Milltown’s story
Milltown’s story



Irish Times journalist Freya McClements recently visited Milltown cemetery in west Belfast, which opened 154 years ago. She met with Gerry Doherty, the cemetery’s manager, and historian Tom Hartley.


At Milltown cemetery in west Belfast, every tourist has the same question: “Is Bobby Sands buried here?”

It’s “the first thing people ask,” says Gerry Doherty, the cemetery’s manager.

“People have a perception of what Milltown is about. When you talk to people outside of here, they immediately think ‘republican’, especially if you are talking to people from the other community, but there is a lot more to it than that.”

“This is the story of Belfast, through nationalist and republican, but also through those who joined the British army and the RIC,” says cemetery expert Tom Hartley.

“It’s a way of telling social history. What I try and do is link an individual’s life story to the history of Belfast and world history, and what I’m also trying to do is show the complexity of the story.”

A former Sinn Féin mayor of Belfast, Hartley has been leading tours of Milltown since the 1990s and is the author of the Written in Stone series of books about three of the city’s cemeteries, Milltown, the City and Balmoral.

He shows The Irish Times the grave of Patrick McKelvey, an RIC officer who joined the British Army during the first World War; 100 yards away lies his son Joseph, a senior IRA officer executed by the Free State government in 1922.

“It must be the only graveyard in Ireland where the father’s in a British war grave and the son’s in a republican plot,” says Hartley.

“History doesn’t run along parallel lines. It’s complex and layered and sometimes difficult, but it’s our history.”

Milltown opened in 1869, only months after the City Cemetery – Belfast’s first municipal burial ground – which is only a few minutes’ walk away up the Falls Road.

The City Cemetery was intended to be interdenominational; a dispute between the Catholic Bishop and Belfast Corporation led to the diocese purchasing land for its own cemetery at Milltown.

To explore its 50 acres is to stroll through Belfast’s history.

There is the grave of Edward Hughes, “son of the famous baker Barney Hughes, the founder of the Belfast bap”, as well as headstones carved during the Gaelic revival bearing images of Irish wolfhounds and round towers, and those belonging to the city’s Italian community – the first, Hartley explains, to use photographs on headstones.

He stops at the grave of Pio Matassa, 1866-1920, its inscription carved in Italian alongside an intricate carving of the gentleman himself, with a trilby hat, suit and tie and the sharpest of pencil moustaches.

“Why I like this grave – it’s a really beautiful stone,” says Hartley. “You can just imagine him.”

He stops at another, erected by Elizabeth McMahon “in sad and loving memory of her family” – her husband and four sons, and their “trusted servant” – who were “brutally murdered in their home 24th March 1922”.

“How do you go into your house one day and your whole family’s there and the next day the whole family’s wiped out?

“I think sometimes we don’t appreciate the impact and trauma that people like Elizabeth suffered.”

As we walk, headstone after headstone displays a famous name. Winifred Carney is buried in Milltown, as are Joe Cahill, Máire Drumm and Albert Sharp, better known as Darby O’Gill; the names of Henry Joy McCracken and Roger Casement are listed on memorials.

Yet there are also those whose names have vanished into history, and who now lie beneath the calm, still lawns of the public grounds, or poor grounds.

“Belfast is like any other Victorian city,” says Hartley. “It’s schizophrenic, because it has great wealth and great poverty.

“In the City Cemetery, which I suppose is reflective of a unionist population, there’s 80,000 in the poor ground. In Milltown, which represents the Catholic population of Belfast, which was maybe around a quarter to a third, there’s 70,000, so you get that sense of the poverty then in the Catholic population.”

Local historian and author, Tom Hartley, describes how Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery shows the complex and layered history of the city and the island in general.

On this weekday morning, the cemetery is busy with people walking dogs and visiting graves; this, says Doherty, is the difference between Milltown and other cemeteries.

“Because it is sitting where it is, the whole west Belfast community is right on the doorstep, so it is used as a sort of amenity in many ways for people to take a walk, or contemplate.”

Most also have family here; Doherty’s parents are buried in Milltown, and Hartley’s first association with the cemetery was as a child, being taken there for funerals and to visit family graves. It is also, inevitably, the final resting place for a significant number of those who died as a result of the Troubles, not least children.

“It’s a very well-used cemetery, it is still very active, there is a sense of ownership,” says Doherty. “There is just a whole sense of community.”

In the new republican plot – which opened in 1972 for Provisional IRA members – tourists from Australia and Canada are examining the graves, including that of Bobby Sands. The cemetery does not monitor visitor numbers, but there has been a “noticeable increase” in tourism in the last 20 years.

“It’s pretty moving here,” says Mike Clifford from Toronto. “You see the humanity of it.”

Hartley explains the plaque above the grave of Mairead Farrell, Danny McCann and Sean Savage – the three IRA members killed by the SAS in disputed circumstances in Gibraltar in 1988 – which remembers Thomas McErlean, John Murray and Caoimhin Mac Brádaigh, who died while pursuing the loyalist Michael Stone after he attacked the funeral.

“Michael Stone was, see the black cross there, that’s where he was, he was firing a pistol and he was throwing hand grenades.”

He points out the damage to nearby headstones. “They [the grenades] were landing among the gravestones, and look at this stone here, see all the shrapnel marks on the stone, they were absorbing the shock.”

Hartley was in the republican plot at the time. “I was near the coffins at the time, oh it was terrible. It took a few seconds to realise we were being attacked … it was pandemonium. Terrible day.”

It is a short walk from there to the Cross of Sacrifice, erected in memory of those who died in the first World War.

“A number of years ago this was vandalised and badly damaged, and it was the members of the [republican] National Graves Association who actually cleaned it up,” he says.

“This stone is a reminder, I think, of the complexity of our history, because this is to the British war dead, but” – he points out a name on the memorial – “there’s a Private Sands.”

Hartley’s own family history reflects that complexity. His grandfather was a Presbyterian who married a Catholic.

“I’m always very proud to claim Presbyterian DNA,” he says.

His grandfather was a British soldier during the first World War; other relatives include an uncle in the Royal Navy during the second World War and, on his father’s side, uncles in the IRA in the 1920s, one of whom subsequently joined the Free State Army.

“You can’t get anything more complex than that, and I think I am enhanced by my family’s history.”

In 1994, Hartley was the first member of Sinn Féin to attend a first World War commemoration service at Islandbridge in Dublin, and as lord mayor of Belfast he laid a wreath to mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

He believes “we are now at a very good place” in relation to commemorations of differing traditions, but issues remain to be addressed, as demonstrated by the controversy over the State commemoration of the RIC and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) in 2020.

“There are very deep feelings… for me it’s to find a way to talk about these difficult issues, and maybe the first step is to recognise the complexity and to recognise there are many strains of behaviour and attitude and action that constitute our history, and I think we have to find a way of engaging with it and dealing with it,” he says.

“There is a common humanity of grief and loss and pain – and no one group owns that, that belongs to us all – and I think maybe that’s the starting point.”

It is to state the obvious that, in the North, remembrance has been and remains controversial, not least earlier this year, when Sinn Féin MP John Finucane was accused by the DUP of “glorifying terrorism” for speaking at an IRA commemoration in South Armagh.

“As John said at the time, everyone has the right to remember their dead, and I think everyone has the right to remember their dead with dignity.

“In Ireland we’re good at hurting each other over our dead, and we have to find a way of not doing that, we have to learn how not to do that.”

In Milltown, Hartley emphasises, “you have of course IRA volunteers, but you also have RIC men who were shot by the IRA… I believe all their stories need to be told, and we need to try and understand the lives of everyone who died and suffered in conflict.”

After more than 150 years, Milltown is filling up; with no space to expand into, it is likely to close to new burials within the next five to 10 years.

Hartley knows where he wants to be buried – not at Milltown, but at the City Cemetery.

A child of the Falls Road, he explains his playground was the Black Mountain.

“So I want to be buried under the mountain,” he says.

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