Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Tom Hartley is to host a unique open day in Belfast City Cemetery this weekend. Stephanie Bell finds out why he wants Protestants to flock to it and to reclaim the plots of their ancestors
It may seem a grave hobby to some, but Belfast’s Sinn Fein Lord Mayor is hoping his passion for cemeteries will help deliver a unique peace dividend to Protestants across the province.
Tom Hartley is an acknowledged expert on Belfast City Cemetery, having penned the book Written in Stone which plots its fascinating history, most of which he unearthed through many hours of painstaking research.
His enthusiasm has also led him to conduct walking tours of the cemetery which, since the late 90s, have been a popular feature of the annual Féile an Phobail festival in west Belfast.
As a city councillor, Tom Hartley has tirelessly — and very successfully — campaigned for years to have the cemetery tidied up.
His latest crusade however, is to encourage Protestants to return to it — both to enjoy its history and reclaim the plots of their ancestors.
With its location in the heart of nationalist west Belfast, the cemetery became out of bounds for Protestants during the Troubles.
Now, the Lord Mayor hopes that a special Visitors’ Day to be held on August 17 will help encourage people from all communities, but in particular Protestants, to start revisiting the cemetery.
He explains: “Because it is in west Belfast, Protestants were too frightened to visit the cemetery during the Troubles.
“Living in this new environment that we are today, we now hope to bring them back to the cemetery with this special event.” he says.
The Lord Major revealed that it was his personal search for a better understanding of the Protestant community that led him to first visit the city cemetery back in the mid-90s.
“In those days the unionist politicians refused to meet with Sinn Fein and so we would have met with Protestant church leaders to get a feeling for the Protestant community,” he says.
“It was to further understand the history of Protestants that I first went along to the city cemetery.”
Tom Hartley refers to that first visit as his “moment of liberation” and confesses to having since spent “many hundreds of hours” reading headstones and researching the history of many of those buried there.
The cemetery dates back to August 1, 1869 and there are approximately 225,153 people buried in it, including politicians, businessmen, inventors and industrialists.
Says Mr Hartley: “After that first visit a whole new world opened up to me.
“Among the many fascinating discoveries, was evidence of people buried there who were involved in the early formation of the unionist community.
“There are also over 270 commemorative inscriptions for soldiers who died during the First World War.”
But while Mr Hartley wants to see Protestant relatives rediscovering their ancestor’s burial plots, he also hopes the wider Protestant community will come back to the cemetery to simply soak up its history and valuable historical architecture.
He enthuses: “Through sizeable headstones and monuments it is possible to glimpse the lives of those who helped shape Belfast back in the 19th century.
“For instance, William James Perry who is responsible for building the Titantic is buried there, so is Thomas Sinclair who wrote the first draft of the Unionist Solemn League and Covenant of 1912.
“The list of famous people goes on and on.
“The cemetery shows the city very much as a Presbyterian city in the 19th century, and a progressive city, but also the worst for health of any city in Britain.”
This, according to Mr Hartley’s research, is revealed in the large number of children buried there.
He says: “In one month alone in the 1890s, 370 children were buried.
“One headstone has the names of seven children in the same family who all died very young, which shows the terrible poverty in Belfast at the time.
“As a whole, the city cemetery reveals the depth of our history, which I believe we should claim and try to understand.
“It has given me a much clearer understanding of the development of unionism in Belfast, as well as a better grasp of the history of the Protestant community as a whole in Ireland.”
Also during his research, Mr Hartley discovered a forgotten Jewish burial ground which has since been cleaned up, as well as a paupers site.
He says there is also evidence of an excellent history of caring for people who were deaf and dumb in the city during the Victorian era.
Three types of architecture are also evident in the style of the graves, with neo classical statues and headstones from the Victorian era, the smaller headstones of the Edwardian period and the more contemporary “lawn sections” with small headstones and no surrounds.
He says: “The architecture itself is worth studying.
“The many magnificent Irish stone crosses range from amazing examples of funeral architecture to wall art, so intricate are the carvings.”
This wealth of history can be enjoyed thanks to a dedicated clean-up at the cemetery which was the result of Tom Hartley’s campaign as a city councillor.
“When I first visited the cemetery, I was really taken back by the state of it, due to vandalism and a lot of undergrowth,” he says.
“I just kept the pressure on over the years as a councillor, until steps were finally taken to start restoring it in early 2000.”
A major programme of works to clear the older sections of the cemetery started in 2002.
Since then over £500,000 has been spent restoring plots, walkways, damaged headstones and monuments, as well as renovating the gate lodge and main entrance to the site.
As a historian, Mr Hartley was also concerned about burial records and again, due to his intervention, steps were taken to move this important historical archive to a more appropriate room within City Hall.
The burial records are currently being put in digital form to enable easy cross references for people searching for relatives among the quarter of a million buried there.
With so much work to bring the cemetery back to life, the Lord Mayor is looking forward to welcoming visitors from near and far on the special Visitors Day.
He adds: “Our City Cemetery manager and his staff will be on hand to assist visitors in the renovation of family members’ graves and plots.
“While we particularly hope that Protestants will be encouraged to visit on the day, the event is open to everyone.
“We already have been having inquiries from people wanting to find their relative’s lost plots including one from as far away as Canada.”
Visitors’ Day will take place from 10am-3pm at Belfast City Cemetery on Sunday. Anyone interested in going along can also contact Belfast City Cemetery Office beforehand where staff will be available to take details to assist in the search for graves, tel: 9031 9629 or 9032 3112