Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

16 December 1999 Edition

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A winter's tale



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''.

And 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.

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
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.

``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.

And 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 of Ireland.

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.

And 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,'' says Tom.

An Phoblacht
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