Belfast City Cemetery

I recently took a stroll through Belfast City Cemetery. I’ve lived in Belfast for about seven or eight years now and this was the first time I set foot in the place. I was immediately taken by how big it was, and how overgrown the majority of the older graves were. Ivy chokes and cascades over everything, rendering the whole place immensely atmospheric.

The cemetery was founded in the mid 19th century, at a time when Belfast saw a drastic rise in its population. The Great Famine drove people out of rural areas and into the city in search of work. As the population rose, more burial space was needed for the increasing numbers of the dead. Up until this stage, the majority of burial grounds in Belfast were controlled by religious denominations. Plans for a municipal cemetery for all religious denominations were made and in 1866, Belfast Corporation (now Belfast City Council) purchased land from a prominent family on Falls Road, with a view to turning it into a burial ground and a park. Englishman William Gay was appointed to design the new cemetery. Gay envisioned a garden cemetery – akin to the likes of Abney Park Cemetery in London – the likes of which were very popular in the early nineteenth century. Amongst the ornate Victorian features inside the grounds are a bell and cast iron fountains, gothic arches and neoclassical angels and shrouded urns.

Before the cemetery opened, disputes over burial customs, ceremonies and procedures ensued due to the site’s cross-denominationalism. Nine-foot deep underground walls were constructed to divide consecrated and non-consecrated ground and separate not only the Catholic and Protestant sections of the graveyard, but the areas reserved for the Jewish community too. Yes. This cemetery has underground walls to separate its occupants according to their religion. Belfast, eh?

The cemetery is the largest in the city with around 250,000 burials. It opened in August 1869 and the first to be buried in it were two young girls. A lot of Belfast's prominent historical figures are also buried here. They include Sir Edward Harland, the controller of Harland & Wolff shipyard at the time of the Titanic’s construction, and CS Lewis' mother, Florence. Also buried here is the 15 year old boy believed to have been the first to die during the construction of the Titanic. Samuel Scott fell and fractured his skull while working in the shipyard in 1910. His body lay in an unmarked grave until recently, when a headstone was placed in the cemetery for him.

According to former Mayor of Belfast Tom Hartley, who now organises tours of parts of West Belfast, as a child he used to run past the cemetery gates because of stories he heard about the devil appearing there one night. He had also read a pamphlet called ‘The Devil that Dances’, which was written by Father Gerald O’Carroll, a priest at Clonard monastery. It presumably condemned the fact that some of the ground in the cemetery was not consecrated and was therefore heretical. Naturally a youngsters’ imagination would conjure images of a cloven-hoofed devil prowling around such a place. Nowadays he attributes the uneasiness he felt going past the cemetery to the undercurrent of sectarianism and segregation at the time. As a Catholic he associated the cemetery with British-leaning Protestantism, and believed that the people buried in it were somehow ‘different’, as the majority of them weren’t Catholic. Throughout the 1970s a lot of vandalism occurred in the cemetery and Protestants wouldn’t visit it because of its location in West Belfast – a predominantly Catholic community. That has thankfully changed now, though the desecration of so many of the graves by hoodlums is still evident.


psynno said…
Striking pictures. Like the strong textures, black & white work. Never really visited the cemetery at all but this is a good piece. Nice to hear the corpses are separated by their religion - don't want any of that! Cheers.
James Gracey said…
Thanks! And yes, we'll have none of that sort of thing here. Blog forbid. ;)
Mykal Banta said…
What a strange and beautiful post. Great photography, my friend. I want a movie filmed there, and I want it now. " . . .and the first to be buried in it were two young girls." Doesn't this just stand up and cry for a script?
James Gracey said…
Thanks Mykal. Yes, apparently the girls’ burials were paid for by the Mayor of the time, as they came from poor families. The number of pauper's graves in the cemetery is crazy. Many of them are children.

I guess there IS a script in that somewhere!

Hope you are well - thanks for dropping by. :)
Jon T said…
Lovely photos, James. Can definitely see the Abney Park influence.
James Gracey said…
Thanks Jon. While it's not nearly as beautiful as Abney Park, it's not without its own atmospheric charm.
Marie Robinson said…
This cemetery looks beautiful! I love the creeping ivy. I am a big fan of walking through bone yards myself.
James Gracey said…
I just can't believe I left it so long before visiting this place, Marie. I must take one of the guided tours sometime. And yeah, if there's one thing I love to photograph, it's ivy-covered graveyards. ;)
Warden Stokely said…
Hi James
I have a thing for cemeteries. So glad I found this post, and will be reading the one about Burrishoole when I'm done. I didn't have any work to do on my blog anyway. lol. But I'm stuck here behind the couch as usual. Darn hoodlums! grrrr. Isn't there a place for them behind the shrouded urns? Two little girls hhmmm. Boy that's intriguing. I'd like to know more about them. I may have to email the caretaker. And all the Titanic history. And the poor kid who fell and crushed his skull. Things like that are so sad when it's not a film, maybe that's why I like horror films so much, because they are just films. Films are great. The news sucks. And gosh darn it, call me crazy, and naive, but I sure wish we could all just get along. Nine foot walls beneath the ground to segregate the denominations, consecrated and unconsecrated. What a bunch of hooey. I'm with the Mayor. I'll bet "the uneasiness he felt going past the cemetery [was due] to the undercurrent of sectarianism and segregation at the time".

When we would go on road trips, my dad would always stop at the old cemeteries we passed. And I've sort of picked up where he left off. After dropping off my oldest boy, Jake, in New Mexico to attend college, my other two kids, Kyle and Samm, and I stopped off in Nevada, or maybe it was Utah, at an old cemetery. As a history major, I just get so curious about the stories of the people. For instance, just how many little ones died in 1918, of the flu, probably, there was quite an epidemic here after WWI, but anyway, there were two graves. It was clearly a husband and wife, and they both died on the same day, like in 1904, and I wondered what happened. I thought maybe a car wreck, cause the Fords were just released, but I didn't really know. So I left a note, just asking. My kids thought I was nuts and morbid, and I'd never hear anything. Well about 6 months later I received a note from a man who goes there and waters the cactus a couple times a year. He said it was a murder/suicide. I guess she had been a little too cozy with someone, and her husband shot both of them, and then himself. Tragic and such a trip that he wrote to let me know. My kids were amazed. Anywho, off to Burrishoole, and James? Please don't cover anymore cemeteries or the ivy will cascade over and choke my prison walls, rendering it immensely atmospheric, and I'll never get to my next post. Until next time, James...Keep those fires stoked.
Eternally Yours
James Gracey said…
Oh my goodness! That's quite a story. And how thoughtful of the chap who waters the cactus plants to write you. I can't tell you how often I've been called 'morbid' because I love exploring cemeteries. Often listening to Dead Can Dance as I do so. I'm such a cliché. I care not though. And the older the cemeteries, the better. All that ivy! Belfast Cemetery is just beautiful. I've been there a few times now, but given that I've lived in Belfast for about nine or ten years (!!!!) I still can't believe I left it so long to go check it out. For shame. ;)
Warden Stokely said…
Dead Can Dance, eh? Will check that out. I thought of Suspiria on the green, when I was preparing my daughter's room today for her return from college next week for Winter break, and I was straightening up her CDs, and what to my wonderous eyes should appear but GOBLIN! I'm like, "Go Samantha!" I'll be sure to get it back by Wed. lol.

And I've lived on the island for 23 years, and I just walked across the bridge last year, for the first you're good with the Belfast cemetery, James. So many cemeteries, so little time!
Gillian said…
Loved your photos and knowledge of the history of this place. I wish I had made more of an effort to visit last time in Belfast - funny, I was last there on July 12th! What a great shame the Belfast Council and the National Trust don't join forces to tidy it up and preserve the headstones before they are lost forever.
Thanks for your wondeful work, I will continue to follow you.
James Gracey said…
Thank you so much Gillian, I'm really glad you enjoyed the post. I'm hoping to visit here again soon; meant to have a nosy around during the autumn (I'm sure it looks beautiful at that time of year), but for one reason or another that didn't happen. Soon though!

Thanks for commenting. :)

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