Belfast Telegraph

Of grave concern: Belfast cemetery investment would help preserve city's complex history

Strategic investment in Belfast's older cemeteries would help to preserve the city's complex history, writes Tom Hartley

Tom Hartley in Milltown Cemetery
Tom Hartley in Milltown Cemetery
Margaret Byers, who is buried at Belfast City Cemetery
Graves at Milltown Cemetery
The grave of Isabella Tod

By Tom Hartley

On August 1 this year Belfast will mark an unusual anniversary; 150 years of the Belfast City Cemetery. The first burial was on August 3, 1869 when Annie Collins, aged 3 years and 3 months and from Browns Row, Academy Street, was buried in the poor ground. From that day to the present, a quarter of a million Belfast citizens have been buried in the cemetery.

On its headstones, inscriptions tell the story of finance, empire, the rise of northern unionism and the golden era of industrialisation when the industrialists of Victorian Belfast pushed the city to the height of its industrial power and wealth. Soldiers who fought in foreign fields lie at rest here, while we remember other soldiers who are at peace in those fields. Family headstones in this cemetery contain over 250 separate memorial inscriptions for First World War dead.

Vaudeville stars and footballers are found here. Here also are the graves of Margaret Byers and Vere Foster, who transformed the lives of thousands of Belfast children through the development of education in our city. There are thousands buried in the poor ground.

One of the enduring qualities of this cemetery reminds us that the political and cultural identity of late 19th century Belfast was complex and layered; in every sense it upends old historical stereotypes and provides a fresh approach to the history of Belfast.

Four months after marking 150 years of the City Cemetery we will remember 150 years of Milltown Cemetery. Its history is inextricably linked to the history of the City Cemetery through the existence of an underground wall, built to separate Catholic blessed ground from other sections in that cemetery.

The first recorded burial was on November 25, 1869, when John Rafferty of 194 Argyle Street, Shankill Road was buried.

In Milltown we find the history of the Belfast nationalist and republican community. Priests and nuns, republicans and members of the RIC, architects and footballers, bishops and artists, businessmen and paupers, hurlers and harp makers, and the first conflict-related death to be buried in Milltown, begin to map out the story of Belfast's nationalist community.

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Others, whose legacy we still enjoy, include master bakers, musicians, sculptors, writers, educationalists, uilleann pipers and footballers.

We also meet the Italian community, whiskey makers, tram drivers, and a soldier of the French Foreign Legion, a reminder of the complex soldiering tradition found in Milltown.

A short distance from these two large cemeteries is the smaller burial ground of Balmoral cemetery which opened in 1855.

Here you will find the temperance activist, the history of coal boats, architects who designed our buildings, newspaper editors who wrote about those buildings, the doctor from Tandragee who brought the stethoscope to Ireland, and the Peace Preservation Force, one of the earliest police forces in these islands.

Sport is here, in the life of a manager of Everton and Liverpool football clubs. You will also find artists, merchants, doctors, academics, mill owners, and one of the oldest MPs to sit in the Westminster Parliament and an Irish speaking British Army Lieutenant-General.

Like most Victorian graveyards, we have little sight of the contribution of women, other than as wives, daughters, sisters or mothers, yet the story of Isabella Tod is a reminder of the struggle of women to be heard and seen in society. Here we find Presbyterian ministers as missionaries, temperance reformers, and agitating for tenant rights and as educators.

The totality of the narrative found in these three cemeteries told through the lives of the thousands of individuals, represents a great reservoir of our Belfast history.

When I began my research on the City Cemetery many years ago, whole sections of the burial ground were inaccessible due to overgrowth and a natural seeding process. The grounds were neglected, subject to ongoing vandalism and the destruction of many headstones.

Later I encountered similar environmental neglect in Milltown Cemetery where some of the burial ground had been transferred to the Wildlife Trust and sections of the poor ground had been tarmacked to provide parking space.

Thankfully the City Council and the trustees of Milltown have tackled the issue of neglect through ongoing maintenance in these large city burial grounds.

Yet serious problems in our older, smaller burial grounds still exist. The northern perimeter and railway embankment in Balmoral Cemetery are in a deplorable state.

This incidentally is not just a problem of our age - on Saturday, January 7, 1922, the Belfast antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger sent a letter to the Belfast Telegraph complaining about the state of Balmoral Cemetery.

Serious environmental neglect also exists in our most important inner city burial ground at Clifton Street, where the overgrowth stretches along the perimeter wall and covers many of the old historical headstones and monuments that can be found in this cemetery.

Oddly, given our society's deep curiosity in all things historical, the attitude to the state of our burial grounds seems to run contrary to this interest. How then should we make sense of this apparent contradiction?

Having a limited maintenance programme for two of our oldest but very important historic cemeteries indicates, in my view, indifference to the impact of environmental damage on historic headstones and monuments and, by extension, an indifference to our history.

The inscriptions found on the headstones in our old cemeteries reveal so much about the dynamic men and women who shaped our city in the 19th century that we should recognise the cost of maintaining the old burial grounds of our city is one worth paying.

Strategic investment in the maintenance and conservation of our older graveyards by Belfast City Council would represent a worthwhile investment into the wonderful, complex and often difficult history of our city.

Tom Hartley's 'Written in Stone' series - Balmoral Cemetery, Belfast City Cemetery and Milltown Cemetery - is available now at www.blackstaffpress.com and at all good bookshops

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