Extra! Extra! Friar’s Bush – Belfast’s Hidden Cemetery

From 1999-2004 I lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A few blocks from my house was this tiny graveyard in the shadow of the Ulster Museum and the College buildings on either side. Intrigued, I finally got up the courage to knock on the door of the arched gatehouse – someone lived there; I could see a ginger cat on the windowsill inside.

View thru gateGerry told me more about the cemetery, later showing me around, and over the years when I visited Belfast from my new home in LA, I would pop in and say hello, learn about any news (like the installation – finally – of a grave marker for the anonymous hundreds (really more than that) buried in their “Plaguey pit” here).

I wrote about the cemetery for a number of magazines and journals over the years – they used to do Halloween tours! – and I can’t imagine why I haven’t posted them before. Still, I’m remedying that now – plus more pictures – so please enjoy!

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“Nothing on earth would have persuaded me to enter the place…                                         It was the house of the dead”
Paul Henry, artist (1876-1958)

View from lodgeFriar’s Bush cemetery on the Stranmillis Road may only be two acres in size, but its bloody history includes stories of plague, famine, murder and body snatching. The most famous body snatchers or “resurrection men” were Burke and Hare – both originally from Ulster – who claimed an estimated 17 victims between them by the time they were arrested in 1828.

Several years before that in 1823, strangers in the night came to Friar’s Bush cemetery, and soon after a barrel was stopped at the docks and found to contain the bodies of a middle-aged female and a child packed tight with sawdust.

“Resurrectionist” George Stewart had already made good his escape, but his partner – recorded only as Feeny – was found drunk at their lodgings in Academy Street, and the Belfast News Letter on 15 July noted that on searching the room, a box was “found containing a large brass syringe for injecting the veins of dead bodies, also a surgeon’s knife, forceps, needle &c…and five sovereigns”.

The cemetery gates have been closed to all but established plot holders since 1869, and aside from the graves of noted newspapermen, publicans and Bernard Hughes, the rags-to-riches entrepreneur and inventor of the large, flour-covered roll called the “Belfast Bap”, there is something ominous on your left as you pass through the gate lodge.

Known as the “plaguey pit” it marks the resting place of thousands of people who perished in cholera and dysentery epidemics in 1832-33 and 1847-48 when bodies – most of them unidentified – were burnt before burial to prevent the spread of infection.

By 1852 it was declared as “excessively overcrowded” and closed soon after, but the Belfast News Letter described the area as a “hot bed of fever” when there was an outbreak of fever in the surrounding area in 1863:

“The dead have been huddled indecently into reeking graves. They have been denied the cheap covering of a little earth, and the natural consequences follow. The living neglect the dead, and the dead come back in the form of noxious vapours and foul disease to plague, and it may be, destroy the living.”

Now covered in exotic herbs and flowers, a plaque was recently placed on the pit to honour 800 of the dead that rest there, and a ceremony is being planned to pay tribute to the many others.

Plaguey pit and plaqueThere are other anonymous dead here too; the cemetery is in the wealthy Malone area of Belfast, and in years past there have been many tragic stories of servant girls, maids and mistresses who, terrified of scandal, threw their babies – alive and dead – over the wall. The gatekeeper and gravediggers made more than a few gruesome discoveries at dawn.

The cemetery dates back to the 14th and 15th century, and its distinct name also came out of bloodshed. The 1691 and 1793 Penal Laws made the practice of Mass forbidden, though there are many stories of brave men crossing the river Lagan to lead services for the faithful.

“In Penal times, as peasant tell,
A friar came with book and bell
To chant his Mass each Sabbath morn,
Beneath Stranmillis trysting thorn”
From the poem “The Friar’s Bush” by Joseph Campbell 1905

A large and twisted thorn tree – the “Friar’s Thorn” – stands in the spot where these secret “Mass Station” ceremonies were carried out, and the story goes that one morning a friar was murdered – some say by a shot to the heart, some say by being hung from the very tree he had been preaching under.

Friar's ThornRegardless of which tale is true, the nearby “Friar’s Stone” is the reputed resting place of the murdered friar, although the more likely explanation for the A.D. 485 marking is that it’s the work of a sneaky Victorian antiquarian.

Friars Grave closeEven in modern times Friar’s Bush has had the power to scare people away; plans to widen the busy Stranmillis Road outside were swiftly quashed when it was rumoured that disturbing the plaguey pit might release something other than dead spirits back into the city.

Today, thousands of people pass by one of the oldest cemeteries in Ireland without realizing that King William of Orange rode past en route to the Boyne, and St. Patrick himself was rumoured to have built a church here.

Fossil crossIf you are interested in the graveyard’s horror and history you can read more about the famous – and notorious – residents in Two Acres of Irish History: Friar’s Bush and Belfast 1870-1918 by Dr. Eamon Phoenix (Ulster Historical Foundation, £6.95).

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