A winter's tale
BY LAURA FRIEL
It was a winter afternoon. Overhead, the sky was dark with rain but
the horizon was light, a bitter brightness casting long shadows from a
cold sun already too close to the ground. Tom Hartley met us, myself
and my youngest daughter Niamh, at the cemetery gates. Tom, a busy
Belfast City councillor, warns we have only an hour for a graveyard
tour that usually lasts for four. What a relief. I might relish the
melodrama of a deserted cemetery, lit only by the light and shade of
its headstones, but my two-year-old will not.
There's just a hint of the impresario in Tom too. Perhaps being a good
politician parallels the performance arts more closely than we like to
admit. The stage was set but I was just a little curious about what
exactly drew Tom to such a place. ``It began as part of the West
Belfast festival,'' says Tom. ``And why me? No one else would do it.''
But if it began as a duty, it has developed into something of a
personal triumph. Ask anyone whose ever taken the tour and in one
voice they'll declare it ``brilliant''.
d it's hard to imagine anything, even a festival, taking place in
West Belfast that did not include the dead. The graveside oration and
annual commemoration have politicised grief and remembrance for
republicans. Even beyond the immediate republican family, sectarian
violence has woven untimely death into the tapestry of Northern
nationalist lives. So here we are at the gates of the City cemetery,
one generation which has lived through the darkest days of struggle
and another for whom the dawn has barely broken.
Now located in the heart of West Belfast's nationalist community, the
City and Milltown cemeteries both opened in the late 19th century on
sites which would have been on the outskirts of the city. In the
aftermath of the Great Hunger, the pressure on grave sites,
precipitated by famine and disease, required urgent address. The City
is a predominantly Protestant graveyard, Milltown is exclusively
Catholic. Each one has its own distinctive story to tell, yet equally,
each tale is as inextricably linked as the people whose lives and
deaths are recorded here.
It's hard to imagine anything, even a festival, taking place in West
Belfast that did not include the dead. The graveside oration and
annual commemoration have politicised grief and remembrance for
``At the bottom end of the City cemetery,'' says Tom, ``we can see
unionism at the height of its wealth and power.'' Industrialists,
politicians and members of the clergy are buried here in well ordered
spacious plots, private in the shade of overhanging trees but never
secluded. The headstones are substantial rather than elaborate,
shunning the more fanciful sentimentality of Rome for the solid
virtues of the Ulster Protestant.
We stand for a moment beside the grave of Joseph Cunningham of
Glencairn. ``Joseph Cunningham lived in Fern Hill House, which today is
a museum of the 36th Ulster Division,'' says Tom. ``When the UVF brought
guns into Belfast in 1912, they were stored at Fern Hill. ``And then
there's the grave of Richard Rutledge Kane, Orange Grand Master and
Church of Ireland minister who led Randolph Churchill onto the stage
upon which he made his notorious ``Ulster is right and Ulster will
fight'' speech. The grave of the leader of the first women's Orange
Lodge in Ireland, Annie Bridgett, can also be found here. Also the
grave of Lord Perry, responsible for the building of the Titanic.
But there is a sadder side to all this wealth and influence. The price
of colonial privilege enjoyed by Ulster's Protestants was paid in the
blood of its children. Young men, not fighting for Ulster but dying
for an even more remote cause, the expansion and maintenance of
Britain's imperial acquisitions. There are graves of people who died
in countries all over the world, South Africa, India, Australia, all
playing their small part in the consolidation of Britain's empire.
d then there are those who died in the two world wars. ``There are
many tributes to fallen sons,'' says Tom, ``all highly decorated young
officers.'' Turn-of-the-century industrialists who had reared their
children to inherit position and power, buried sons killed in their
early twenties on the battlefields of Europe. Twenty five years later
and they were burying their grandsons too. ``You can see the enormous
impact two world wars had on this class,'' says Tom. No wonder
Britain's `Poppy Day' has become synonymous with unionism in the north
But if the City Cemetery records the story of unionist wealth and
domination, it also records its diversity, the exceptions where class
and religion did not determine political allegiance. Robert Lynd, the
son of a Presbyterian churchman and friend to James Connolly is buried
here. An essayist who lived most of his life in England, Lynd reared
his two daughters to speak fluent Gaelic. When Joyce and Nora Barnacle
married they stayed in Lynd's London home. Lynd also wrote the
introduction to one of Connolly's early pamphlets.
Unexpectedly, there are also many celtic decorations and gaelic
inscriptions amongst the graves. ``In the 19th century, Ulster
Protestants had no difficulty in describing themselves as both
unionist and Irish,'' says Tom. ``That identification, as both Irish and
unionist, changes after Partition,'' says Tom.
In the late 19th century, Belfast's Catholic Bishop petitioned the
corporation for part of the City Cemetery to be Catholic. The request
was conceded but only after it was agreed to build an underground wall
to keep the Protestant and Catholic dead demonstratively separate. ``It
wasn't simply a case of Protestant sectarianism,'' says Tom. ``It was
more to do with the Catholic hierarchy's notion of consecrated
ground.'' A broad grassy path now marks the line of the sunken wall
which divides the graves of the two faiths.
A short time later, the Catholic church acquired the Milltown site and
Catholic burial at the City Cemetery dwindled, only to be revived
almost a century later. And in truth, the short journey from the City
to Milltown Cemetery marks a greater division than the curious
obscenity of an underground wall. Well placed graves, with their
grassy paths and beautiful trees, so characteristic of the City, give
way to chaotic profusion in Milltown.
There are around a quarter of a million graves in Milltown Cemetery.
Two thirds of those buried here were interred in pauper graves. Few of
the inscriptions record civic positions. These are the graves of the
powerless as well as the poor. Distinction is less a question of class
than between the Catholic clergy and laity. Almost none are recorded
as dying in either the First or Second World War. In Milltown, the
most frequent cause of untimely death is disease and sectarian
violence. ``Many of the graves bear the inscription, died for their
faith,'' says Tom.
d then there are the republican graves and memorials. The County
Antrim IRA Roll of Honour. The Republican Plot, with the graves of
1981 Hunger strikers, Bobby Sands, Kieran Doherty and Joe McDonnell,
the graves of Mairéad, Seán and Dan, killed by the British SAS in
Gibraltar, Frankie Ryan, a young IRA Volunteer who died in a premature
explosion in England, and the grave of Sinn Féin Councillor Pat
McGeown. There's the imposing grave of Marie Drumm and the vacant
grave site waiting for Tom Williams. ``There are also the graves and
memorials of the INLA and Officials,'' says Tom.
Amongst the less well known is the grave of Winnie Carney. As James
Connolly's adjutant, Winnie was the only woman stationed in the GPO
during the 1916 Rising. The Corr sisters, who travelled with
Connolly's daughter to Dublin to take part in the Easter Rising, are
also buried here.
As the rain begins to fall, Niamh's patience runs out. No longer
skipping between the headstones, she sits and bawls. Taking my
daughter into my arms, we head for shelter and over a cup of coffee I
ask Tom about the popularity of his tour. ``We've all stood at the
graveside of family, friends and comrades, and contemplated their
lives'' says Tom. ``Standing at the graveside of people we've never
known, even those whose lives and allegiances would have differed
radically from our own, still evokes an empathy.'' And then leaving the
ghosts of Christmas Past (and Tom Hartley), we head out for just a
little more shopping, Niamh's hopes fixed firmly on the future and a
very merry Christmas.
Tom Hartley will be conducting a tour of the City and Milltown
Cemeteries on New Year's Eve starting at 11am outside the City
Cemetery gates. ``It's to raise money for the St Patrick's Day Parade,''