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Dead fascinating: How Dundonald Cemetery provides an amazing insight into our past

Peter McCabe's new book about the graveyard on the edge of the city provides 20 fascinating, easy-to-follow trails to journey through history, writes Ivan Little

Peter McCabe next to the grave of Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon at Dundonald Cemetery
Peter McCabe next to the grave of Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon at Dundonald Cemetery
Dundonald Cemetery
Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon
UDR man Fred Starrett
Glentoran player Roy Stewart
Actor Slim Summerville
Film director Brian Desmond Hurst
The grave of chemist Horatio Todd
Horatio Todd

A writer who has compiled a new book about Dundonald Cemetery on the outskirts of Belfast thinks he may have come up with an answer to the riddle of why the name of a lifelong friend of author CS Lewis isn't included on the headstone of his family's grave.

Peter McCabe believes Arthur Greeves' name was omitted from the memorial because he was homosexual, and in less tolerant times the reaction from outsiders could have been too much for his kith and kin to handle.

Greeves, who came from a wealthy family of linen merchants, died in 1966, and Peter told guests at the launch of his book it was a sad irony that the event was being held at the EastSide Visitors Centre in east Belfast overlooking a square named in honour of CS Lewis, who never sought to disassociate himself from his boyhood friend.

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Dundonald Cemetery

The Dundonald book is a follow-up to one taphophile (that's an enthusiast for graveyards to you and me) Peter wrote about the City Cemetery in west Belfast and which was published several years ago.

Though he was born and reared in Dundonald, Peter had never set foot in the sprawling cemetery on his doorstep until recently when he started researching the graves for tours, which proved to be the impetus for the release of the book.

What Peter found in the cemetery fascinated him as he realised that many people whose names he recognised - and who were hugely influential in the history of Belfast - were buried at Dundonald. People such as Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon, Dr Fleming Fulton, chemist Horatio Todd, whose name lives on in a pub in Ballyhackamore, and two Henry Joy McCrackens, though neither of them was the United Irishman with the same name.

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Horatio Todd

One McCracken, who is mentioned in the book, was a former fighter pilot who died in Palestine and who is commemorated on a side panel of a headstone at Dundonald to his shopkeeper father Henry Joy McCracken from the Upper Newtownards Road.

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Among the unexpected gems that Peter was able to unearth in the cemetery was the fact that an American actor with his own star on the Hollywood walk of fame is commemorated on a grave not a million miles from the Irish Holywood.

Slim Summerville, who is thought to have had family links to Northern Ireland and starred in movies like The Keystone Kops, All Quiet On The Western Front and Jesse James, had a sister, Susan Holland, living in Belfast and she arranged the tribute to her sibling.

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Actor Slim Summerville

Even though it isn't in the records, the ashes of Belfast-born movie director Brian Desmond Hurst were scattered in 1986 on the grave of his younger brother Robert, who was buried in Dundonald Cemetery after his death in 1917.

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Film director Brian Desmond Hurst

Hurst directed a number of successful films in the States including 1961's A Christmas Carol, or Scrooge as it was called in America.

But another film, Ourselves Alone, the loose English translation of Sinn Fein, had earlier been banned in Northern Ireland because even though it depicted a love story set against the backdrop of the War Of Independence in Ireland, it was seen here as pro-republican, a claim Hurst vehemently denied.

Nearly 1,000 graves are referenced in The Guide To Dundonald Cemetery, and like his previous book on the City Cemetery, Peter has tried to cluster the burial places together in easy-to-follow trails within the new publication.

Among the 20 trails is one linked to the wartime Blitz in 1941 when over 1,000 people were killed by the Luftwaffe in four bombing raids on Belfast in April and May of that year.

At least 105 of the Blitz victims are buried at Dundonald, which opened as a municipal burial ground in 1905, 10 years after Belfast Corporation, realising that they were running out of burial space, bought 42 acres of land for £40,000.

Initially a quarter of the cemetery was allocated for Catholic burials but the decision was later rescinded, though Peter has no clear idea why.

Peter McCabe at Dundonald Cemetery
Peter McCabe at Dundonald Cemetery

These days there are no new plots available at Dundonald but burials still take place in existing graves at the cemetery, which is dominated by a five-metre tall grey limestone war memorial that stands at its highest point.

According to military records, there are 167 Commonwealth war graves in Dundonald, with soldiers from the First World War and Second World War either buried or commemorated there if their bodies were never returned.

East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, who was brought up close to the cemetery but was never in it in his youth, has written a foreword for the book, and in his introduction Peter reveals that actor, writer and theatre director Sam MacCready was a major source of encouragement with the publication, but died before it came out.

Playwright Forrest Reid, who was namechecked by Joanna Lumley in a speech at the Baftas earlier this year, is buried at Dundonald, and also there is renowned artist Joseph W Carey, whose most famous commission was to paint 13 scenes from Belfast history for the Ulster Hall.

Peter says that a less-known fact about Carey was that he had a connection to the Great War as a commandant of the British Red Cross at that time.

Conflict which erupted in the years after the end of the First World War is also chronicled in the book with references to 20 civilians and members of the security forces who were buried at Dundonald after they were killed during the 1920s.

One of the few victims of the Troubles to be buried at Dundonald is Private Fred Starrett, who was killed along with a UDR colleague while closing a security gate on Royal Avenue when an IRA bomb exploded behind hoardings at the CastleCourt shopping centre, which was under construction at the time in February 1988.

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UDR man Fred Starrett

The two soldiers - the other was Private James Cummings - are remembered every year in an Orange Order parade in the centre of Belfast.

Other trails in the book are ones associated with Harland and Wolff, many of them pinpointing the graves of workers who died in accidents at the shipyard.

A survivor of the Titanic disaster, fireman Johnny Haggan, is also buried in Dundonald.

After scrambling on board the keel of a lifeboat of the stricken liner in the Atlantic, Johnny was eventually rescued by HMS Carpathia along with Charles Lightoller, who was the most senior Titanic officer to escape and who was portrayed in the lead role in the movie A Night To Remember by Kenneth More.

One trail at Dundonald is dedicated to players and officials who were linked to Glentoran Football Club, a team synonymous with east Belfast.

A number of largely forgotten stars from bygone days like Johnny Scraggs and Billy Emerson are buried at Dundonald, but Peter also pays tribute to Roy Stewart, who died as a result of an undiagnosed heart condition just hours after playing for the Glens in a Uefa Cup Winners' Cup game against Borussia Monchengladbach at The Oval in March 1974.

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Glentoran player Roy Stewart

Another trail is devoted exclusively to the final resting places in the cemetery of women like the east Belfast hairdresser who was flown to London for the Queen's Coronation in 1953 to style the hair of Lady Brookeborough, the wife of the former Stormont Prime Minister.

One grave at the cemetery, where it is mainly Protestants who are buried there, made Peter's hair stand on end.

Sean Murray, who was born in the Glens of Antrim, was a self-avowed republican who not only joined the IRA, but was also a founding member of the Communist Party in Ireland.

Peter says: "My first thought was why was he buried near Ballybeen? Was he trying to wind the people in east Belfast up?"

It turned out that his grave had been bequeathed to the Communist Party by a H&W foreman David B Scarborough, whose attempts to fight sectarianism in the Belfast shipyard were dramatised by Sam Thompson in his play Over The Bridge.

Peter McCabe's fascination with quirky headstones also stands out in his book in which he focuses on offbeat stories and names like Walter Salter, Mary De'Ath and the Chicken family.

He also tries to explain why so many people in Belfast's more affluent suburbs used to have their addresses carved on their headstones - to ensure everyone knew how far they had progressed in the world.

Quite a few headstones have biblical quotations and other sayings of years gone by.

One of the most common inscriptions is 'sleeping with Jesus'.

But one, Peter says, is a different take on the theme. It says that Joseph Hicks was 'put to sleep by Jesus'.

A Guide To Dundonald Cemetery By Peter McCabe. Available from the EastSide Visitors Centre in east Belfast

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