Belfast Telegraph

Written in stone: city's story comes alive in tour of graveyard

Reporter Donna Deeney takes walk in Derry City Cemetery and discovers a new appreciation of history carved on its monuments

A tour of Derry City Cemetery might seem like a strange and even morbid offering to tourists and visitors, but that is exactly what two local historians have begun.

Seamus Breslin, a Catholic from Creggan, teamed up with Trevor Temple, a Protestant from The Fountain, to launch a social media page Friends of Derry City Cemeteries, the bedrock of their fledgling tour company, Historic Headstones.

The cemetery has been a final resting place for the two communities since 1853, although today the majority of burials are Catholic.

Most people from the Protestant community now choose to lay their loved ones to rest on the east bank of the city, but until the height of the Troubles, whether you were Catholic or Protestant, this was where you came to bury your dead.

Taking the tour accompanied by Seamus is like walking through the city's history, with a large dollop of heartbreak etched on many of the headstones.

The obvious attractions to tourists will be the large republican monuments where two hunger strikers, Patsy O'Hara and Michael Devine, are buried and which dominate the top of the cemetery hill.

The large number of flagpoles makes it easy to identify where the republican dead have been interred, and for many tourists this will be the draw. One of the most significant events of the Troubles associated with Londonderry is Bloody Sunday, when 14 civilians were killed by the Army, but only five families who lost loved ones that day have graves adjacent to each other. The rest of the families chose to lay their dead in the family plot, but with the help of Mr Breslin it is possible to visit these graves too.

But as we went down the gentle incline, it was the tragic loss of people whose names no one will know or whose names have been long forgotten that resonated with me.

A large, oval-shaped section of the cemetery dedicated to stillborn children and miscarried babies, filled with tiny teddy bear statuettes and bunches of flowers, would stop anyone in their tracks.

Further on, a long wide strip of unmarked ground, mirrored on the opposite side of the footpath by two more large plots, is easy to overlook.

That is until Mr Breslin points out that these are where the city's paupers, both Catholic and Protestant, were buried unceremoniously in mass graves without so much as a marker.

One of the most poignant moments of the tour for me was standing at an aged and worn headstone dating back to 1870 that had collapsed.

It belonged to a family called Wilson, and interred in the one plot were six children of various ages from 18 years down to one.

Some of the names were indecipherable but most were legible, including Annie (16), Jessie (20 months), Edward (17), William (15) Isabella (one year), all of whom died at the rate of one a year from 1870 to 1875, and finally another Wilson who died in 1881 aged 18.

It is impossible to stand at their graveside and not wonder what led to the deaths of the children, how did their poor parents cope with so much loss at the time, and did they have any surviving children?

While we may never know any more about the Wilson family, there are other graves belonging to prominent figures who featured in the very fabric of Derry's history.

Among these was John Guy Ferguson, who designed some of the best known buildings in the city, including The Guildhall, which continues to draw thousands of tourists and visitors every year.

He was also the man behind St Augustine's Church and the Apprentice Boys of Derry's Memorial Hall, but ironically the headstone marking his death in 1901 and final resting place has a very plain, simple design, far removed from the imposing Gothic style he was associated with.

There is so much of Derry's history contained within the confines of the cemetery that it seems strange that no one has thought to bring tourists and locals here before.

Mr Breslin explained that both he and Trevor took their inspiration from similar projects at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin and Necropolis Cemetery in Glasgow, which have not only boosted tourism, but also created employment.

He said: "Glasnevin Cemetery had a big problem with vandalism and anti-social behaviour and Necropolis was being used as a drug den until they set up tours.

"We contacted them and they have been so helpful to Trevor Temple and I, so we are encouraged and very enthusiastic that the walking tours of Derry City Cemetery could be just as successful.

"As we say, the history of our city is on the headstones and that history comes from both communities and goes back to just after the Famine.

"We are already taking different tours and we can tailor those to the interests of the particular groups.

"Some people are interested in the political tours, others are interested in the trade union movement or women's groups, and we have also taken school groups on history tours.

"I enjoy the reaction from students when they see the old Presbyterian headstones with Celtic script and Celtic crosses and then they see some of the wealthy Catholics from years ago who have 'Londonderry' written on their headstones.

"The most visited plots are the republican monuments and the Bloody Sunday graves, but the most visited individual grave would be that of Cecil Francis Alexander, who wrote All Things Bright And Beautiful and There Is A Green Hill Far Away among so many others.

"There is so much history in the cemetery, things I didn't know when we started out on this, including a large paupers' plot, where again the two communities are represented.

"The cemetery is like an open air museum, and instead of looking at the history of our city in books, people can come here and see and feel it for themselves."

What is striking about the tour is that the pace allows you to notice the details on the older headstones and you realise there are soldiers who served in the British Army from both communities in every imaginable war, including both World Wars, the Crimean War, the Boer War, and in the Troubles too.

Among them is a grave with a simple cross - the only marker for William Foster who, Seamus explained, played an important role in the Battle of the Somme.

"Willie Foster was the piper who led the Irish Brigade into the Battle of the Somme," he said.

"He was wounded three times himself but survived and made it home to Derry.

"I have always said he should have had the Victoria Cross, but he is here, and he doesn't even have a headstone."

Since the Troubles and the emergence of the large monuments to the republican dead, the number of people from the Protestant community buried at the City Cemetery has dropped dramatically, along with the number coming to visit their family graves. This is something both men behind the project are keen to address and they hope that once their tours are up and running on a solid footing it will provide full-time employment, not just for them but in time for other people also.

They are being assisted by the Housing Executive, which has provided all-weather clothing, publicity material and leaflets.

Mr Breslin explained: "The Housing Executive was the first organisation to give us practical help and that is what we needed to get this project off the ground. We have lots of fascinating stories to tell and we believe tourists from abroad will also be interested in the cemetery. We already have lots of international followers on our social media sites.

"We are taking tours of the cemetery more and more regularly now, on a voluntary basis, which we can't maintain.

"Ideally, what we want is to be able to do this as a full-time paid job.

"We believe the demand and interest are there for these tours and this has the potential to grow to the extent that there could be work for a couple of dozen people.

"We are very grateful to the social investment team from the Housing Executive for giving us this grant to get uniforms, flyers and publicity material prepared.

"Now, hopefully other funders will come on board and we'll be taking our first paid tours this summer."

For anyone who wants to learn more about the history of Derry, whether you are from the place or not, there can be no better location to start than with Historic Headstones.

It's informative, thought provoking, and you will come away with a deeper appreciation for life than you started with.

Anyone interested in taking the walking tour of Derry City Cemetery should contact Friends of Derry City Cemeteries Historic Headstones Facebook page, or call Seamus Breslin on 07935779498.

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