Balmoral Cemetery, by Tom Hartley, Blackstaff Press, 354 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 9781780732305
Many people are fascinated by graveyards, with their antiquarian resonance and charnel allure. Their intimations of mortality can be picturesque rather than macabre. A touch of the blithely grim occurs in one or other version of the common inscription “As you are now so once was I / As I am now you’ll shortly be”, and sends a pleasurable shiver up the spine. Of course the more venerable, crumbling and overgrown the burial ground, the stronger its atmosphere.
In the early 1950s, when I was eight or nine, I used to make unofficial forays into Balmoral Cemetery at the Lisburn Road end of Stockmans Lane in west Belfast. At the time, it was a gloriously dishevelled playground. Mostly I’d be accompanied by a friend who was equally susceptible to the charm of simultaneous dread and delight. I am not sure how we got into the place ‑ did we climb over the gate or squeeze through it, out of sight of officious adult eyes? But once inside, among the briars and brambles, the branches of spreading trees, profuse vegetation and general dereliction, we would scare ourselves silly by envisaging amorphous white shapes floating over the tops of oddly angled gravestones like a ghoul in a comic strip, and take to our heels with the wraith of the Revd Henry Cooke perhaps, or some other proselytising cleric in hot pursuit, eager to get its skeletal hands on a couple of little convent schoolgirls. Once outside though, our feet firmly planted on the pavement and our breath regained, we’d be drawn back in like Tennyson’s fairy lady after Sir Lancelot. We credited ourselves with being more venturesome than some of our contemporaries, who, on their way to the ice-skating rink at the King’s Hall via Stockmans Lane, would scuttle past the scary cemetery lest something untoward should emanate from its unkempt interior.
This small burial ground, then ‑ 2400 graves, as compared with the City Cemetery’s 50,000 ‑ had a wonderfully sinister reputation among juveniles of the locality. What especially appealed to our sense of the numinous though was a cause of concern to successive cemetery subcommittees. Complaint after complaint was levelled against its uncared-for state and its “most unsatisfactory condition” was deplored. But no one managed to effect an improvement in this respect until the mid-1950s, when Belfast Corporation stepped in to initiate a tidying-up process and obliterate for ever its eerie aspect. It is now as straight-lined and “Protestant-looking” as any subcommittee might desire. It requires an effort of the imagination to conjure up its old ghostly magnetism.
Actually, Balmoral is not Protestant, but almost exclusively Presbyterian (though in its earliest years of the 1850s it was advertised as open to all). When we, as children, found entertainment of a hair-raising variety in this cemetery, we knew nothing of its history, not even its religious affiliation or the dates of its earliest interments. The names on the tombstones, which we scrutinised with some interest, meant nothing to us. Our ignorance was total, and so it remained. But now Tom Hartley has rectified much of that. If we don’t get to know these dead people intimately, at least we gain some knowledge of the society they inhabited, and their place in it. Balmoral Cemetery is the third volume in Hartley’s series of illuminating graveyard excavations. It follows on from Written in Stone, on the City Cemetery (2006), and Milltown Cemetery (2014). The whole series is devoted to unearthing elements of Belfast’s past by taking selected gravestone inscriptions as a starting-point, and pursuing information about the people the headstones commemorate. Each burial ground is treated as a unique repository of local history; and the city’s social and sectarian complications are thereby highlighted. It’s a novel approach to the historian’s task.
Balmoral, in fact, pre-dates the main City Cemetery, between the Falls Road and the Whiterock Road, which was opened in 1869. The latter came into being because the smaller, religiously differentiated burial grounds, which included Balmoral, were reaching saturation point, and the new municipal or City Cemetery was designed to cater for all religious persuasions. However, a dispute soon arose between Belfast Corporation and leading town Catholics over matters of protocol and church teaching on funerary rituals. It resulted in the Catholic contingent, under the direction of Bishop Patrick Dorrian (then bishop of Down and Connor) stalking off to establish a segregated cemetery of its own at Milltown on the south side of the Falls Road. This was opened only a few months after the City Cemetery, and it has retained its denominational integrity to this day. There is only one Protestant buried in the whole vast acreage of Milltown, and he has got in on the coattails of his Catholic wife. The City Cemetery, on the other hand, has allocated space to a number of dead Catholics. Some lie in the specially designated “Poor Ground”, while others, more prosperous in life, are scattered among their non-Catholic contemporaries. A separate Catholic extension, Glenalina, was opened in 1915.
Social history, indeed, is a built-in factor of tombstone inscriptions, but you have to go beyond the bare recorded facts ‑ John Moore; d. 28 November 1870 ‑ to uncover significant stories and assess their implications. This is where Tom Hartley comes in, with his research and presentation skills. Proceeding grave by grave, or section by section ‑ Priests’ Row, The Sisters of Charity Plots, the Republican Plot (Milltown), the Ulster Female Penitentiary Plot, The Jewish Burial Ground, Queen’s University Plot (City Cemetery) ‑ he finds much to enrich our understanding of Belfast’s historical particulars. Milltown, for example, puts us in touch with all the recurrent forms of deprivation, disaffection, civil unrest and political agitation, while the City Cemetery, for all the extraordinary diversity of its buried populace, smacks more strongly of enterprise, industry and the bourgeoisie.
As Hartley points out, the great majority of these bygone inhabitants of Belfast are as obscure in death as they were in life, and one of his achievements is to restore to some of them a modicum of individuality, even if it’s just by placing them within the context of their times. The fourteen-year-old from the Malone area who died in 1880 “from pneumonia brought on by an accident during a rugby match”; a casualty of the Outdoor Relief Strike of 1932; the eight children from the same family buried in a single grave between 1895 and 1916: these, and many others, are brought back into the limelight for the time it takes to read the entries allotted to them. If their graves are interspersed with those of the city’s public men and women ‑ Cathal O’Byrne, Joseph Campbell, Winifred Carney, Thomas McKnight, who wrote a book called Ulster As It Is in 1896, the parents of CS Lewis of Narnia fame, the renowned Belfast historian George Benn, etc, etc ‑ well, a commonalty of the dead cuts out social and economic distinctions. British army veterans lying next to Irish Republicans, the previously upstanding cheek-by-jowl with down-and-outs … as Seamus Heaney has it in his poem about Francis Ledwidge, “All of you consort now underground”. (We must hope that all of them haven’t taken a cue from Mairtin O Cadhain’s sparkling novel Cré na Cille to pursue feuds and enmities into eternity.)
Those consorting underground at Balmoral Cemetery (like Milltown) perhaps add up to a rather more homogeneous bunch. Subscribing or Non-subscribing, Reformed, Old Light or New Light, they are nearly all Presbyterians of one stripe or another. A strong sense of military, clerical and mercantile associations prevails. A high proportion of headstones commemorates men who were educated at Inst (Belfast Academical Institution), who subsequently took holy orders, attained a distinguished position in the British army or entered the world of commerce and civic advancement. You’d have to say a Presbyterian sobriety and propriety is predominant here. Hartley has not lighted on anything comparable to the City Cemetery grave of Fanny Craig (d 1887), who chose to be buried under her maiden name. This was not, alas, a proto-feminist gesture, but because the lady’s husband was John Hair and she declined to enter the presence of her Maker as Fanny Hair.
Here at Balmoral lies that scourge of popery and egregious opponent of “theatricals in Belfast” the Revd Henry Cooke (d 1868). Here too resides his son-in-law the Revd Josias Leslie Porter (d 1889), who wrote a book ‑ The Life and Times of Henry Cooke, in 1871 ‑ in praise of his wife’s vehement father. Keeping them company is another expert in “fiery declamation”, the Revd (“Roaring”) Hugh Hanna (d 1892) ‑ whose statue, incidentally, was blown off its pedestal at Carlisle Circus by an IRA bomb in 1970. Hanna, another fomenter of trouble in the city with his open-air preaching and unrestrained invective, has to bear some responsibility for the dockside riots which broke out in 1857 and enthralled the future social commentator F Frankfort Moore. In his study The Truth About Ulster (1914), which comes with a rather sportive overtone, Moore sticks up for local turbulence while recalling this particular dockside eruption of the same ‑ an old gentleman on a horse reading the Riot Act, boys and girls of different persuasions battering away at one another ‑ which he witnessed as an uncomprehending but spirited four-year-old, eager to join in. I am not sure where Frankfort Moore is buried, but his presence might have enlivened Balmoral had he ended up there.
From the notes accompanying Hartley’s short biographies of the Balmoral dead you gain an impression that the Presbyterians of Belfast were an unusually disputatious lot. They’re for ever storming out of their meeting houses in high dudgeon over some theological nicety or moral affront. “Members of the First and Second Congregations,” we read, “dissatisfied with the views of their ministers on the matter of Non-subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith …” (my goodness) withdrew their support from the ministers in question and promptly acquired a site in Rosemary Street for a new place of worship. For a time, Hartley says, the resultant meeting house “was known as the New Erection”.
Up until the mid-twentieth century, Rosemary Street with its three churches was a bastion of upstanding Belfast Presbyterianism. Bankers, mill-owners, shipbuilders, newspaper editors, printers and all attended Sunday worship here. If other elements crept in, it was only by accident: George Benn, for example, describes a disconcerting sight on the spot in 1816. A “respectable” bookseller from North Street and a chaplain of the American navy were found lying dead drunk in front of Roger Mulholland’s beautiful elliptical Rosemary Street church, no doubt to the disgust of Presbyterians going about their religious affairs. Benn, as we’ve seen, is himself buried in the City Cemetery, but it’s worth noting that his sister Elizabeth Hodges has ended up in a grave at Balmoral (d 1889), along with her doctor husband.
It’s worth noting, because the women buried here are mostly adjuncts or unreclaimable shades. At the time of Balmoral’s most frequent interments (c 1865- c 1920), Belfast was not known as a centre of feminist advancement. Its conservatism in the matter of women’s rights is reflected in the graves at Balmoral, few of which contain the remains of renowned local females. Hartley, indeed, is hard put to find any: in fact it boils down to one, Isabella Tod (1836-1896). Tod, suffragist, feminist, promoter of girls’ education and strong temperance advocate, embodies the drive to obtain equality (well partial equality) for middle and upper class Northern Irish women. It wasn’t a profitable or a popular cause in Victorian Ireland, but it had its supporters. One of these was Margaret Byers, who founded and ran Victoria College for Girls in Belfast’s Lower Crescent ‑ and she gets a look-in here because of her friendship with Isabella Tod. (An outline of her life appears in the Hartley volume on the City Cemetery.)
Another outstanding Belfast woman who might have slipped in sideways, as it were, is Nesca Robb. Author of An Ulsterwoman in England (1942), about her wartime experiences in Oxford and London, poet, and biographer of William of Orange, she is actually buried in Bangor; but the tombstone of her grandfather can be seen at Balmoral. John Robb (1828-1896) established the famous department store in the city centre (yes, in acerbic Belfast there was naturally a joke about the name) and enjoyed many other substantial assets. He lived in an early nineteenth century house called Lisnabreeny, which in due course passed to his granddaughter. She promptly donated it to the National Trust, who still administer its surroundings (Cregagh Glen). The house itself became part of Lagan College (1981), Belfast’s first integrated school. This, no doubt, would have pleased Nesca Robb (d 1976), who took an interest in education, especially the education of girls, like her predecessors Tod and Byers.
Tom Hartley has set out to document the tremendous contribution of Presbyterians to the unfolding story of Belfast, and has done so with thoroughness and conciseness. He has penetrated to the heart of dead-and-buried ways, and in doing so has made himself into our premier resurrection man ‑ but only in the most benign sense.
Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland.