Belfast City Cemetery – Shared History. An interview with Tom Hartley (2014)

29 Nov

September 2013. I’ve recently been exploring Belfast City Cemetery for the first time in search of family graves. Even though we have quite a few relatives perpetually resting here, my protestant relatives aren’t keen on visiting – perceiving it to be in something of a no-go area, located as it is in the heart of nationalist West Belfast. I’m somewhat taken back by the run-down state of huge sections – the evidence of repeated vandalism, poor signage, and difficulty in navigating. I write to Tom Hartley, a Sinn Fein politician who has researched the history of the graveyard, published an excellent book on the subject and regularly gives tours. I receive a reply from his office that emphasises the ongoing work to improve the cosmetics of the cemetery.

View across Belfast City Cemetery, March 2013. Photo © Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved

View across Belfast City Cemetery, March 2013. Photo © Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved

February 2014. I’ve been researching a radio feature on the history of the cemetery, hoping to focus on the potential for it as a location of shared history between the Protestant and Catholic communities. I reach out to several local politicians for an interview and only Tom replies in the time I have available with any sense of engagement. Ultimately the feature was abandoned because I wanted a more rounded set of voices. I’m disappointed in particular in the Protestant leaders (I’d contacted the former DUP Mayor of Belfast, Gavin Robinson, but he declined to take part) -as its their community history that I think we can build a story out of.

I’ve been back researching the cemetery in person several times since then, with more work to do.  Belatedly, I present here a slightly edited transcription of the discussion between me and Hartley, without additional comment. A loose discussion between two men, ostensibly from opposite sides of the community divide in NI, but with a shared interest in the history of the cemetery space and the city we were both born and bred in.

We meet 10.45 am, Wednesday 12 February 2014, a short walk from the City Cemetery, in the Culturlann on the Falls Road – my first time at this location. I enter the cafe area, find Tom, order a coffee and as I sit, hit record on my Sony minidisc. We join the conversation after the opening salvos…

TOM HARTLEY: …Its about knowing your own city.

ROBERT SIMPSON: One of the things I’ve been trying to do over the last couple of years, is actually go to places that when I was growing up I wouldn’t have been to. Places that either were forbidden, because of the Troubles and things, I was too young to travel around, or just kind of peaked my curiosity.

I took a trip into the Bogside last year – first time I’ve done that –

TH: Did you survive it okay?

RS: I survived [laughter]. But I mean, having been in Derry forever, my grandparents live there, it was somewhere I’d never been properly.

TH: What school did you go to in Belfast?

RS: Campbell College.

TH: Campbell College… so that’s the C.S. Lewis connection?

RS: That’s the one, yeah. Very tenuous C.S. Lewis connection…

TH: But nevertheless still there.

RS: I actually grew up round the corner from where he did, so its all very familiar territory. I feel quite bad I’ve not been up [to the cemetery] before.

TH: Well for instance, across the road is Dominican College. One of the great artworks of Belfast is in the college and that is a stained glass window by a man called Harry Clark. Now if you know anything about stained glass windows Harry Clark is one of the pre-eminent stain glass window artists in this country; he’s dead, he died in the 1930s but his windows are very famous, you know…. There’s another stained glass window in Townsend Presbyterian church by a woman called Wilhelmina Geddes… So its all sorts of material that you find here in this part of the city, which we as a city should be celebrating.

RS: I have to say I agree, and that’s actually where I come into this, this project, this piece I’m doing about the City Cemetery… I’d read some of your comments from a couple of years ago about the City Cemetery and the lack of… the protestants that weren’t coming in and you seemed to be making some effort at the time to try and address that and that was quite interesting for me because coming from where I come from and my family – we have family buried in City Cemetery. My grandfather hasn’t been up to see his parents’ grave in years…

TH: Why not?

RS: I think for him it was an emotional problem. His problem was that he put – in his specific example, he’d put a wooden cross on the grave a few times and it had been removed and vandalised repeatedly, and I think he found that…

TH: Distressing?

RS: Yeah, after a while.

TH: Yes

RS: So that’s his personal thing, obviously that may be different for somebody else – may have other reasons, but I’m aware there has been a lot of vandalism…

Damage to headstones in Belfast City Cemetery. March 2013. Photo © Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Damage to headstones in Belfast City Cemetery. March 2013. Photo © Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

TH: …Well, there has been, but it’s like I suppose any open space in this city, but we have worked hard as a community to reduce it. I’m not so sure that, given that it’s a big open space that you’ll ever, totally… eradicate it. .
But I think you can raise community awareness about the site, how valuable it is and what it means to us as a city. And if you get communities then around the cemetery, I think we’ve already achieved this, taking ownership of the cemetery and beginning to see it as a very important site in the narrative of Belfast then that begins to change the way people view the cemetery.
But also, you know, I have a view that in the 1970s and 80s and really the 1990s, Belfast City Council gave up on the cemetery. So you had a lot of vandalism, theft. Also it was overgrown you know, and where a spot is overgrown it encourages drinkers and vandals so all that has been cut back and while we haven’t reached the position I think where you could rest… With the work that has been done or achieved, it is still a much different space today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

RS: I think I was even reading stuff online from forums from 5 or 6 years ago and there are people talking about the state of the cemeteries then, so obviously there’s a lot of work that’s been done. I’ve been up to both the City Cemetery and Milltown, and my first impressions – I actually wrote to you about this last year – my first impressions of Milltown were considerably better than City Cemetery. It is more obviously neglected… but then, that’s coming from someone who hasn’t had the benefit of being up here for 20 years and seeing the changes.

TH: When I went into it first you could hardly see the inner sections… overgrown… And now, you begin to see even when you walk along the frontage of the Falls Road you begin to see the layout. There’s been a lot of undergrowth, trees , naturally seeded by the birds. Then given the weather and the global warming – you cut one year and the next year its just as bad. Now I think the Council needs to then be on top of that situation. I suppose in an older type of cemetery it’s a bit difficult because of the stone surrounds. Whereas if you look at the new lawn type sections at the top of the cemetery, where you don’t have surrounds, where headstones are by and large of similar height, then what you begin to get is a section that is easy to maintain, whereas some of the older sections are difficult in that sense to maintain. But I think that’s up to Belfast City Council to find ways of looking after the cemetery.

RS: Your own book [Belfast City Cemetery: The History of Belfast Written In Stone, Blackstaff Press] that you published on it is, I thought it was a great read, very informative and its, it is actually very well balanced for someone who, I guess for someone who has been a politician and has a particular allegiance – your representation of the story of Belfast City Cemetery is the story of the people, and I wouldn’t say is in any way a biased one. Which is what a good historian should be…

TH: Well… I of course see it as the history of my city; and its like you could have a different political view than I have, and that’s democracy but it doesn’t make you – really it doesn’t make you essentially the enemy. You’re not someone to be avoided. And your history and where you come from – is probably a part of my history – the history of my city. I just see in that in this city politically there are dimensions of who we are. And that enhances our sense of us, it doesn’t diminish. So its not something that I think, ‘I’m going in here to write as a republican’, I’m just writing as someone who loves this city, its people and its history, and its difficult at times and there are really difficult… situations that you deal with. For instance I don’t believe – and this is I suppose the public person in me – I don’t believe that we should be hurting each other over our dead, and I think we do that. And whether its desecration of a grave, of a war grave or a republican plot; or what we say – the way we talk about the dead, I think we have this great capacity in our society to hurt each other over our dead, whereas I have a view that the dead do represent multiple dimensions of us as a city and we should use that history, that complexity, and that often difficult history as a way of enhancing our sense of us, not diminishing us.

RS: I think that’s something that you and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir [Lord Mayor of Belfast at time of interview] actually have gone to great pains to do – to make it a more inclusive thing. It seems to me as well that you are at times bashing your head against a brick wall with the reaction that you get from some parts of the certainly the loyalist and unionist community.

TH: Well, I mean, oddly enough now, in their defence, I have done walks through the cemetery with loyalists, and I have to say, I always found them very open to history. And I have brought them in, a difficult walk for me, through Milltown Cemetery. But they were there, they came. So, in some sense I think that when you look at elements say of the loyalist protest… and then that very quickly becomes a monolithic view of a whole community. And the one thing I learned in politics, or the one thing politics taught me, was don’t ever look at anything in a monolithic way because then you stop seeing opportunities and you stop seeing; you stop seeing the human element and how you can make contact, and how you can engage and how… You can talk about our history and you can differ about it, but that doesn’t mean you end up sticking out your tongue at someone you know and huffin’. And sometimes I think we do a form of that in society – you’re the baddy and I’m the goody. But life is much more grey than that. And history teaches me that. And in their defence now, I have walked through Milltown Cemetery with loyalists, and they would disagree with the politics of those who lie there, but what was important was that they were in Milltown, they were looking at that history, they were engaging with it in the walk and I think that’s very important.

RS: Is that something you struggle to do, to – not necessarily personally, but is it an uphill struggle to encourage those from the loyalist backgrounds to come into this neck of the woods again.

TH: No, I’ve had many loyalists in the City Cemetery, I’ve led numerous groups from the protestant/unionist community and no, they come in. Now, a lot of those walks would be into the City Cemetery… but nevertheless the complexity of our life, our history, is to be found in City Cemetery as much as it is found in Milltown Cemetery.
I have a great sense of people being open to the history of this place. And they don’t have to agree with me; and as I say, you can agree or disagree, you can like or not like the politics of the people who are buried in Milltown and City Cemetery, but what you can’t disagree with is that it’s the history of our city, and therefore because it’s the history of our city, it belongs to us. All of us.

RS: I would agree with that. You wouldn’t say there are still no go areas in Belfast for one community or the other, or are there?

TH: Well, I think there are tensions in areas, and you can see it, we have to…. You can see… the situation in the Lower Newtownards Road the other week… But… There’s a burial ground over in the Lower Newtownards Road beside the Methodist Meeting House… I would campaign as much for that history and that story to be told as I would for a story on the Falls Road to be told. And I suppose given my face, and the atmosphere that you find in parts of the city, you do need to take that into account. But I have spoken in all areas of Belfast on the City Cemetery, and I’ve always got a great reception – always. People are always interested in hearing about the history of the place. Now that doesn’t mean they agree with me, but they come and they listen.

RS: What was it that prompted you to start researching the Cemetery?

TH: Oh that’s a long story.

RS: You grew up around here?

TH: About five minutes from here. Think I was born here, so that’s where it all began. Where does it all begin? I’ve been trying to unravel that…. I suppose way back in the 1970s I was involved with the Republican Press Centre and we used to get journalists from Britain coming across to us and at that time we had 13 or 14 big British military forts round West Belfast – something like out of the Wild West. And they used to ask us to take them and show them, and in between showing them the forts I would point out this street and that street and this… And that then eventually became the tour, became a tour for me when the West Belfast Festival started in 1987. So it was ready made because I just, through the years had brought all sorts of people round to show them the place. So when ’87 came along I organised a bus tour, and then I ended up in the City Cemetery and started to become very interested in that so. I gave up the bus tour and started to do a walking tour of both the City and Milltown, and that lasted for about 6 hours. And I used to have a badge “I survived Tom Hartley’s tour.”
But then it just got too much, cus it was 6 hours. I mean I could do it, but I could see when I started off in the City and wind my way eventually into Milltown and then I could see at the end of it people gasping for breath. Mind you, they stayed with me and they loved it. But it was a bit too much so I broke it up, so we have a separate tour, we have a tour of Milltown and we have a separate tour of City which I do. And so its been a long story.

RS: I’m right in my understanding of the geography of Belfast and the history of the cemetery in that it was initially basically a Protestant burial ground, with a few Catholic burials after the dispute?

TH: Well it was meant to be an interdenominational. Then the dispute arose, between the Bishop Patrick Dorrien, catholic bishop Patrick Dorrien, and the Belfast Corporation, of course the Belfast City Council. And the dispute was over who had ultimate burial rights for those to be buried in catholic-blessed ground. And so a stillborn child would not be buried in catholic-blessed ground, nor would a suicide, or someone that had been excommunicated.
The last category, and I was telling a group this story one day, and I said, the last category was a Catholic who had bought a grave as a Catholic but then became a Protestant, and a voice at the back of the group went “God Forbid!” [laughter].

So eventually we ended up with two cemeteries you know, Milltown and the City. But the story for me it is the one narrative and indeed I’ll be launching a book at the festival on the 31st July on Milltown Cemetery to tell that element of our history. [Milltown Cemetery: The History of Belfast Written In Stone, Blackstaff Press]

RS: My understanding of the geography is that now the City Cemetery is surrounded by nationalist areas on all sides.

TH: Yes, yes, aye. Well, I mean, when it opened first of all it was outside the City boundaries, and they had to have what is called a Local Parliamentary Act to give the Local Corporation the right to get the land. You see when I was growing up on the Falls Road, this was [the Culturlann] of course a Presbyterian Church and I remember the Orangemen coming in here, marching in here on 12th July. They would march up Broadway, down to Beechmount Avenue, and then up the road and into here – this building. And so this, there was a Methodist Church, Presbyterian churches and on this road, a Church of Ireland and so there were, I would say right up until the 1950s – the streets here, Thames’s Street – there would have been Protestants living in these areas. But after 1970, for example the congregation of this church probably moved on given the crises. So, you know the Fellons Club on the Falls Road – it’s a club for to be a member you have to be an ex-prisoner. But it started off as a Methodist Hall. Life is much more complex and layered than we pretend.

RS: Does that strike you at all as curious I guess, that there is this little space full of dead protestants in the middle of…

TH: No, not at all. Why would it? Its I mean…. If you start looking at it that way… ok… I suppose there were… The reality of course is when you get to know for instance sometimes there’s as many tensions between Presbyterians and Methodists and Church of Ireland as there is between Catholics and Protestants.

RS: Agreed.

TH: Its just happened that way. Does that make, in a sense I just see that as, I’m glad they’re there cus… I’m able to tell that story. And I’m able to tell it for people who may not appreciate the depth of it.

RS: I don’t mean that to sound sort of political. For me its curious that for a society that’s still so bogged down on these divisions, when you get to the City Cemetery its actually quite inclusive.

TH: Well, you know, everyone’s equal in death. So… in some senses it offers an opportunity, because of its location, it actually challenges you – how do you tell that history? So there’s a grave it in of Rutledge Kane, a very famous Belfast Orangeman, and minister of the Church of Ireland and he was instrumental in creating opposition to Gladstone’s First Home Rule Bill, but on his headstone it says “A loyal Irish patriot”. So if you think you’re a loyal, you think you’re an Irish patriot, and with loyalist you’ll say, how does that fit in? And the same with unionist heart, the heart of modern-day unionists who would not adopt the term Irish, nor even Irish Patriot and yet this man who was key in opposition to Gladstone’s First Home Rule Bill sees himself as Irish and sees himself in the context of the culture of this island. And there doesn’t seem to be a conflict in his life between how he sees himself as a unionist, and he is, and how he sees himself culturally a part of this island. Now some modern day unionists would find that difficult too… so I think that’s the challenge.

RS: If I can ask one more question of you its what do you see the legacy of the Troubles on the City Cemetery story?

TH: In what sense?

RS: I guess I’m aware that the Troubles has affected everybody in respect of all the areas… and my impression, my impression of what the Troubles has led about to, as you intimated in some of your articles a couple of years ago, was the protestant abandonment of the area for a while at least and obviously there’s a lot of vandalism that has occurred and neglect which…

TH: …I think the word ‘abandon’ is too, too strong. I just think circumstances, you know. This area was, you might say, in the middle of a war zone, people were frightened. And then the practice – cus when I would often do the walks I hear from people that they used to come every Sunday, but the nature of the conflict then, people were frightened to come and are still a bit frightened. And in some senses stories of vandalism, mayhem in graveyards, reinforce that message, whereas in fact if someone is coming along to the cemetery and they are frightened, all they have to do is speak to the staff. The staff at the cemetery are brilliant. Staff in the cemetery will bring them to a grave, you know will find out for them… so it is, I think it is changed. But of course one of the ways it impacted of course was for instance Pat Finucane is buried there; a young woman called Livingstone who was killed by a plastic bullet is buried there; there’s the very first ‘blanket man’ Kieran Nugent, is buried at the top end. So you can begin to see there are a number of burials that have taken place there that reflect that element of the conflict. Although Milltown is a lot more serious, Milltown really is really reflective of the trauma, and all dimensions of it, suffered by the Belfast Catholic population during the conflict.

RS: Thank you. I don’t want to take up any more….

TH: I don’t mean that at all to sound sort of political but I think there is challenges there. How do you tell the story? So when I was in Milltown. The one thing I don’t want to do when I bring people on a walk is to hurt them. They have sensibilities. And in fact what happened with one chap, at the end of the walk he says “You know Tom, I lost my father, my father was shot by the IRA, and this is…” But then I thought the great thing, not just that he told me that, but the fact that he was there. And to some extent I think, I think that in some ways the present political crisis really does create a view of Loyalists as one block, and they’re not.

RS: They’re not at all.

TH: Although I think that tends to make it difficult for people who actually want to say look, this is complex, layered, difficult history but its ours. Its about narrowing that ground isn’t it?

RS: I think so.

TH: The comments about learning the Irish language. As if learning a language is radically going to change your view of the world.

RS: I don’t understand that, that obstruction to the language thing because if we look back a hundred years there’s plenty of the Protestants and the ancestors of modern day loyalists who know the language.

TH: The one thing has been said about the language belonging to the Catholics of Ireland…. It doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to all the people of this island. It even belongs to people who don’t speak it. I mean I’m not an Irish speaker, but it belongs to me. It’s a part of Belfast – Béal Feirste, Shankhill, the old Church, Stormont, if you think about it all these Irish… Ardoyne, Divis, Carrickfergus, you know, Stranmillis, Ballyhackamore, we’re steeped in it.

The grave of Samuel Scott, first 'victim' of the Titanic, in Belfast City Cemetery. © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

The grave of Samuel Scott, first ‘victim’ of the Titanic, in Belfast City Cemetery. © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

RS: It’s the language of the island really, isn’t it. We’re all just temporary custodians of the island. No, its interesting. I think I’m too middle ground to worry about some of the stuff… I don’t get worked up in the same way…

TH: Well, I wouldn’t class myself as middle ground. But I think all of us have a right to…. Once you even say that its like you start to fall into a trap. People just like the history of the city, like the history of the island, and history is difficult. There’s no use running away from that issue. Its difficult in how you tell that story. I found it more difficult to tell the story of Milltown, which first of all I thought I knew, than say the City Cemetery, cus at the time to some extent I was outside this history and as I got to know it and embrace it, but Milltown is the raw history of my experience. Which is, so… How do you deal with people killed by the IRA? How do you deal with state killings? How do you deal with British army killings? One of the things in Milltown, I tried to update the number of people killed in Belfast in the 1920s, and in Belfast in two years there were 4 or 500 people – 500. And what I find odd about it is there is such an intense discussion going on now about memory and remembrance, and yet a hundred years ago, just under 100 years ago, 90 years ago, 500 people died in this city [through] conflict. Now they’re probably remembered in terms of families, but this society doesn’t tear itself apart for that period. And its still close. I don’t know what the conclusion is but it seems to be at odds with all this talk of closure and memory…

RS: Is that not in some ways, what would you call it…? My impression about some of the issues about closure and about those specific events that we have to remember and we have to be offended by when somebody else remembers it, its almost the impression I get, but that in a way just seems to be a justification to continue the rows and the rants and the upset…

My recording runs out here. The conversation moved from the cemetery towards issues of shared history, the representation of memory, and trauma. Ground that I believe is fertile for further exploration. Politically this is, I believe, where we are frequently manipulated – emotionally steered to suit an agenda that we may not even be aware of. In 2016 we have marked the centenaries of both the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, and have become acutely aware that questions of loyalty and nationality were incredibly complex for many of those involved in those struggles. Belfast remains a divided city, most acutely observed in the working class districts – spurred on by fear and a sense of disenfranchisement and neglect. But those communities which are being deprived of social development and investment have more in common with each other and their mindsets than they might realise.

As someone from a mostly Protestant background, I wish more would pay attention to the history of the city and venture back into the City Cemetery and reclaim their relatives’ plots. The desecration of plots, and in particular repeated attacks on the Jewish plots which this interview didn’t even get near examining, shows a violent hatred and xenophobia which should not be tolerated in a modern city.

My thanks to Tom Hartley for spending the time talking to me. I can heartily (pun intended) recommend both his books on the histories of the cemeteries, available from Blackstaff Press. Links below.

I’d be interested in continuing these conversations with other interested parties. Please contact me via the blog comments, Facebook, or via email to rjesimpson[at]gmail[dot]com.

Belfast City Cemetery: Written In Stone
published Blackstaff Press, 2014

Milltown Cemetery: Written In Stone
published Blackstaff Press, 2014

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