Belfast Telegraph

Milltown Cemetery: Graveyard tells the complex story of Belfast

Only one Protestant was ever buried in Belfast's Milltown Cemetery, but the graveyard's significance still transcends social, cultural, class and religious boundaries, writes Tom Hartley

Straddling the upper reaches of the Falls Road are Belfast City and Milltown Cemeteries. Those buried in City Cemetery are, for the most part, unionist, or Protestant, while Milltown, which was established by the Catholic Church, has over the years become synonymous with republicanism.

The republican dead are often commemorated at the cemetery in political speeches by key historical figures, particularly during the numerous memorials held every Easter Sunday.

Over the last decades of the 20th century funerals were often surrounded by a ring of RUC and Army riot squads. The 1988 attack by loyalist Michael Stone on republican mourners was reported in the world's media.

However, Milltown has just as much as the City Cemetery to tell us about Belfast's chequered past – whatever one's religion or politics.

Politics shape the narrative of Milltown Cemetery. We cannot avoid the tragedy of those killed in periods of political conflict.

The headstones confront us with the brutal reality of rebellion and resistance – from the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin at Easter 1916 to the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War.

Irish history is full of men and women of vision – though the roles of important women tend to be downplayed – and when we see their headstones in Milltown, we begin to hear their stories.

For instance, while there is only one Protestant buried in Milltown Cemetery, his story is a fascinating one. James Moore Neeley Hunter was 75 when he died on February 6, 1954 at his residence at 42 Spamount Street, New Lodge Road, Belfast.

He was a shipwright who lived all his life in north Belfast and, while he was a member of the Church of Ireland, his wife, Annie Hunter (nee Hart) is listed as Catholic.

This may explain why James, who in 1912 signed the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant in the old Town Hall in Belfast, was buried in a Catholic burial ground, associated with Irish nationalism and republicanism.

In the lives of those buried in Milltown we see the wonderful complexity of the Belfast story; the remarkable stories of people whose existence enriched the lives of their families, their friends and their communities.

They come from every walk of life and every level of society. Many of them battled against political and social forces that sought to limit their vision and their ambitions. They were active across the spectrum of political movements.

Joseph McKelvey and his father Patrick are prime examples of this. Patrick, a farmer's son, joined the RIC in 1882. In 1914 he enlisted in the Special Reserve of the British Army and was discharged in 1919.

He died of a perforation of the stomach in the Royal Victoria Hospital on August 18, 1919 and is buried in a war grave under the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

His son Joseph was at his bedside when he died. Joseph, for his part, was a leading figure in the IRA. Opposed to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, in 1922 he was appointed as deputy chief of staff of the anti-treaty IRA, whose headquarters were in the Four Courts, Dublin.

On June 28, 1922, pro-treaty Government forces opened fire on the garrison occupying the Four Courts, marking the beginning of the Irish Civil War. On June 30 the republican garrison surrendered, and Joseph was among the prisoners taken to Mountjoy Jail.

On the morning of December 8, Joseph was executed and his remains were buried in the prison. In October 1924 his remains were removed from Mountjoy and brought to Belfast, where they were taken to Milltown and interred in the republican plot under the care of Cumann Uaigheann Na Laocradh Gaedheal, Beal Feirste (the National Graves Association, Belfast).

The oration at the funeral ceremony was given by Sean Lemass, who had been in the Four Courts with Joseph. The McKelveys may be the only case in Ireland of a British war grave where the son of the deceased is buried in the same graveyard in a republican plot.

That historical complexity is also to be found in those Catholic members of the Royal Irish Constabulary killed in Belfast between 1920 and 1922 and who are interred in individual graves. Milltown's graves also serve as strong reminders of a connection to the British Empire through the soldiering experience of Belfast men in the British Army.

But the story of Milltown is also the story of artists and painters, musicians and craftsmen, of architects, harp makers and uilleann pipers, and it is the story of sports through the lives of footballers and hurlers.

For me a walk through Milltown opens up a personal story, too. Milltown is the burial ground of my family extending back several generations.

When I think of an aunt or an uncle who died at a young age, I am left with intense, but simple, curiosities.

What did they look like? What family features did they have? Did they have the same colour of eyes as my father, or the same shape of his mouth?

By eliciting questions like these, Milltown's power as a site of memory begins to become apparent. The most basic human curiosities about those buried in the cemetery bring out more complex questions of history and politics.

Why did people, including my ancestors, move to this city? What challenges did they face? How did their struggles shape the city as it is today?

The story of one headstone leads naturally to another as we see the connections multiply with every question.

In my books I hope to reveal the complexity of Belfast's story through these connections.

Because, above all else, the story of Milltown can only be truly told if it is located within a Belfast narrative.

Set alongside the story of Belfast industrialists and the Belfast unionist and Protestant community, the stories found in Milltown bring depth and colour to the dynamic narrative that constitutes the history of the city of Belfast.

Crossing social, cultural, class and religious boundaries, it is a story that enhances our common ownership of a dynamic and often troubled city history. Its legacy is to all of Belfast, all Beal Feirstigh.

Tom Hartley's Milltown Cemetery and the new and updated Belfast City Cemetery are available to purchase from and all good bookshops

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