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Buried treasure

Former Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast Tom Hartley talks to Laurence White about his three-decade fascination with the city's cemeteries, the debt we owe its Presbyterians... and why he'd like to see a Protestant community on the Falls Road

Set in stone: author Tom Hartley at the grave of Rev Hugh Hanna in Balmoral Cemetery
Set in stone: author Tom Hartley at the grave of Rev Hugh Hanna in Balmoral Cemetery
Rev Hugh Hanna
Pioneering Presbyterian: The Rev Henry Cooke
Great honour: William Porter MacArthur’s gravestone in Balmoral Cemetery
Resting place: the grave of women’s rights campaigner Isabella Tod

When he at first walked through the gates of Balmoral Cemetery in May 2008, little did Tom Hartley realise that he was unlocking the history of a dynamic group of people who did much to shape Belfast in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The former Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, who jokes he was once described as a "lapsed Clonard altar boy", says he had no sense of the pivotal historical role played by Presbyterians in the city until he began to explore this relatively small graveyard, situated at Stockmans Lane in south Belfast.

That role is exhaustively covered in his latest book, called simply Balmoral Cemetery, the third of his Written in Stone series after Milltown Cemetery and Belfast City Cemetery.

Balmoral Cemetery, whose official title is Belfast Cemetery, Malone, is now locked up and unknown to the thousands of motorists who drive past it each day. There are some 2,400 graves within its confines, but many of those buried there had a disproportionate impact on the development of the city.

Like many events within the Presbyterian Church, the creation of the cemetery was due to a row. In 1852, the Rev Joseph McKenzie and the Rev Henry Cooke requested permission to conduct a Presbyterian burial service in a Church of Ireland graveyard, but were refused.

Their response was to open their own cemetery on a piece of land adjacent to Rev McKenzie's Stockmans Lane church. And they insisted that it would be open to burials from all denominations.

From his initial visit to the cemetery, Mr Hartley's interest in Presbyterianism was piqued.

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He went on to spend four years researching the role of that denomination in all its various forms in the life of our capital city.

He freely admits he knew little about the Presbyterian presence in the city, particularly during the 18th and 19th century.

"We often don't see the history of the other community as our history.

"We have a particular way of looking at the world - whether it is through republican history, or Protestant history - instead of seeing all history as good and realising that it is all our history.

"I think we are enhanced by finding out about other people's history."

Mr Hartley is best-known publicly as a former Sinn Fein politician, serving on Belfast City Council for 20 years and holding the offices of general secretary and national chairperson of the party.

What is less well-known is his own historical connection to Presbyterianism - his maternal grandfather was a member of that denomination, but later converted to Catholicism, becoming a devout member of the Confraternity at Clonard Monastery.

Like most people from his Catholic background, Mr Hartley says he was puzzled by the host of congregations which went under the general title of Presbyterian: Non-subscribing, New Light, Old Light, Seceder, Covenanter, Burgher and Anti-burgher, Reformed, Arian, Evangelical, Trinitarian and Unitarian.

This led him to hypothesise that, at the core of Presbyterianism, is a deep tension between the power of individual conscience and the right to individual interpretation of the Scriptures and the idea of a central Church government.

It may help to explain the dynamism that led to an explosion of church and school building by Presbyterians in Belfast.

The city's first meeting house was built around 1668, but it was after the religious revival of 1859 that more new congregations were formed, an event replicated at the end of the 1800s.

By 1908, there were around 66 congregations in the city and about 80 colleges and schools which had connections to the Presbyterian Church, making it the dominant religious group in the city at the time.

Among those buried in Balmoral Cemetery are some of the most famous names in local Presbyterian history. The Rev Hugh Hanna may have gained the nickname of 'Roaring Hugh' and was satirised in Punch for his fiery outdoor orations which, on at least one occasion, led to pitched sectarian battles, but he was also a keen educationalist and is credited with building at least six schools.

Part of the reason for this building boom, says Mr Hartley, is that Presbyterians valued a literate working class not just for employment, but also so that they could read their Scriptures.

The Rev Henry Cooke, who as a boy was educated at a number of hedge schools, had among his teachers a Catholic priest, a Presbyterian probationer and a man who had been educated for the Catholic priesthood, but had married.

He is regarded as a colossus of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, moving it in a conservative religious and political direction.

The Rev John Edgar - who opposed slavery, helped those affected by the Irish famine and advocated temperance - was another keen educationalist, being an active member of a group promoting education of the deaf and dumb.

Mr Hartley says that in today's world Rev Edgar would have been a property developer, such was his zeal in helping raise money for new premises for worthy causes.

Isabella Tod campaigned for women's rights throughout her life. She fought for better educational opportunities for females and also changes to the law enhancing the rights of women to own property.

In 1872, at a meeting in Belfast, she launched a campaign for the right of women to vote.

But distinguished members of other denominations are also buried in Balmoral Cemetery.

Joseph John Murphy was born into a Quaker family, but later was baptised into the Church of Ireland. He was deeply interested in literature, philosophy and the social sciences and wrote extensively on a wide range of subjects, including a response to the theories of Charles Darwin.

Samuel Young, who died in 1918 at the age of 96 years and 63 days, was MP for East Cavan and for a time held an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest serving member of the House of Commons.

Mr Hartley's interest in the graveyards of Belfast began in 1988 when he was running a bus tour which took in Milltown Cemetery, but not the nearby Belfast City Cemetery.

"When I went through those gates, I found out about the history of this city through the graves of the big industrialists who shaped it.

"It brought home to me examples of the complexity of our history.

"Once I had written my first book, on the City Cemetery, I turned my attention to Milltown.

What I didn't realise was that this process would turn me into a research junkie. I love the moment when you are looking for one little bit of information, perhaps the date someone was born, and then you find it. It may take months, but when you do it is a very fulfilling moment."

He adds: "History doesn't run along parallel lines. In every sense it can be quite complex. I am always surprised at the way stereotypes are upended.

"In Milltown cemetery, for example, there are two graves 30 plots apart of a father and son, Patrick and Joe McKelvey. Pat served in the First World War and is buried in a British war grave and Joe was in the IRA and buried in the first republican plot in the cemetery.

"In Balmoral Cemetery is buried east Belfast man William Porter MacArthur, who was a distinguished doctor and rose to become director general of the British Army Medical Services with the rank of Lieutenant General. But I discovered he was also a strong advocate of the Irish language, which he had learned in Donegal, and he formed the College Gaelic Society which today is the third-oldest society at Queen's University."

Mr Hartley has a central law for historians, you always find what you're not looking for. "That is the absolute delight. You never know what you will come across."

He laments the decline in the numbers and influence of Presbyterians in Belfast. "They were at their largest number in 1937, but after that the numbers fell.

"In the Sixties the decline seemed to accelerate, perhaps due to the conflict, housing redevelopment, movement to the suburbs and the number of young Presbyterians who went to study at universities in England, Wales and Scotland and never returned.

"It may be that, like other denominations, fewer Presbyterians are now practising their faith."

He notes the irony that our interview is taking place in an Irish cultural centre on the Falls Road, Culturlann, a former Presbyterian Church at the junction with Broadway that closed in 1982.

"This building is part of the demise of the Presbyterian Church on the Falls. We are that much less because of their going. A community that is diverse and has different world views within it is a more stable society. Are we not lessened when that is taken away from us? Wouldn't it be nice to see a Presbyterian community on the Falls? They have been part of this city since the 17th century."

War doctor with love for the Irish language

William Porter MacArthur was born in Belmont, east Belfast on March 11, 1884. William attended Bangor Grammar School (then based in College Gardens) and, in October 1903, he entered Queen's College, Belfast as a medical student. He remained there until 1908, when he qualified in medicine with an MB and BCh.

On January 30, 1909, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corp, but was seconded as a house physician and house surgeon in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast.

In 1910, he graduated with a DPH (a doctoral degree awarded in the field of public health) from the University of Oxford and, in 1911, with an MB from Queen's University Belfast.

From 1911 until the outbreak of the First World War, he served as a specialist sanitary officer on the island of Mauritius. This laid the foundations of his lifelong research into tropical diseases. In Mauritius he met and, in 1914, married Eugenie Therese Antelme, the daughter of Dr Louis Ferdinand Antelme MD, of Paris and Mauritius.

In 1915, after the outbreak of the First World War, William was posted to France with the 15th Scottish Division.

In the summer of 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, he was wounded in the stomach. Mentioned in dispatches, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) that year.

On his return from France in 1918, he was appointed to command the British Army's School of Hygiene in Blackpool. In 1922, he was appointed Professor of Tropical Medicine at the Royal Army Medical College, Millbank.

From 1929 to 1934, he had been appointed consulting physician to the British Army and, in 1934, as deputy to the director-general of the Army Medical Services at the War Office.

In 1935, he was promoted commandant of the college followed, on March 1, 1938, by his promotion to director-general of the Army Medical Services, with the rank of lieutenant-general.

Realising that war with Germany was inevitable, he set out to increase the amount of medical equipment and stores that would be required. William retired from active military service in 1941.

From an early age, William had fostered a love of the Irish language, which he learnt in Cloch Cheannfhaolaidh in west Donegal. In his youth he spent his family holidays in Marble Hill, Donegal and he was a frequent visitor to the Irish speakers of Tory Island.

After his marriage, he and his family made periodic visits to the Cloughaneely Gaeltacht. While a student in Queen's College, he was active in promoting the Irish language.

On January 30, 1906, he became president of the newly formed Cumann Gaedhealach an Cholaiste (College Gaelic Society). Today, it is the third-oldest society still in existence at the university.

In his retirement, William combined his love of medicine and history to research aspects of Irish history. William died at his home in Chiswick, London on July 40, 1964.

Campaigner who blazed a trail for women's rights in late 1800s

Isabella Tod was born in Edinburgh on May 18, 1836 and moved with her family to Belfast in her twenties. Throughout her life, Isabella would advocate and campaign for the rights of women. In 1867, at a meeting in Belfast of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, a paper by Isabella was presented entitled 'On Advanced Education for Girls in the Upper and Middle Classes'.

She gave her first public speech that year when she spoke at a conference in Bristol on the same topic.

In that same year, she helped establish the Belfast Ladies' Institute, the function of which was the provision of educational classes for young women.

Alongside her campaigning for education for women, she was also involved in a campaign to reform the law in respect of the rights of women to own property.

Through her membership of the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, she was involved in a campaign against the provisions of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869.

In 1871, she organised the first suffrage society in Ireland, the North of Ireland Women's Suffrage Committee. On February 6, 1872, at a meeting in Belfast, she launched a campaign to secure the right of women to vote.

On February 21, she spoke at a meeting in Dublin, which led to the formation of a suffrage committee in that city.

When the Ulster branch of the National Society for Women's Suffrage was formed, Isabella became its secretary.

In 1874, Isabella and Margaret Byers formed the Belfast Women's Temperance Association. The association set up temperance eating houses, a prison gate mission for alcoholic women, a home for destitute girls and organised classes in hygiene and cookery for working-class women.

Before the passing of the Intermediate Education (Ireland) Act on September 28, 1878, Isabella and Margaret Byers had led a delegation to London to ensure that women were included in the new Act.

In 1879, a new university Bill was introduced by the Government. Immediately, Isabella and Margaret Byers formed a committee to campaign for women to have the opportunity to avail of the benefits the Bill would create.

When Prime Minister William Gladstone introduced his first Home Rule Bill in 1886, Isabella set up the Liberal Women's Unionist Association to oppose it. On April 30, 1886, at a meeting organised by Liberals in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, Isabella was the only woman elected to a committee to oppose the Home Rule Bill.

While immersed in the anti-Home Rule campaign, she had the satisfaction of seeing her work on votes for women come to fruition, when women householders of Belfast were able to vote in the Corporation elections of 1887. This was 11 years ahead of other Irish municipalities.

Isabella died at her home on December 8, 1896.

The story of women in Belfast and Ireland - including their campaigns to secure the right to vote and their achievement of equal rights in health, education and the right to be treated as first-class citizens - cannot be told without placing Isabella Tod at the very centre of that narrative.

Adapted from Balmoral Cemetery: The History of Belfast, Written in Stone by Tom Hartley, published by Blackstaff Press, priced £12.99

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