Milltown Cemetery

Tom Hartley writes a richly complex history of the Belfast graveyard

'A cemetery like no other.' That is Tom Hartley's considered verdict on Milltown, the Catholic graveyard a stone's throw from where Hartley grew up as a Falls Road nipper, and environs of which he frequented in those prelapsarian days when children were allowed to wander freely and play wherever the fancy took them.

I say 'Catholic', but actually Milltown has a single Protestant buried in it. Hartley tells this unassuming tale, and that of many others, in a new history of the cemetery published by Blackstaff Press. A seasoned tour guide and former Lord Mayor of Belfast, Hartley spent many hours studying the headstones of the dead, and researching their individual stories.

The fact that Milltown is an (almost) exclusively Catholic burial place has, it seems, little or nothing to do with the sectarianism that has in one form or another bedevilled Belfast over the centuries. Rather it stemmed from the need to follow the stipulations of Catholic canon law regarding interment, and for clergy to have the final say over who was entitled to a Catholic burial.

When what is now known as Belfast City Cemetery was being planned in 1869, it proved impossible to reach agreement with the Belfast Corporation on these issues of ultimate jurisdiction in the proposed Catholic section, and a separate cemetery, Milltown, was established in close proximity on the other side of the Falls Road.

Milltown opened on November 25, 1869, when – ironically, as Hartley notes – the first coffin contained the corpse of a young man from the Shankill Road area. Nearly 200,000 Belfast Catholics have since followed him to their final resting place, as the cemetery expanded from an initial eight to its current 55 acres.

Of these an astonishing 38%, or over 75,000, are buried in so-called 'Poor Ground' areas reserved for those unable to afford the grave they would eventually lie in, left unmarked because there was nobody to pay for a headstone.

The brief chapter devoted to the poor is one of the most sobering sections of Hartley's narrative, revealing the industrial powerhouse that was Victorian Belfast to be in reality 'a split city, where wealth and opulence sat atop enormous poverty and deprivation'. Open sewers still existed, and mortality rates were higher than in Birmingham, Liverpool or London.

There are four other themed chapters aimed at tracing the gradual emergence of a substantial Catholic population in Belfast, 'as it sought to establish a foothold in a predominantly Protestant and unionist city'.

The gallery of citizens whose lives Hartley examines is rich indeed. Harp makers, bakers, ice cream vendors, priests, suffragettes, organists, singers, politicians, writers, whiskey distillers, uilleann pipers, hurlers – all life seems represented here, or virtually all of it.

Inevitably, perhaps, the most compelling stretches of the book are those which focus on individuals killed in conflict, some fighting for the Republican cause, some soldiering in the British Army, some on duty with the Royal Irish Constabulary in the convulsive period of partition and independence.

'Here', writes Hartley, 'the complexity of our history cannot go unnoticed.' Pro-British, anti-British, and those who were neither, Milltown has all three groupings represented, belying any crass political homogenising of Belfast Catholics on the basis of religious affiliation only.

Hartley finds similar complexity in Belfast City Cemetery, traditionally home to the Protestant dead, but far from being exclusively a bastion of unionism a considerable number of Catholics are buried there too, and it also houses a small Jewish Cemetery.

Their history can be examined further in a new, updated edition of Hartley's Belfast City Cemetery, first published eight years ago, and reissued by Blackstaff Press as a companion volume to the new Milltown publication.

Peppering the text of both books are many fascinating snippets of information. Did you know, for instance, that priests are always buried facing west, that Milltown coffins are placed seven feet under, not six, and that you can tell how well-off people were in life from where their graves are situated? Hartley knows these things, because he is steeped in cemetery lore: his own grandfather was a Belfast gravedigger.

Fascinating also are the many little mini-essays Hartley interpolates, 'to enhance the story of the individual with related information which connects with other aspects of Belfast or world history'.

These insertions are an education in themselves, and include topics as relatively familiar as the Battle of the Somme, policing in Ireland, and the Irish language, and as abstruse as model schools, Nutts Corner aerodrome, and the Spanish Lady Flu epidemic.

Hartley was, of course, a Sinn Fein councillor for 20 years, latterly becoming Lord Mayor of Belfast in 2008. He is also an experienced historian, however, and it shouldn't be necessary to stress the scrupulous fairness and sense of objectivity he brings to bear on his survey of the city's two great public burial places.

It's worth stressing anyway, because the overriding impression left by these two historic volumes is of Hartley's deep and abiding affection for his native city, and his fervent hope that by sensitively investigating the stories of the dead – all of them, regardless of race, creed or religion – we can somehow bring a better attitude to bear on our relations with the living, and on our collective future.

'Our history is bigger than our tribe,' is the way Hartley himself puts it. One hopes that ultimately he will be proved right. In the meantime, he has put the city of Belfast greatly in his debt by his sensitive disinterring of its richly complex human history, and by his dignified honouring of those who made it.

Milltown Cemetery is out now, published by Blackstaff Press.