Imagine a family business that has run uninterrupted for 160 years and continued down into the fifth generation.
Val Dillon continues the Caldwell history of flower selling outside Glasnevin Cemetery with her younger brother, Alan.
You’ll see the pair at weekends outside the gates, monitored by their mother, Kathleen Dillon who still takes the bus down to check the siblings are holding the fort correctly.
Alan told Dublin Gazette: “Historically, the stall has stayed on the maternal side and we have a saying in the family ‘Only a woman would do it’.
“I always reply ‘Yeah, don’t mind me then!’ Val took over from Kathleen who sold flowers outside the gates for 52 years, and I help.”
Val recalls the Caldwell sisters Julia, Theresa and Ellen Caldwell, were originally sent out to sell hot cross buns and posies.
“They were our great grand aunts with Julia being our great grandmother. The Caldwells were from Shamrock Street, just off Blessington Street.”
Val too sold the buns “as people at the time couldn’t afford flowers so they’d buy buns for the children to keep them quiet at the funerals”.
With pride, Val added the family has never let anyone in without flowers, a wreath or a plant when they didn’t have the cash on them to purchase.
“We don’t do the credit cards,” said Alan. “And in all the years we’ve been running the stall at Glasnevin, only once can we remember someone not returning to pay.”
“It has stood to us over the years to look after the mourners,” said Val. “They have remained loyal to us too, they come back repeatedly to buy at the stall.”
A man recently came to the stall looking for Val who was on a rare day off, but he simply wanted to pay her €20 for two wreaths – he only had a chip ‘n pin but no cash on the day he visited.
Val, who lives in Cabra with her son Anthony, has been working the stall since she was 12 years old. Her eldest daughters Julie and Kate got honours degrees at Trinity College so she doubts either of them will continue the family tradition.
Alan lives in Glasnevin and can’t imagine life without the stall.
“I’d work the stall for nothing, it’s like therapy for me, I hear people with real problems, burying a loved one, a mother or wife, a child perhaps,” he said.
For Val, it’s the buzz and the socialising that keeps her going and knowing what it means to so many coming to visit family graves at Glasnevin.
“This particular man who travelled up from Laois stands out; he had buried his wife from cancer and sadly, another sister in law too. He has young children but all he could think of was the sorrow of his mother- in-law who had buried two daughters that year,” she said.
“He was heading to James St Hospital afterwards to donate blood as he has a rare blood type. We made him up a nice bouquet for free to bring into the nurses in James Street, and he was so appreciative.”
She added: “Sometimes people just want to talk, we have a spare seat at the gates and we’ve had people crying and laughing with grief. They often find comfort in talking and sharing a memory with strangers.”
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The customer base of Kathleen, Val and Alan in recent decades is impressive: from former presidents Mary MacAleese and Mary Robinson to, more recently, Michael D Higgins.
“We’ve sold to Paschal Donohue, Bertie Ahern, Roisin Shortall, to Bono, Christy Dignam and Colm Meaney who is in fact, a family cousin,” said Val. “Also sports stars, All Ireland champions, TV presenters, poets and writers.”
And of course, the duo love posing with celebrities and well-known public figures – including former Ireland skipper Kenny Cunningham.
There are reputedly over one million souls buried at Glasnevin and the family look after the grave of Michael Collins for the Michael Collins Society.
“While there are no tours of the cemetery during Covid-19 restrictions, we can point visitors to the graves of Brendan Behan or say Michael Collins, or other notable national figures.
“Val and Kathleen before her have spent so much of their lives at the cemetery, the family is now an institution. We know the staff and gravediggers so well – and most weekends, someone still asks after Kathleen!”