Belfast City Cemetery

Tom Hartley, author and former Lord Mayor of Belfast, gives a historical tour of Belfast City Cemetery. Listen to an audio tour to the left

When I was a child I lived in a street of 50 houses inside a community of 30 streets. When someone in our street died all the children of the street would gather together and go to the wake house.

There would always be a kid at the front being pushed by all the kids behind; we were all scared out of our wits. This kid at the front would rap the door and then ask ‘Mrs, can we see the dead’. All of us, pushed on by our curiosity were brought into the wake house, but all very reluctant to see the dead person.

In those days the remains were laid out on the bed in an up stairs room. So the kid at the front frightened out of his or her wits would be pushed up the stairs by all the kids behind. Each stair climbed increased the sense of fear.

Reaching the small landing the door of the bedroom beckoned. Now we could see the room bathed in the soft yellow light of drawn blinds, now we could smell the aroma of burning candles. As we entered the room we always saw the feet first and then the remains laid out on the bed, and of course there was always the stillness of death hanging in the air.

Round the bed we would all gather, but all of us looking at our feet and then somehow finding the courage to peep at the dead. All the children would quickly say a prayer, bless themselves and as quickly as they came would charge down the stairs and empty on to the street and safety.

When I look back on this experience, which in our community was very common for children, I see that something very important was happening to all of us kids. An experience which was frightening was nevertheless crucial to our understanding of the world we lived in. We were introduced to the reality of death, inside the safe environment of our family and community.

From a very early age we knew that death represented loss but was also a consequence of life. As we grew older death became less frightening, in other words we were better able to survive the sequence of loss, grief and the absence of a loved one.

Death was also associated with stories of the ‘olden days’. In wake houses, parents, aunts, uncles and old friends of the family would tell the stories of their life, the experience of their childhood, growing up without electricity, the war years and rationing, the troubles, where our grandparents came from and a multitude of stories, many of them funny about the deceased.

In these early years of my life these stories of the ‘olden days’ laid the foundations of my interest in history. Little did I realise then, that my interest aided by my mother’s capacity for detail and my father’s talent in story telling, combined to reinforce my hunger for history. But history in Ireland is often a journey into the past that finds its way back to the present. In my adult years the journey metamorphosed as political consciousness, so that by 1969 and the outbreak of the conflict in Northern Irish society I had become politically active.

I never made a conscious decision to do an historical walk of the Belfast City and Milltown cemeteries; the circumstances of my political involvement led me into this role. By 1973 I was working with the Sinn Fein press office, the Belfast Republican Press Centre on the Falls Road, Belfast.

Visiting journalists to the area frequently asked for a tour of the British military barracks scattered around West Belfast. As someone who was born and lived on the Falls Road, I was in a position to give these tours. Initially, they were mostly walking tours of the lower and mid Falls. As time went by, I included facets of Republican history, such as Milltown cemetery with its Republican graves.

In between the barracks and the Cemetery, other aspects of the social and political history of the Falls Road emerged. What began as a dander around the lower Falls slowly developed into a three-hour bus tour which had its starting point in Castle Street, then wound its way through the back streets of the Falls Road, into Milltown Cemetery, up into Lenadoon and Twinbrook, back through Andersonstown, Turf Lodge, Ballymurphy, Beechmount, and finished in Bombay Street.

With the emergence of the West Belfast Festival (Feile) in 1988, I put the bus tour into the Festival programme. In its first year the programme advertised a tour three times during the festival week. As the festival developed, so did the demand for this form of local history: by the mid-1990s I was bussing around west Belfast daily during the festival, from Monday through Friday. These tours reflected my growing historical interest, which had now found an outlet through the West Belfast Festival.

During this period other factors shaped my political and historical outlook, and these added new historical perspectives to the tour. Engagement with Protestants and Unionists opened the door to the history of that community, and I recognised a major gap in my understanding of Unionism.

One way this gap manifested itself was my lack of curiosity regarding the history of Unionism to be found among the monuments and headstones in the lower end of the Belfast City Cemetery. Growing up on the Falls, a Nationalist/Catholic area of Belfast, I felt no sense of ownership or attachment to the City Cemetery. All this changed as I explored the headstones to be found in this graveyard on my doorstep.

This early exploration revealed a wide variety of family and historical inscriptions on the headstones and monuments, some of which I incorporated into my bus tour. By the year 1998, the extent of information I had accumulated on both the City and Milltown cemeteries was such that I decided to concentrate on an historical walk of the two cemeteries; that year the first walk took place on Tuesday 4 August.

The walk is structured to capture the breadth and complexity of the history of Belfast. It invites us to make links and connections with a diverse history that reveals itself through funerary architecture and headstone inscriptions.

At the beginning of each walking tour, I remind visitors that they can either like or dislike the history they will be confronted with as they explore the headstones and monuments in the Belfast City and Milltown cemeteries. They can agree or disagree with the politics of those who lie buried in the graves they visit. But whatever they think, be they Catholic or Protestant, Unionist or Republican, the history found on the headstones of the City and Milltown, is the complex history of Belfast.

The above article was first published as the preface to Tom Hartley's book, Written in Stone, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.