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.