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Digging up the past at Belfast's City Cemetery

East Belfast man Peter McCabe has unearthed a host of fascinating facts about those who are interred in the west Belfast burial ground and, as Ivan Little discovers, he has created a number of trails pinpointing the final resting places of the famous and infamous

A Belfast cemetery which is the final resting place of the great and the good - along with the decidedly not-so-wonderful - has had new life breathed into it by an enthralling new guide to its graves, their occupants, their headstones and their secrets.

And Peter McCabe, the book's author, who is from east Belfast, is hoping that his publication will resurrect interest in west Belfast's City Cemetery, which for years was a no-go area for many people because of its location in a Troubles hotspot.

Earlier this week, details were announced of a major improvement programme which is to be carried out at the cemetery. A new interpretative centre is to be built in a bid to attract more visitors.

Over £1.68m has been awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund for the transformation of the cemetery, which occupies a huge swathe of land running off the Falls Road along the Whiterock Road.

Peter, who prefers to call himself an anorak rather than an historian, has dug up, so to speak, a wealth of information that had been buried too long - despite the best efforts of former Sinn Fein councillor Tom Hartley, whose tours of the cemetery first raised awareness of the place.

Indeed, it was one of Mr Hartley's walks during Feile an Phobail, the West Belfast Festival, that sparked Peter's passion for the cemetery and led to his book, which he says was part of his ongoing mid-life crisis.

And although Mr Hartley has brought out his own book about the cemetery, Written in Stone, Peter's tome about the tombs takes a different approach.

And it's a vastly more detailed guide than the leaflets which have been published by Belfast City Council and tourist chiefs.

In fact, Peter has signposted no fewer than 35 different trails, with maps for visitors to follow, depending on the sort of people who excite their interest.

Peter, who has spent most of his career working for charitable organisations, says that he could have come up with several dozen more trails as he set about writing his book.

Some of the self-guided trails which did make the final cut are dedicated to pinpointing the graves of sportspeople, artists, soldiers, shipbuilders, industrialists and business folk.

Another two trails concentrate on soldiers who died during the First and Second World Wars.

But another trail shows how to find the graves of people who died in a more recent conflict on their own doorsteps.

Peter says that the 'murder victims' trail was the most depressing one for him to collate.

All but two of the 21 people whose graves he writes about were killed by loyalist paramilitaries or the security forces.

The exceptions are Denis Donaldson, who was killed in 2009 at a remote hideaway in Donegal by Republicans and Kevin McGuigan a former Republican prisoner, who was gunned down in front of his wife outside their home in the Short Strand area on August 12, 2015.

The IRA had blamed him for the killing of its former Belfast commander Gerard 'Jock' Davison in the Markets district three months earlier.

Solicitor Pat Finucane, who was murdered by the UDA in February 1989 at his home off the Antrim Road, is also buried in the City Cemetery.

Another well-known Troubles victim also buried there is Thomas 'Kidso' Reilly, who was shot dead by a soldier in August 1983 when he was on a visit home from London, where he worked as a 'roadie' with pop groups including Bananarama and Spandau Ballet.

The three members of Bananarama attended the funeral.

The City Cemetery was opened in 1869 as Belfast's cross-denominational burial ground.

The original part of the cemetery was called the City Section and additional land was acquired in 1915 for the Glenalina section.

Around 250,000 burials have taken place at the City Cemetery.

Peter has designed the trails to last no more than an hour, but he says the murder victims trail at the upper part of the cemetery at Glenalina would probably take 90 minutes to two hours to complete.

Peter, who works with the East Belfast Partnership as one of three hosts for visitors to George Best's old family home in the Cregagh area, says the trails are easy to follow, especially with his book in hand.

But he also acts as a guide on his own tours and one of the most famous, or infamous, facts that he talks about is that there's an underground wall which was designed to separate the Catholic and Protestant parts of the cemetery.

It was rendered obsolete after the Catholic Church bought Milltown cemetery nearby to bury their dead.

In 1871 a Jewish burial was developed at the City Cemetery, with separate walls and entrances.

Last year, the Jewish plot had to be re-consecrated after 13 graves were vandalised in what police described as a hate crime. DUP leader Arlene Foster attended the service.

Even though most of the people referenced in the book were buried in the cemetery many years ago, there are a number of names which are instantly recognisable as pioneers in Belfast, such as Thomas Gallagher, Daniel Joseph Jaffe, William Pirrie and Sir Edward Harland, one of the founders of the shipyard where the Titanic was built.

Indeed, there's an entire section devoted to people associated with the ill-fated liner, which went down in 1912 with the loss of 1503 lives.

The very first victim of the Titanic was teenager Samuel Scott, who fractured his skull while working on the ship in 1910.

He had been buried in an unmarked grave, but a headstone was recently erected to him, a move highlighted in the book by Peter, who hasn't only written about the cemetery but has also helped to tidy up a number of the graves as well.

He was part of the 'Practical Lest We Forget' group who cleaned up the graves of soldiers who died in conflicts.

It was while he was sprucing them up that he discovered to his surprise just how many people from his own neck of the woods in east Belfast were buried in west Belfast. One grave particularly fascinated him. It was that of Joseph Miller, who lived in Beaconsfield on the Knock Road, which now houses the Marie Curie hospice.

"My inspirational grandmother, Granny Craig, died there, but when I saw the sad state of Joseph Miller's grave and the connection with her I started to devise the trails."

The sports trail was a labour of love for Peter, who's a keen fan of Ards F.C.

One of the most illustrious sportsmen buried in the cemetery is near the top of the list of Belfast's most famous footballers. It's Elisha Scott, who after leaving Linfield, played for Liverpool for an astonishing 22 years.

Scott, whose photographs still adorn the walls of offices at Anfield Stadium, returned to Northern Ireland to manage Belfast Celtic, whose logo - along with that of Liverpool - features on his headstone.

Boxer Rinty Monaghan also has pride of place on Peter's sports trail, along with forgotten heroes like Ronnie Adams, who won the Monte Carlo rally in 1956.

One of the trails of which Peter is fondest honours women who made significant contributions to society here, including nurses Gertrude Annie Taylor, Ida Martin and Winifred Atkinson, who were actively involved in helping the injured of the Great War.

Also on the trail is Flora Lewis, the mother of author CS Lewis. She died at the age of 46 in 1908.

She's also in a section of the book devoted to Lewis, whose father Albert, grandparents and other relatives are buried at the City Cemetery.

Peter also singles out the grave of a friend of the Lewis family for a mention. Richard Leslie was nicknamed 'Squeaky Dick' by CS Lewis and his brothers because of his high-pitched falsetto voice.

Another prominent Belfast writer is remembered on Peter's artistic trail.

He's Sam Thompson, who wrote the controversial play Over the Bridge, which was staged over six weeks at the Empire theatre after the board of the Group Theatre had refused to put it on because of its contentious subject matter - sectarianism in Belfast shipyard.

The graves of artists Paul Nietsche and Gretta Bowen also figure on the trail.

But it wasn't just painters, sports stars, affluent traders and wealthy business leaders who were buried in the City Cemetery.

What was called the poor ground was where less well-off people were interred - 63,000 in all.

On a lighter note, another of the sections in Peter's book focuses on what he calls the 'quirky' headstones in the City Cemetery.

One Star Trek fan's gravestone says "Beam me up Lord."

And a missionary to Brazil has 'nao esta morta mas dorme' on her headstone - which is Portuguese for 'not dead but sleeping'.

A headstone to cleric Richard Rutledge Kane was erected by the 'Orangemen of Belfast' to a man who was described as a 'loyal Irish patriot' and whose funeral was attended by 60,000 mourners.

But Peter's favourite headstone is one which commemorates Frank Workman, the founder of the Workman Clark shipyard.

Peter says: "The ornate Celtic cross is angled to face the docks, meaning that even in death Frank was able to keep an eye on his charges. And while the cross appears to be made of granite, the core of the headstone is actually made of steel."

Peter also directs readers to where some people who share famous names are buried - Tom Jones, Grace Kelly and James Taylor.

And Peter's not resting on his laurels with the resting places in the City Cemetery. He's planning to bring out a book about Dundonald cemetery next year.

Belfast City Cemetery by Peter McCabe is available from the EastSide Visitors Centre, price £10.

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