and a solemnity of aspect peculiarly appropriate. Under the direction of the Company, who have a capital of £12,000 subscribed in £10 shares, provision will be made for the internment of persons of all religious denominations by recognised Ministers of their respective congregations; and in order to facilitate the approaches from the south and south-east of the city, arrangements have been made with the Grand Canal Company for the improvement of the canal road from Portobello, and for exemption from toll of all carriages passing to or from the cemetery. The plan also embraces the erection of monuments and cenotaphs, and the construction of tombs and graves either by the company at a stipulated charge, or by individuals at their own expense: the whole is enclosed by a wall, and near the entrance a church is now being erected for the accommodation of the neighbourhood as a chapel of ease. Building stone of good quality is found in abundance in the vicinity, and the Grand Canal passes almost close to the village.

Generations of Dubliners know that the cemetery was established by an Act of Parliament in 1834. The mortuary chapel which is well known to many thousands of mourners is of Gothic design. There are many handsome memorials in the cemetery. It is a very old and distinguished one and is treated with great affection by many thousands of Dubliners to this day.

[420] I should like to ask the Minister what is happening in relation to Mount Jerome? We hear that a liquidator has been appointed by the company. The liquidator, as I understand it, is in respect of Cemetery Holdings Limited who were registered in September 1983 and who own and operate Mount Jerome. The majority of the shares of the company were apparently transferred. Are we to believe that the company concerned, formed last year, are trying to shrink from their moral responsibilities in relation to this cemetery? It is provided in the General Cemeteries Act, 1834 that the company have the responsibility to ‘keep the said cemetery and the said chapel and chapels and the several buildings therein, and the external walls and fences therein, and all the other parts of same in thorough and complete repair’. There are 9 feet high granite walls surrounding this cemetery. I am told from well informed sources that there are upwards of 100 new graves there and there is argument among the ground staff, who are subject to dismissal on Friday next, that there may be as many as 800 new graves still remaining within the 47 acre site at Mount Jerome.

The cemetery has had close links with generations of Dublin families. It cannot be allowed to be closed. Will the Minister indicate what positive steps he will now take to protect the cemetery from likely vandal attack and provide some reassurance to the families of those who expected Mount Jerome to be their burial place? I understand that the liquidator will meet officials of the Department on Monday next. Can the Minister say whether there are developments that he can expand on at this moment? Will provision be made for Dublin Corporation to assume responsibility for the management of this cemetery so as to ensure that the graves and tombstones, and of course the Gothic mortuary chapel, will be looked after? We must have regard for the generations of Dubliners whose remains rest there. The Minister should ensure that the supports necessary for the transfer to the corporation will be facilitated by his Department. Are we to expect legislation in this area to bring [421] about a new situation following the position that has now been reached? In particular I should like to know if we are in a position to ensure that for the moment the General Cemetery Company are expected, as the law provides, to conduct their affairs properly and to ensure that the maintenance of the cemetery and the protection of the cemetery remain in good hands?

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. F. O'Brien): I thank Senator FitzGerald for his contribution and I have noted the various points he has put forward in his deliberations. I am glad to have this opportunity to outline to the House the current situation regarding Mount Jerome Cemetery.

The factual situation in relation to recent developments relating to Mount Jerome was set out in a statement issued to the media on Friday last, 14 September, by the Minister for the Environment. However, I think I should repeat for the information of the House the main points involved.

Mount Jerome Cemetery was established by the General Cemetery Company of Dublin which was constituted by an Act of Parliament in 1834. This company has a clear statutory duty to maintain in thorough repair the cemetery, its buildings, walls and fences. The 1834 Act does not contain any provision for the winding up of the General Cemetery Company of Dublin or the closure of the cemetery, nor does it allow the company to transfer its responsibilities to any other person or company.

The General Cemetery Company of Dublin operated profitably until fairly recent years and paid dividends to its shareholders. I understand that the Mount Jerome Monumental Company Limited, which took over part of the activities of the cemetery company in 1961, and has close links with the cemetery company, continues to pay a substantial dividend. A further company, Cemetery Holdings Limited, was registered in September 1983 and the majority of the shares of the General Cemetery Company were transferred to this new [422] company. At a meeting of shareholders of the new company on 13 September 1984 a resolution was passed authorising the voluntary winding up of Cemetery Holdings Limited and appointing a liquidator.

I am advised that the liquidation of Cemetery Holdings Limited does not affect the continued existence of the statutory company which own and operate the cemetery or the basic statutory duties of that company in relation to the cemetery. I cannot understand how the directors of the General Cemetery Company can proceed on the basis that the liquidation of a company set up only last year — and apparently having no assets other than the shares transferred to it — can absolve them of their legal and statutory obligations and moral responsibilities to those who have burial rights in the cemetery.

I understand that the General Cemetery Company of Dublin has decided to seek registration under the Companies Acts as a company listed by shares. I have sought legal advice on the right of the company to seek to reconstitute itself under the Companies Acts and my Department are in touch with the Companies Office and the Atrorney General's Office in regard to the implications and the validity of the action proposed by the company.

Following a meeting between the liquidator of Cemetery Holdings Limited and officials of my Department on Monday last, at which clarification of the situation in relation to the various companies was sought, there have been further consultations between my Department and the Attorney General's Office about the action which might be appropriate if the company, which is required by law to maintain Mount Jerome, refuse or fail to comply with their statutory duties. My Department are maintaining contact with the liquidator of Cemetery Holdings Limited in relation to the proposal to cease the operation of the cemetery but at this stage I do not think that it would be helpful if I were to outline what the possible courses of action might be. I want to make it clear, however, as the Minister did in his statement on Friday [423] last, that whatever action is possible will be taken to protect the public interest and to avoid the distress and hardship which would be caused if the directors and the liquidator were to close or abandon the cemetery as they have threatened to do. It is important to make that point in the interests of the relatives and people who have graves there. We intend to do that because we believe there is a degree of responsibility here.

In conclusion, I should like to add that, while the General Cemetery Company has incurred an operating loss in recent years in carrying on its activities, the Monumental Company remains profitable. I do not accept that the losses incurred by the cemetery company entitle that company and its directors to cast aside, unilaterally and completely, the basic responsibilities which the 1834 Act assigned to them. They are not entitled to expect a public authority to take over at this stage full responsibility for putting the affairs of the cemetery in order. The situation in which the company now finds itself did not arise overnight and, indeed, there is evidence that it was foreseen by the directors. In spite of this no effective action was taken to deal with the situation. In particular, no application was made to the Oireachtas for an amending Act of the kind which other statutory or chartered bodies have promoted over the years to deal with changed circumstances. The Cemetery Company cannot at this stage, having ceased to be profitable itself, expect to walk away from its [424] undertaking, without making some effort to re-arrange its affairs and to provide for the continued operation of the cemetery — even on a care and maintenance basis — in the future. There are limits to what the taxpayers of this country can be called upon to meet by way of new liabilities. There are legal, financial and other responsibilities attaching to the company and its directors and these must be complied with in full.

That is basically the case. I do not want to go into negotiations or consultations at this time other than to say that we are keeping a close watch on the situation. We want to assure the relatives, and the people who have graves in that cemetery that every action will be taken to avoid distress for them and to protect their rights. We will be monitoring developments and keeping a close eye on affairs as they take place between now and the weekend. Hopefully, a happy resolution of this matter will take place shortly to avoid grave distress particularly for elderly people who have loved ones buried there and who have graves there. We are well aware of the distress this threatened closure is causing to a large number of people. It is not good enough for people who have taken on the responsibility to run this cemetery to turn their backs on it. To say any more might be tempting providence and I do not intend to do that. We will do what we can to ensure that the necessary action is taken.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.37 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 20 September 1984.