Gravestone Inscriptions

Many, but by no means all, RP congregations have a burial ground attached to the meeting house. The oldest is at Knockbracken, on the outskirts of south Belfast, where the earliest date on a gravestone is 1790. In the absence of a churchyard, Covenanters would generally be buried in the nearest communal graveyard. For example, Bready RP Church has no adjoining churchyard and many members of the congregation in past times, as well as several ministers, were buried in nearby Grange graveyard.

The inscriptions from several Reformed Presbyterian churchyards have been published. The following Reformed Presbyterian churchyards were included in the Ulster Historical Foundation’s County Down Gravestone Inscriptions Series: Bailiesmills (vol. 2), Ballymacashon (vol. 6), Dromara (vol. 19), and Knockbracken (vols 1 & 18). Inscriptions from Limavady RP Church, transcribed by T. G. Bennett, appeared in Irish Family Links, vol. 2, no. 5 (Sept., 1985). In 1988 memorials from Kellswater appeared in the first volume of the gravestone inscription series published by Ballymena Borough Council (series editor Eull Dunlop).

The value of gravestone inscriptions in family history is indisputable and, in the case of Reformed Presbyterians, all the more so in the absence of early registers of baptisms, marriages and burials. In scanning through the inscriptions from Knockbracken it will be quickly seen that several of the memorials records persons born in the mid to late eighteenth century.

Because the congregations in the city of Belfast did not have their own churchyards, Knockbracken was used as a place of burial for many their families. Rev. William McCarroll, minister of College Street South RP Church, was buried here in 1863. The overseas connections of Reformed Presbyterian families is reflected in the memorial to Isabella Bailie (d. 1808) which was erected by her children, William, Robert and Isabella, of Tarentum, Allengheny County, Pennsylvania. It also seems that a higher proportion of the memorials include quotations from Scripture than is the case in other graveyards. The memorial to John Musgrave who died in 1838 aged 91 concludes ‘And died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years, and was gathered his people’, a description of the death of the patriarch Abraham found in Genesis chapter 25, verse 8.

Devotion to the principals of Reformed Presbyterianism is highlighted on the memorial to William Beatty (d. 1845), a ruling elder in the congregation, which reads: ‘The family of which he was a member was for several generations distinguished for Christian hospitality and self-denying exertions to promote the cause of the Covenanted Reformation’. Another ruling elder in the congregation was Samuel McBratney (d. 1860) whose memorial pays tribute to the fact that he was ‘steadfastly attached to the Covenanted Testimony.

The memorial in Bailiesmills to William Graham of Creevy, who died on 7 February 1828 in his 83rd year, is even more forthright in proclaiming the deceased’s devotion to the Covenanter cause:

The following sentences written by himself are inscribed at his own request … I testify against all who deal falsely in the cause of Christ – all who own the Covenants National and Solemn League and yet swear allegiance to the support of Prelacy … I testify against all opposers of the Covenanted Cause, all who have departed from Reformation and die giving my full approbation of that cause for which the martyrs suffered and which they sealed with their blood.

Anyone reading this inscription could be left in no doubt as to the views of William Graham. This is not the case, however, with the headstone to Rev. Thomas Cleland, who died in 1873 aged just 28, in Limavady RP churchyard which concludes in a most unusual way: ‘He was! But space is wanting to say what thing a man should be and he was that’.