Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Graveyard Chronicles - Friar's Bush

"In ancient times as peasants tell 
A friar came with book and bell 
To chaunt his Mass each Sabbath morn 
Beneath Strathmillis trysting thorn"*

Summer, at least here in the northern hemisphere, is already a memory. In Ireland the nights are growing longer and the fading sun yields earlier each afternoon to the reign of the October moon. Darkness is ushering in the autumnal equinox, a time revered by the Celts because it was then they believed that the veil between this world and the other mysteriously lifted, allowing the souls of all those who had died during the year to pass beyond it. They called the festival Samhain (pronounced Sah ween); today we celebrate it as Halloween. As the date approaches I find myself casting more than a passing glance at the headstones in the City Cemetery and wondering. Its ancient pathways beckon, and momentarily I consider doing my own private midnight tour in honour of the mystery. But I don’t have the courage. It’s a dark and spooky place when the moon rises and that’s tempting, but it’s the living I fear, not “visitors” from beyond.
         Friar’s Bush graveyard, the oldest Christian burial site in Belfast and one of the oldest in Ireland, organises Halloween tours. “Safety in Numbers” I think as I pick up the phone and call the City Council. An official informs me that the tours have been cancelled for the foreseeable future; however, I can still visit the graveyard … during the day and in the company of its custodian, Gerry Ward.
         Gerry is retired and lives in the old gatehouse of Friar’s Bush. He’s delighted to have a visitor and disappears briefly into the darkness of his home in search of a thick jacket and the key to the padlock securing the iron gates of the graveyard. These gates have been closed to all funerals since 1869, excepting those who already have a family plot in Friar’s Bush. We step through them and on to Paupers’ Path, the only route through this two acre site. Dotted around us are headstones, some barely visible above the long grass and fallen leaves; a small number of Celtic crosses stand tall, in defiance of the encroaching ivy and blackberry bushes. A single magpie squawks noisily from high up in the nearby elder tree. An air of abandonment prevails.

We tread Paupers’ Path, following it to the centre of the graveyard, where a large bush, an entanglement of blackberry and ivy, marks the site that gave this graveyard its name. “In days of yore”, Gerry explains, during the times of the Penal Laws (1691-1793), mass was celebrated here by a friar who was smuggled into Belfast on Sundays. He was reputedly shot dead on the spot, in front of the very bush where he performed the sacrament, hence the name.
         Gerry tells me there is some evidence suggesting that a friary once stood on this spot, until 15th or 16th century. No trace of it, no ruins remain except for a single stone block, which he leads me to, just a few paces away from the spot where the friar was reputedly executed. It is relatively small and the well worn round scooped out section embedded on one side is understood to be the holy water font in the ancient friary. Something whispers that the solemnity I sense here was indeed born from the wise and dignified rituals once performed on this site… and from the immensity of human suffering that this graveyard has witnessed.
Numerous are the headstones here which speak of tragedies so appalling that words cannot begin to convey them. Poverty, sickness and starvation conspired to cut short the lives of almost two million people in and beyond the Irish famine of 1845-1850. Tombstones bear the names and ages, and that is all we need; our imagination does the rest:
James Bracegirdle erected this headstone in memory of his grandmother Susanne Donaldson, who departed this life on 23rd March, 1847, aged 83 years. Also six of his children. Susanna aged 2 years, Matthew aged 7 years, Jane aged 1 year, William aged 12 years, Jane aged 14 days, Also William Matthew aged 7 years.

The Bracegirdle’s headstone is a testament to their life and their death; hundreds of thousands of others were interred in anonymity. The famine pit is a large grassy mound beside the gate lodge where toadstools and Japanese knot weed abound. According to the plaque 800 people are interred here, victims of starvation, cholera and typhus, which spread throughout the city in the 1830s and 1840s. Gerry maintains that although the plaque states 800 were buried here, then he corrects himself, “dumped” here, there is strong evidence to suggest that the figure is closer to 2,500-3,000. Plans in the 1920s to “shave off” this part of Friar’s Bush and build a road across it were abandoned because of fears that typhus and cholera spores might be released into the atmosphere if the earth were moved. “It is thanks to these people that this land still belongs to Friar’s Bush,” Gerry adds.

I ask him about the ivy-covered mausoleum standing in the centre of the graveyard. “That was erected by a wealthy publican to secure his body from the grave robbers.” He affirms that many people were afraid the “resurrection men,” as they were called back then, would dig up their corpses and sell them to the medical profession for the purposes of dissection. Historically, the most renowned grave robbers were Burke and Hare, and they operated in Scotland, but “they were Ulstermen”, Gerry stresses. Another pair of body snatchers, Stewart and Feeney, was active in Belfast at the time. In 1823 the News Letter reported how, after a tip off, the authorities boarded a ship leaving the harbour one evening and found the concealed bodies of a mother and her baby, who had been buried that same afternoon in Friar’s Bush.
Gerry tells me he has lived in the gate lodge for twelve years. When I comment on his “unusual back garden” he smiles. “That’s true, but I have to share it with the residents”, he says, gesturing toward the headstones. Before he leaves, I ask about the Halloween tours,
“They were great fun and very popular. Busload after busload arrived at Halloween and we all laughed so hard, the ghosts and vampires probably as much as the visitors. I suppose we could have given somebody a heart attack, creeping around like that in the darkness.”
The Council, who own the cemetery, also thought that it was too dangerous; “and now it’s very quiet here at Halloween, just like every other night…” With that, Gerry leaves me to wander around on my own and take photographs.
I pause by the Bracegirdle headstone to imagine this site before the famine funerals, before the penal laws, before it was claimed by the friars, as it was then, as Cromac Wood. The forest stretched from Belfast city centre up through Stranmillis, where the cemetery is located, and further south to the affluent Malone neighbourhood. Leaves flutter and spin around me, falling like confetti when stirred by the autumn breeze. The lone magpie cries out again. Darkness is already descending even though the clocks do not change for another few days. The moon is rising and it’s time to go home, but not without a pang of regret that the Halloween tour is now, like the lives of all those interred here, history.
* An extract from the poem Joseph Campbell (1905) dedicated to Friar's Bush graveyard.

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