‘In ancient times, as peasants tell, A friar came with book and bell To chaunt his Mass each Sabbath morn Beneath Strath-milis’ trysting thorn’

So wrote the poet, Joseph Campbell in his haunting ballad, written a century ago about Belfast’s most ancient burial ground, Friar’s Bush on the city’s Stranmillis Road. Friar’s Bush is Belfast’s oldest Christian site. The ‘quality of ancient mystery’ which surrounds the two-acre site adjoining the Ulster Museum has fascinated generations of Belfast citizens and, in particular, those with a literary or artistic bent. The cemetery takes its evocative name from the fact that during the Penal Era of the eighteenth century, the scattered Roman Catholic community of Belfast and its hinterland used to gather under the shelter of an old thorn bush in the centre of the graveyard for the celebration of Mass.

But the historical association of Friar’s Bush goes back far beyond the 1700s.

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The earliest connection with a friar or friary appears in a 1570 map of Belfast. Here ‘Freerstone’ is used to describe three single-storeyed housesn on the site in a clearing in Cromac Woods, which stretched from the present Dublin Road southwards towards Malone. The existence of a mediaeval church or monastery on the site is strongly suggested by the placename evidence. In an Inquisition of James 1, Friar’s Bush is called ‘Ballynabraher’ (‘the town of the friars’) while a major land survey of 1613 refers to ‘Capella (church) de Kilpatrick [St Patrick’s Church] above Moses Hill’s house at Stranmillis. It pays not; Shankill pays for it £1.1.2d’. This records the site’s link to the more prestigious Belfast church of ‘Sean-Cill’ (‘The Old Church’).

The age-old tradition that St Patrick founded a church at Friar’s Bush is open to serious doubt. However, the legend is perpetuated in the mysterious ‘Friar’s Stone’ in the centre of the graveyard bearing the inscription: ‘This stone marks ye friar’s grave, AD 485’, The stone is clearly a piece of spurious Victorian antiquarianism but it draws attention to an adjacent holed pillar which may have been a holy water font in the late medieval church of Kilpatrick. Friar’s Bush was enlarged in 1828 as a result of a gift of land from the Marquis of Donegall to mark the granting of Catholic Emancipation. A mound just inside the walls is known as the ‘Plaguey Hill’ and was used for mass interments during the cholera epidemic of 1832 and, more especially to receive up to 1,000 victims of the pestilence induced by the Great Famine in February 1847. A plaque recording this fact in both Irish and English has just been erected on the famine mound. Friar’s Bush was a ‘mixed’ cemetery in the denominational sense until 1829 when it was consecrated as the growing town’s main Catholic burial-ground. It quickly became overcrowded in the post-Famine years and was finally closed in 1869, being replaced by Milltown Cemetery on the Falls Road.

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Among its many interesting relics are monuments to a cross-section of eminent newspapermen including the Read brothers, founders of the Belfast Morning News (1855), Kevin Buggy, editor of the Vindicator (died 1843) and Andrew McKenna, editor of the Northern Star (died 1872). Along the front wall is the tomb of Bernard (‘the bap’) Hughes, the leading Victorian bakery magnate and the city’s first Catholic Town Councillor. Hughes has secured his place in local history as the inventor of the ‘Belfast bap’ – the staple diet of the town’s mill-workers. In 2001 the Foundation published a biography of Bernard Hughes by Jack Magee entitled Barney: Bernard Hughes of Belfast 1808–1878: Master baker, liberal and reformer.

The story of the Ulster Historical Foundation’s involvement in the restoration and conservation of this unique heritage site began in 1978–79 when its then Director, Dr Brian Trainor organised a conference at Magee College on ‘The Conservation of Historic Graveyards’. Among those invited to present papers at the symposium in May 1978 was Dr Eamon Phoenix who had a lifelong interest in the history of Friar’s Bush.

By the late 1970s the graveyard, while owned by the Roman Catholic diocese of Down and Connor, had long ceased to be used for burials. The gates were permanently locked, the early 19th century gate-lodge lay empty and dilapidated and the cemetery itself had reverted to nature. Already in the summer of 1978 a group of volunteers, in association with the West Belfast Historical Society, had set up an impromptu ‘Friends of Friar’s Bush’ and began to meet weekly at the site in an attempt to clear the dense overgrowth of vegetation from the oldest section around the central mound. Though up to 100 volunteers worked manfully over a series of week-ends, it soon became clear that any viable project would require major funding on an ongoing basis.

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Following the Magee conference, Dr Trainor opened discussions with the Department of Manpower Services on the possibility of interesting a Youth Opportunity Work Group to work at Friar’s Bush. Initially, Drs Trainor and Phoenix felt that such a team might need to spend some six weeks in clearing the graveyard and transcribing the more significant monuments before moving on to Milltown Cemetery and Hannahstown graveyard. Some work was done at Friar’s Bush in 1979 but it was not until the establishment of a new programme of training for school-leavers aged 16–17 in 1982 that the Foundation was able to sponsor a large-scale conservation project at the site.

This decision to involve the Foundation in a major project to clear Friar’s Bush and record the gravestone inscriptions was taken at a meeting held at Brian Trainor’s home on 5 May 1982. Those present included Dr Trainor, David Duncan of the Department of Manpower Services, the late Professor J.C. Beckett, emeritus professor of Irish History at Queen’s University, Professor Richard Clarke, and the late Tim McCall, a prominent educationist and representatives of the West Belfast Historical Society. Mr Duncan outlined the new youth training scheme which targeted projects of social, cultural and historical value and was supported by a 50 per cent grant from the European Social Fund. It was decided that the initial scheme would involve around ten 17-year old trainees under the direction of two supervisors.

It was agreed at the meeting that the horticultural side of the operation at Friar’s Bush should be done properly and that advice should be taken from Belfast City Council Parks and Cemeteries Department who were then engaged in a major refurbishing of Clifton Street graveyard.

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Events now moved rapidly. On 2 June 1982, Dr Trainor and Professor Clarke met Mr Reg Maxwell and other officials of Belfast City Council for an inspection tour of Friar’s Bush. Reg Maxwell estimated – correctly – that it would take 24 months for a team of trainees to restore the graveyard to an acceptable condition.

As the minutes record:

‘They emphasised that the work would be slow, hard physical labour and a start would have to be made by cutting through the undergrowth and briars … the next stage would be to fill in grave hollows which might be 3–5 feet deep. The main trees should be preserved and also a good deal of the coppice growth, particularly the Irish yews’.

It was felt that the Cholera Mound to the left of the entrance should be grassed over ‘with perhaps a single beech tree planted in the centre’. Particular problems identified by the horticulturalists included eradicating a serious infestation of an oriental plant named polynogum; the removal of iron railings; the safeguarding of dangerous tombstones and repairing the original mortar boundary wall. In the run-up to the launch of the Foundation’s most ambitious public project to date, we were warned by experts that 17-year olds were the ‘least productive workers’ and likely to cause interminable problems. Nothing daunted, however, Dr Trainor forged ahead and by November 1982, the Friar’s Bush Reclamation Project was underway. At this time the Troubles were at their height but, despite communal divisions and ongoing violence, we managed to attract an enthusiastic bunch of young people, drawn from both sections of the community.

Over the next two years, until November 1984, these young men, working in all weathers, managed to transform an overgrown, derelict graveyard into an attractive public and cultural amenity. In the process, they literally unearthed some fifty gravestones and assiduously recorded the inscriptions on every memorial in the graveyard. Over the 24 months, a total of 21 school-leavers were employed on the UHF project at Friar’s Bush. They were: Paul Alsopp, Sean Brannigan, Mel Carson, Paul Costello, James Cunningham, Kieran Donnelly, Darren Drummond, Stephen Gallagher, Lawrence Hatton, Kevin Kietly, Paul Kietly, William Marley, Kevin McGurran, Terry McVeigh, Colin Patterson, Lawrence Rooney, Gary Seymour, Eamon Sheridan, John Thompson, Trevor Weir and Donald Young. The young men were co-ordinated by four supervisors: Professor John Green, an American academic; Dave Thompson; Sean Armstrong and David Campbell.

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In 1984, a local newspaper headline captured the transformation which the Ulster Historical Foundation YCP project had achieved in Belfast’s oldest cemetery: ‘Jungle reverts to Graveyard!’ In May 1984, the Foundation hosted an Open Day at Friar’s Bush to celebrate the success of the project. Over 2,000 people turned up on a beautiful summer’s afternoon, requiring multiple tours and the services of the police to direct traffic on the Stranmillis Road.

The reclamation project was now complete and the cemetery was returned to its Trustees in a pristine condition. However, Dr Trainor and the Foundation were determined to publish the fruits of the painstaking transcription and research undertaken by the trainees. The result was Gravestone Inscriptions: Belfast, Volume 2: Friar’s Bush and Milltown Graveyards, published in December 1984 with an historical introduction by Eamon Phoenix and Tony Merrick.

It was quickly recognised by teachers and educationists that Friar’s Bush had additional educational value: it might serve as a prism through which to examine the multi-layered history of Belfast, Ulster and Ireland from the middle ages to modern times. The result was the publication of a school text book, aimed at Key Stages 3 and 4 of the Northern Ireland Curriculum. Two Acres of Irish History: A Study Through Time of Friar’s Bush and Belfast 1570–1918 by Eamon Phoenix was first published by the Ulster Historical Foundation in 1988. It explored the exciting story of Friar’s Bush and Belfast though the rich store of evidence available: artefacts, maps, letters, newspaper reports, ballads and even paintings. The book quickly sold out and a new edition was issued in 2001. The book has been one of the UHF’s most popular publications and is continually in demand by both schools and the general public. The Foundation’s ground-breaking YTP project in the 1980s succeeded in focusing attention on the unique cultural heritage of Friar’s Bush and sparked a major debate on the future of the site. In 1998, the twin gate-lodges were restored by Belfast Improved Housing. Finally, in 2002, the Roman Catholic Church transferred the ownership of the graveyard to Belfast City Council.

Two Acres of Irish History

Since then, Friar’s Bush has been attracting unprecedented numbers of Belfast citizens and tourists who wish to explore its rich heritage. The site’s present status could not have been achieved without the timely intervention of Dr Brian Trainor and the Ulster Historical Foundation almost thirty years ago. As such, it stands out as one of our most valuable undertakings in conserving and promoting Ulster’s local history and heritage.