The sense of ancient mystery enshrouding the old walled cemetery in south Belfast has long fascinated historians and local people alike.
Though it’s only two acres in size, the oldest Christian burial ground in Belfast, Ireland, has seen more than its fair share of murder, body-snatching, and disease. Even the cemetery’s name, Friar’s Bush, came out of its bloodshed.
With the foundation of Belfast in 1610, the site became a graveyard for people of all denominations, but especially for the increasing Catholic population drawn to the rising industrial city from all parts of the north and west of Ireland.
During the Penal persecution of the 18th century the Catholic population of the town attended Mass under an old thorn tree in the graveyard on Sundays, because the celebration of Catholic mass was banned under harsh penal laws at the time.
This practice, which gave Friar’s Bush its modern name – although exactly who the friar was is unclear – continued until 1769 when the Penal Laws began to ease, and there is a strong tradition that a friar was hanged there in the 1720s.
The large and twisted thorn tree clearly visible through the gates at the head of the graveyard’s main path also marks the spot where secret Catholic ceremonies were carried out in that period and, according to the legend, one morning a friar was captured and murdered here while giving a secret Mass.
If the other celebrants escaped, the friar was killed either by a gunshot to the heart or, according to another version, by being hung from the very tree he had been preaching under, and from that day the ancient site was known as the Friar’s Thorn or Friar’s Bush. The same story was then immortalized by the 1905 poem “The Friar’s Bush” by Irish poet Joseph Campbell:
“In Penal times, as peasant tell / A friar came with book and bell / To chant his Mass each Sabbath morn, / Beneath Stranmillis’ trysting thorn”
Regardless of which version of the story is true, the nearby “Friar’s Stone” is the murdered monk’s reputed resting place. (Though the more likely explanation for the “485 A.D.” marking is that it’s the work of a sneaky Victorian antiquarian.)
In any case, Friar’s Bush was continually raided by the ‘resurrection men’ or body-snatchers in the early 1800s, who sold newly buried bodies to anatomists for profit.
Another grim event in the cemetery’s history occurred in 1823, when two strangers came to the graveyard at night, and soon afterward a barrel was stopped at the city docks. It contained the sawdust-encased bodies of a middle-aged female and a child, on a ship bound for Scotland.
One of the men, a “resurrectionist” named George Stewart, had already made his escape. But his partner, recorded only as “Feeny,” was found drunk and was arrested. In his room was a box containing a large brass syringe, a surgeon’s knife, forceps, a needle, and five sovereigns. Five years later, high walls and an arched gothic gate lodge, built by the Marquis of Donegall, were built at Friar’s Bush, so that such gruesome crimes would never happen again.
After it was consecrated in 1829, the cemetery was used exclusively by Roman Catholics.
This historic cemetery is the resting place of the famed baker and philanthropist Bernard (Barney) Hughes, the rags-to-riches entrepreneur and inventor of the large, flour-covered roll called the “Belfast Bap”, who died in 1878. Instead, the oldest headstone was erected to the memory of Thomas Gibson who died in 1717.
However, aside from the notable graves found here including noted local newspapermen and publicans like the Read Brothers, the founders of the Belfast Morning News, the predecessor of the Irish News, there is also something macabre on your left after you pass through the gate lodge.
Known as the “plaguey pit” and covered in exotic herbs and flowers, a black headstone marks the official resting place of thousands who perished in cholera and dysentery epidemics in the 1830s and 1840s. Many of them unidentified, they were burnt to prevent the spread of infection and buried in a mass grave.
And there are other anonymous dead here too: the cemetery is in the wealthy Malone area of Belfast, where 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. And in fact, also located inside the graveyard’s main gates is the “Pauper’s Pit”, which is the resting place of those too poor to afford a headstone.
By the mid 19th-century, the cemetery was becoming overcrowded, and only families with burial rights were allowed to be interred. Thus, in 1869 it was replaced by Milltown Cemetery as the city’s main Catholic burial site.
Today, many people walk by one of the oldest Christian cemeteries in Northern Ireland (it dates back to perhaps the 14th or 15th century) without looking too much. Yet King William of Orange rode past en route to the Boyne, and St. Patrick himself was rumored to have built a church here, too.
Legend has it that St Patrick built a church and blessed a well on the site of Friar’s Bush Graveyard, while an order of friars is also said to have been established there. Two important stones found within the cemetery grounds also seem to support this theory.
The first is the famous Friar’s stone itself, which features three crudely cut crosses, ansd the second is a badly worn stone pillar with a hole near its head which, many believe, is proof that it may have been part of an early church. But we’ll never know!
Images from web – Google research