Milltown brought to life

Former lord mayor of Belfast Tom Hartley has written a history of Milltown Cemetery whose stories and personalities trace the complex history of Belfast over the past 150 years. He spoke to

Jenny Lee

TO MANY Milltown Cemetery is synonymous with loyalist gunman Michael Stone's triple murder attack in 1988. But the burial ground of the Catholic community in Belfast for almost 150 years tells so much more than the memories of our troubled past.

The graves of mill workers, labourers, clergy, Italian immigrants, victims of the Blitz, soldiers of the First and Second World Wars, political activists, IRA volunteers, republicans and victims of the Troubles all illustrate the social, religious and political life of Belfast over two centuries. "Like my own parents and grandparents, the vast majority of people who are buried in Milltown are ordinary but they lived through extraordinary times. Their stories bring depth and colour to the dynamic narrative that constitutes the history of Belfast," says historian, and former Sinn Fein councillor, Tom Hartley who spent six years researching the cemetery for his most recent book.

Milltown Cemetery: The History of Belfast, Written in Stone includes detailed entries on more than 300 noteworthy graves and offers a comprehensive history of the Catholic community in Belfast. "Milltown has a complex layout because after it's opening in 1869 it developed in five or six different periods and with each extension came a new way of recording graves. So one of the things I tried to do was go through the graveyard taking photographs of the headstones per section and building up a map of the cemetery, which Milltown now use," he explains.

The biggest themes to emerge from the book are the city's religious and political history. "Through the story of the cemetery we see the development of the Church at the later end of the 19th century where you have a very powerful bishop in Patrick Dorrian [Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor] who begins to bring a whole series of orders into the city - including the Dominicans, the Christian Brothers, the De La Salle Brothers, the Cross and Passion Nuns, the Sisters of Charity," explains Hartley.

The author had to dig deep, examining birth and death certificates, census records, street directories and talking to individual families. "It was very difficult to find details on those from the 1840s, 50s and 60s - so that took a lot of persistence and detective work. Often when you're looking at the story of an individual you will find one wee fact that brings it all together and it falls into place," he says.

One of the biggest stories to emerge from his research was the McKelvey family who were originally from Stewartstown, Co Tyrone," enthuses Hartley. "Patrick McKelvey brought the family into Belfast at the beginning of the First World War and then enlisted in the British army. He died two years later and is buried in a grave under the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Around the same time, his son Joe became a leading member of the IRA. Just one hundred yards from his father's war grave lies Joe McKelvey, buried in a republican plot. That's quite unique." The trauma of conflict can be seen on the inscriptions carried on many family headstones. Many other headstones of those who lost their lives in conflict carry only their names and dates without any reference to the brutal circumstance of death. But as well as RIC and IRA graves, you find the graves of Belfast men who served in the British army - from the Crimean War to the Second World War. "There was a Belfast man who was in the British army and after the partition he joined the free-state army - ended up in the Guards and eventually goes to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War. I always say there's not one narrative that tells our story." Like most other large burial grounds, the story of the poor is hidden from our view. Their graves are part of an anonymous mass. In Milltown they constitute 75,000 bodies or 38 per cent of those buried in the cemetery.

The vast majority includes still born children and children who died in childbirth.

The story of Milltown Cemetery is also the story of artists and painters, musicians and craftsmen, of architects, harp makers and uilleann pipers, sports and business people," Hartley says. "There is a great mix of personalities and an amazing mix of creative people buried there which highlight the contribution Catholics made in the arts and in the revival of the Irish language." These include artists Gerard Dillon and Daniel O'Neil, singer Kathleen Largey, actor JD Devlin and Frank Laverty, one of the founders of Belfast Celtic. "There's so much there to give us a sense of who we are and where we come from," adds Hartley who is continuing his passion for discovering the past by now researching Balmoral Cemetery.

Milltown Cemetery: The History of Belfast, Written in Stone by Tom Hartley is published by Blackstaff Press, which has also published a revised and expanded edition of the acclaimed The History of Belfast, Written in Stone: Belfast City Cemetery.