Belfast Telegraph

Belfast family in headstone battle with church stage graveside protest

The Nolan family
The Nolan family
The butterfly headstone
Mary, Aine and Francis Magee at Eamonn Magee Jr’s grave
Brett Campbell

By Brett Campbell

Dozens of protesters gathered at the grave of a young woman in west Belfast yesterday to support a mother who has been ordered to remove her daughter's headstone.

Last month Loretta Nolan (57) received a solicitor's letter giving her 28 days to remove a pink butterfly-shaped headstone from the grave in Hannahstown Cemetery of her daughter Emma, who died after battling alcoholism.

"They won't let my daughter rest in peace," Loretta said.

"She suffered enough in life and deserves to rest in peace."

The letter, which was attached to correspondence from the parish's cemetery committee, fails to specify the exact reason the headstone fails to comply with the rules, which Loretta says were only ever stipulated in small print.

"The only thing I can think of is the fact that it's a butterfly," she added.

The butterfly became a symbol of hope for Emma who died in July last year, aged just 23.

The mum-of-one had previously spent time in a private rehabilitation centre in the Republic in an attempt to overcome her addiction.

"She became very fond of butterflies and her daddy, who is a painter and decorator, did a feature wall in her room," her mum explained.

"The whole room was butterfly-themed for her coming home and she loved it.

"It signified the possibility of a new beginning - now it signifies the hope of resurrection."

Loretta will seek a court injunction today in order to stop the church from removing the headstone, which was chosen by Emma's six-year-old son James.

She has slammed the Catholic Church's handling of the situation. "We were summoned to an 11th hour meeting and assumed it was to resolve the problem," she said. "Instead we were asked to push back our silent and dignified protest because it clashed with a christening and wedding rehearsal taking place in the church."

Loretta said her grandson, who now lives with her and her husband Dessie, has no idea that the Church is threatening to remove his mum's headstone. She also admitted the incident has shaken her faith.

"We had enough to deal with when she was alive never mind what we have to think about now she's gone. We are now rearing her wee son who will eventually work out what's going on and I don't know how we are going to handle that," she said.

"The people doing this to us should walk 24 hours in my shoes. I'm starting to question my faith now. I still pray but my faith in the Catholic Church has been diminished."

Loretta has counted 40 gravestones in the cemetery which breach the height restrictions stipulated in the terms and conditions, although the cemetery committee has told her that only 32 letters have been issued.

"I have asked through our online campaign, which has 3,000 supporters, and no one else has confirmed receiving a letter except the family of Eamonn Magee Jr," she said.

Loretta now plans to request a meeting with the Bishop of Down and Connor who, she said, "has the power to end all of this" and draw a line under it.

"Someone will have to listen because we are not backing down on this.

"If they were more precise about restrictions we could have been spared a lot of pain," Loretta continued.

Relatives of the murdered west Belfast boxer Magee Jr, who is buried in the grave beside Emma's, attended the gathering yesterday. His grieving mum Mary has also vowed to defy the notice calling for the removal of her son's boxing glove-shaped headstone which was erected two years ago.

"That glove perfectly represents his love for boxing and it isn't coming down," she said.

"It only became an issue when Emma's gravestone was put up in April, for some reason."

The son of former world boxing champion Eamonn Magee Sr was stabbed to death in Twinbrook in 2015.

His mum has expressed a willingness to make adjustments to the base of the headstone and reach some form of compromise, but accused the Church of being petty. "It's very hurtful. It's been four years and I'm only starting to come back to some form of normality," she said.

"This is like being asked to bury my son all over again."

The parish's cemetery committee has expressed regret at the distress caused to a number of families who erected headstones without approval.

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