Joe Baker and the Glenravel History Project have been investigating and writing about Clifton Street Cemetery for 15 years, as well as conducting tours of it and campaigning for Belfast City Council to take seriously the upkeep of the historic site. Opened in 1797 as the ‘New Burying Ground’, the cemetery holds the remains of rich merchants, paupers, unionist politicians, republican rebels, famous inventors, an American diplomat, and an escaped American slave.
‘Every stone seems to breathe chapters of history,’ says Baker.
Those buried in Clifton Street include the famous Victorian actor Michael Atkins, Francis Dalzell Finlay, founder of the Northern Whig newspaper, and the remains of the Ritchie family, owners of the first large scale shipyard in Belfast. But the cemetery also contains unmarked mass graves where thousands of victims of cholera and fever were buried during the 1840s.
Joe Baker confesses to irritation that many people only know of the cemetery as the burial place of United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken, and that most visitors come only to see his grave. In fact two graves bear that name. One reads simply: ‘The Burying Place of Henry Joy McCracken’, and admirers of the great rebel often mistakenly leave flowers there, but the famous United Irishman actually lies in a different part of the graveyard.
Also buried in the graveyard is William Drennan, one of the founders of the United Irishmen, and whose epitaph contains the first reference to Ireland as the ‘emerald isle’:
William Drennan M.D.
Born May 23rd 1754 died February 5th 1820
Pure, just, benign thus filial
love would trace, the virtues
hallowing this narrow space,
the emerald isle may grant a
wider claim and link the
patriot with his country’s name.
Not long after the cemetery opened, it began to be troubled by body snatchers. Doctors, still trying to understand how the human body worked, would pay up to £7 for a fresh corpse, and were not particularly concerned where it came from. Gangs of men would enter the graveyard in middle of the night, dig up a grave, and steal the corpse. The corpse would then be packed in a barrel of brine and shipped to England or Scotland as ‘bacon’.
Bereaved families found different ways to protect the bodies of their loved ones. Rich families built elaborate tombs to keep out the body snatchers. Poor families simply stayed at the graveside until they were sure the body had begun to decompose.
Joe Baker conducts year round tours of the Clifton Street Cemetery, the Half Bap and other historical areas of Belfast. Log on to www.glenravel.com for more details.