Respecting our complex narrative: A tour of Belfast City Cemetery
by Megan FERGUSON for Shared Future News
11 April 2019
With a history spanning 150 years, Belfast City Cemetery on the Falls Road is a truly important piece of Belfast’s heritage. Hosted by Belfast City Council’s Good Relations programme, Tom Hartley facilitated a tour of the cemetery, telling many stories of those who were laid to rest there. The inscriptions of the headstones spoke of finance, empire, the rise of Unionism in Northern Ireland, and of the golden era of industrialisation in Belfast.
The cemetery opened on 1 August 1869, and its 40 acres of land that forms the cemetery is in the shape of a bell. At the time of opening, Protestants had to enter through one gate, Catholics through another, and poor people entered from the back. Currently, there are around a quarter of a million people buried in the cemetery, with the first burial being that of a 3-year-old girl, who was buried in the poor ground on the 4 August 1869. She is one of 80,000 people buried in the large, unmarked plot.
Hartley described how the cemetery is that of a typical Victorian style, with Neo-Classical styles throughout. There are several listed monuments (see above list). When discussing death, Hartley spoke of how human beings cannot really deal with that topic, as we all experience through our senses, so do not hold the capacity to imagine nothing; we conceptualise death by inscriptions and architecture. He believes that a society that cannot respect the dead is a society that is dying. For him, the dead are so important to give us a “sense of where we come from, where we are now, and where we are going”. He believes that graveyards are for the living.
Hartley took the tour round many graves, including the McGladdery brick makers and the parents of author C.S. Lewis. Some of the graves told the stories of separation between Unionists and Nationalists, such as Reverend Robert Lynn (who spoke at the Unionist convention and was a political minister) and his son who was also called Robert (who was a Nationalist and a socialist and a friend of Republican James Connolly). The Lynn’s headstone tells the story of political Unionism as well as the Irish language and the Republican movement. This headstone, according to Hartley, provides a good image of the complexity of our narrative.
There are many popular features of the cemetery. The Gallaher Steps were the first one to be added, in 1867; it holds the vaults that include the remains of a number of families who dominated life in 19th century Belfast, such as Edward Harland of Harland and Wolff. The most popular feature of the cemetery is a wall which separates Protestant- and Catholic-interred land. This wall is not visible, however, as it was built six inches below ground. The wall is 9-foot-high and is made of black stone. According to Hartley, the Christian wall was built below ground to prevent a sense of separation, but the Jewish people who wanted to be buried in the cemetery had to build an obvious wall, as they believed this to be a “Christian cemetery”.
There are few interred women, Hartley explained: “They are written out of history.” One of the most prominent women in the cemetery is Margaret Byers. She was married to Reverend John Byers, who had died on the journey home from Shanghai soon after they married. Margaret was passionate about the education of women and became the founder of Victoria College in Belfast; she campaigned for women to be allowed to take University exams. However, on her gravestone all that is written about her is “Widow of John Byers”. As a successful woman of her time, her life had been put in context of a man who had died 50 years before she did.
Other notable people who are buried in the cemetery that Hartley pointed out are Sadie Hale and Vere Foster. Sadie was a typist on the Lusitania when the ship was bombed by German U-boat U20. Sadie drowned when the ship sank. Vere Foster was a diplomat who was born into a wealthy family. He spent his fortune on bettering the island of Ireland and became the first President of the Irish National Teachers Organisation. He died in complete poverty after spending his inheritance on such work.
The entire tour was a very riveting and enlightening experience. The cemetery is rich with the history of Belfast and tells the stories of both sides of the spectrum, both green and orange. Tom Hartley’s knowledge of the cemetery is outstanding, and the tour is delivered in a truly interesting and respectful manner, which all those who attended the tour enjoyed and were able to contribute to. The tour taught me many things about our city that I had not known before and introduced me to important historical figures that are still important in contemporary Belfast.
Image source: Culture Northern Ireland