Friar's Bush Graveyard

Historian Eamon Phoenix writes a potted history of Belfast's oldest Christian burial site

Friar’s Bush Graveyard on Stranmillis Road is Belfast’s oldest Christian burial site. The sense of ancient mystery enshrouding the old walled cemetery in south Belfast has long fascinated historians and local people alike. 

Friar’s Bush is the site of the medieval friary of St Patrick and contains the mysterious ‘Friar’s Stone’ with the implausible date, ‘AD 485’ inscribed on it. 

With the foundation of Belfast in 1610, the site became a graveyard for people of all denominations, but especially for the increasing Catholic population drawn to the rising industrial city from all parts of the north and west of Ireland. 

During the Penal persecution of the 18th century the Catholic population of the town attended Mass under an old thorn tree in the graveyard on Sundays. 

This practice, which gave Friar’s Bush its modern name, continued until 1769 when the Penal Laws began to ease. There is a strong tradition that a friar was hanged there in the 1720s. 

Friar’s Bush was continually raided by the ‘resurrection men’ or body-snatchers in the early 1800s. In 1823 the Newsletter reported the removal of the bodies of a woman and child from the graveyard. These bodies were later recovered from a barrel on a ship bound for Scotland.

During the Great Famine of the 1840s Friar’s Bush was used for the mass burial of up to 2,000 victims of hunger and cholera. 

The ‘Plaguey Hill’, were the bodies were buried just inside the gates, now stands as a grim memento of that period. 

In 1995 the Irish Government presented the trustees of the graveyard with a special plaque signifying its role as Belfast’s official Famine site. 

In Victorian times a host of leading journalists and businessmen were interred in Friar’s Bush including the Read Brothers, the founders of the Belfast Morning News, the predecessor of the Irish News

In 1869 Friar’s Bush, then dangerously overcrowded, was replaced by Milltown Cemetery as the city's main Catholic cemetary. 

The two-acre site was closed to all comers for thirty years but has recently been transferred to Belfast City Council.

Tours of the site are available to the public on request via Belfast City Council at 028 9031 4762. 

Special Belfast Sightseeing Halloween tours of the site are also available via the Belfast Sightseeing website.