We are in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast, Ireland. Milltown cemetery is a sprawling graveyard full of history, conflict and tragedy. It has seen some of the largest funeral processions in all of Ireland and is the final resting place of more than 200,000 souls.
It was opened in 1869 as part of the broader provision of services for the city of Belfast’s expanding Catholic population, when the historic Friar’s Bush Cemetery was becoming overcrowded, and only families with burial rights were allowed to be interred there.
Although the Milltown cemetery’s history is often presented as a nationalist and Irish Republican site, in fact the overwhelming majority of the Belfast dead who are buried there were ordinary, unknown Catholics. There are elaborate headstones crowding and climbing on top of each other, while open spaces the size of football fields barren are home to one of Ireland’s largest potters fields, a concentration of poor graves. It is estimated that over 85,000 people are buried and stacked unceremoniously in these open spaces, many of whom died in the flu pandemic of 1919.
Milltown Cemetery has had tragedies of its own as well. On 16 March 1988 three people were killed and over 60 were wounded by loyalist paramilitary Michael Stone, who was armed with guns and grenades, while they were attending a funeral. This was the largest outbreak of violence within the graveyard, which it has been also the site of many incidents involving paramilitary groups, police and funeral attendees throughout the years.
Though it is best known for its political monuments and plots, many of Milltown’s dead were not part of Ireland’s many uprisings or Troubles. The cemetery is the final home of British and Irish soldiers from both World Wars. The focal point is a Cross of Sacrifice erected after World War I, near which stands a Screen Wall memorial listing those of that war whose graves could not be individually marked.
It hosts also the mass grave and memorial for the hundreds of victims who died due to Germany’s Belfast Blitz during World War II. The Belfast Blitz occurred in the April and May 1941 when approximately 1000 citizens of the city, known and unknown, perished. After the burials of those who could be identified the city authorities were left with human remains were positive identification was not possible. Then It was decided to have two large ‘en masse’ burials, one at the City Cemetery and one at Milltown, that has history of all sides within its gates.
The Irish Nationalist graves and plots are widespread and include every faction involved in Nationalist history. Perhaps the most visited in Milltown is the “New Republican Plot” which includes the final resting place of 77 Irish Republican Army volunteers, including Bobby Sands, who died in prison in 1981 while on hunger strike shortly after being overwhelmingly elected to the British Parliament. His funeral was attended by over 100,000 people and was seen around the world.
Thousands still visit this plot annually.
Fellow hunger-strikers Kieran Doherty, Joe McDonnell and Pat McGeown (who died a number of years later from ill-health brought about by the hunger strike) are also buried there, while many more IRA volunteers are buried in family graves. These include Tom Williams, who was executed in Crumlin Road Prison on 2 September 1942. His body lay in a prison grave until January 2000, when a campaign, by the National Graves Association, Belfast, to have his remains re-interred in Milltown was successful.
Another significant section of the cemetery is the plot where many senior Catholic clerics, who were important educational, social and cultural figures in post-Partition Northern Ireland, are buried. Many of the graves are adorned with high Celtic crosses.
Among them there are Bishop Daniel Mageean, An tAthair Roibeard Fullerton, who led the Gaelic League and Irish language revival across Ulster, and Father Desmond Wilson, the founder of the Springhill Community House in 1970, who died in 2019.
Source and Images: Wikipedia