The Silent Land

Belfast Evening Telegraph, Tuesday, October 9, 1906

I -- The Silent Land

The first gravedigger in "Hamlet" propounds a problem for his mate as follows:- "Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright or a carpenter?" and after some banter furnishes the answer to the riddle:-- "Cudgel thy brains about it no more, for your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating, and when you are asked this question say -- A grave maker; the houses he makes lasts till doomsday."

With this dialogue in mind I must confess that I felt a sort of modern Prince Denmark deserted by his good friend Horatio as I set out on a pilgrimage in quest of interesting copy with the "grave-makers" workships of the surrounding neighbourhood as my objective. At first it might seem a gruesome task that I had set myself, and when the idea was originally suggested I rather resented the proposal. Thinking the matter over in my calmer moments I slowly began to recognise the wealth of glorious opportunities which would thus be presented to gather interesting and historical material -- opportunities to pick up a few of the links which would join the present with the past. Do not our cemeteries contain within their stoney limits


Here lies the remains of those who laid the foundations of the city's greatness! Those who fought her battles, shared her trials, and worked to realise her hopes and ambitions! And what greater reward can they secure on earth than an honoured place in God's acre? That and nothing more, whatever their triumphs or their achievements. To occupy an honourable position in this Nature's library is the most the best of us can hope for -- here where chapter after chapter in the history of the world is labelled and shelved until each volume is complete, the story only to be concluded with the end of all things. When I looked round the field of operations spreading before me was so extensive that I had difficulty in selecting a path whereby to make a start. We have quite a large number of graveyards in and about Belfast containing memorials which, while interesting to the rising generation, will bring back to those who have more years to their credit stirring times in the city's existence.

OLD TOMBSTONE IN SHANKILL CEMETERY: This elaborate embossed work is all on the back of the stone. The inscription on the other side is almost indecipherable through decay, but the date is about 1772.

Some one has said that Belfast has no records of it's early history, but, like every other city of importance, there have been outstanding features and incidents which are cherished in the minds of those whose interests have been associated with her progress. The spaces, therefore, alloted to the inhabitants of the Silent Land are simply bristling with items which must be of deep interest to every citizen. They carry us back through the centuries, and although, owing to the carelessness or thoughtlessness of the earlier officials, few of the very ancient landmarks remain, yet those which are available give us an insight into the lives of our forefathers, and induces a perusal of our earlier records. I had no desire to peruse these pages of Nature as a "Melancholy Dare," for I was quite prepared to find among the "pathos" a good deal of unconscious humour to relieve the sombre tones, to soften the high lights, to make for pleasant contrast. My first visit was to


which is now closed to the public, unless for those who already possess space which has not yet been used up. The kindly sexton relocked the gate after we had entered, and I was surprised to learn that this graveyard is rather a favourite spot with American visitors. But surprise gave way to sorrow -- sorrow for my own comparative ignorance of local affairs when I discovered the many curiosities which the place contained. I felt ashamed that I had not known of them long before; yet I believe that in this affliction I will have many brethren. At the clang of the gate I metaphorically drew my doublet closer to my body, for somehow there was a draughty feeling abroad, and no matter how carefully one stepped through the tall grass there was always the impression that one might be treading on the bones of some of the ancients; indeed, ever and amen, I quite expected to hear a sort of ghostly grown as a protest against my pilgrimage. I stopped at the notice board, which, after giving information as to the hours and terms for burial adds that graves deeper than 8 feet will be charged 1s per foot extra. Why anybody should require a deeper pit than 8 feet may not now be altogether understandable, but it is quite probable that in early days such a precaution was absolutely necessary. In one corner of the graveyard stands the proof of this statement. The burying ground of the Crawfords is protected by an iron railing on two sides, and a wall on the remaining two. It was not an inviting spot, but I decided to explore, and presently, in the side wall, found an open door leading into the small apartment about 7 or 8 feet square. Here and there little square apertures, just sufficient to admit the muzzle of the old cannon were let into the wall, and I immediately surmised that the place must have been a fort at one time. So it was, but this apartment had nothing to do with the fighting days.

OLD WATCH-HOUSE: Exterior view of the old watch-houses in Shankill. The figure is pointing at the small aperture from which the watchers were supposed to have full view of the tombs.

This was once the watch-house where vigil was kept every night in


lest thieves might come to unearth the newly laid bodies for the purpose of securing any article of value that might have been buries along with the dead. This was surely an interesting momento! A short distance away I am pointed out a rough stone with a basin hollowed in the upper side. The water which this basin contains is stagnant in appearance, although it doubtless is renewed frequently by the rains; but the children of the district look upon this stone with a sort of superstitions awe, and believe it possesses marvellous healing qualities. It is popularly known as


and any youngster troubled with a wart is directed to stick a pin into the growth and to drop the pin into this basin. According to the superstition this is a sure and certain cure.

THE WART STONE: The Baptismal Font of the old White Church (now Shan kill) date 1413. The stone is now popularly known as "The Wart Stone."

That there is a particularly strong belief in the efficacy of the stone is evidenced by the substantial deposit of pins to be found at the bottom of the basin, if one cares to risk putting a hand into the evil-looking water. But this article, which has been turned to such Paganish use, was actually at one time the baptismal font of the original parish church, and is said to date from about the year 1413. And I venture to assert that nine out of every ten Belfast people have no knowledge of such a curiosity. The temptation was too great to resist and so I unbagged the camera which I carried and took the photo reproduced with this article. This I think is in itself unique, for I cannot remember ever having heard of any previous publication of a similar picture. It will come as a surprise to many who have been living practically next door to it all their lives, and yet Americans cannot understand why the font is not accommodated with a special position in our local collection.

We are now obliged to topple down


Before we get anything else worth recording, and then it comes in the form of an ancient tombstone, with the following inscription:--

Here lyeth the bodis of
Homer Jackson and Janet Cunningham,
his wife, who departed this life
on 8th April, 1689.

That is over two centuries ago, and the information is rather vague, as both may have died on the same day or at different times, just as you take it. The insertion of the letter "e" in the first line is quite a common feature of ancient stones hereabouts, and seems to indicate that sculptors in those days were careless workmen, with an unfortunate habit of dropping a letter, which was afterwards inscribed above the line. However, this worthy couple lived in stirring times, departing this life just a year before the Battle of the Boyne, while they may probably have known the Duke of Schomberg's arrival in Ireland to take charge of the English expedition under the Prince of Orange. This was even before Patk. Neill's first book was printed in Belfast, when Blackstaff was known as


(a much sweeter name than its present one, which doubtless described a much cleaner river), when there was a castle in Castle Place, and the River Farset ran up High Street. How interesting a conversation with the couple above referred to now would be! How they would stare at our City Hall and our electric trams, not to mention our railways and steamboats.

Quite close to this is a memorial worthy of notice as displaying the economy of some of our ancestors:--

Here lyeth
4 of Davd. Stafford's
children viz. John
Agnas, Robert & Jane
1772 -- also William.

Poor William seems to have been a sort of afterthought. He may have been healthy and not expected to die, but certain it is that he does not count for though his name has been added to the list the number of David Stafford's children has not been altered in any way. A neighbouring tablet announces the fact that it was raised by "Stewart Beatty in 1765 in memory of Francis, aged 63," that is to say he lived in the first half of the eighteenth century, when land was considered expensive at 2s or 3s per acre -- 4s was about the highest -- when the population of Belfast was slightly over 8,000 -- when the first bank opened here, and when tokens were in common use in the town. Amazing, is it not?

I look round at his neighbours, but although many of the stones are in worse condition he is a patriarch in his own vicinity. Here is one as recent at 1845, where the bereaved neyed style. It is worth reproduction as a sample of the poetical effusions perpetrated at the period. Here it is --

"With suffering sore, a long time bore,
Physicians was all in vain,
But death has seized and God was pleas'd,
A happy release from pain."

The doctors in those days were not so jealous of the dignity of their profession as they are now, otherwise they would have taken an action for libel against the engraver for describing their incompetency in such ungrammatical language.

In the olden times the Shankill burying-ground was the City Cemetery, probably in conjunction with Friar's Bush (of which I shall have something to say later), but you can find people of all different denominations represented, and along the side which impinges on the main road was the military section where the soldiers of the local garrison were buried. One tragedy at least is recorded in the simple words of the memorial which marks the resting place of "Corporal Brown shot by his comrade." Away at the other side of the enclosure


is brought before us, for there is the pit into which the bodies of the dead were hurried during the cholera epidemic.

The ancient portion of the burying-ground is in very bad condition, and many of the old stones are quite submerged in the accumulation of earth which the years have heaped upon them, while the long grass prevents one from knowing whether or not he is walking over the last resting-place of some respected citizen of earlier ages. Some of the tablets themselves are buried, and the records which they were intended to preserve are lost forever. As


it is all intensely interesting to the student of local history, and this initial visit to "The Silent Land" induced a thirst for exploration in similar regions that found some slight satisfaction in other portions of "God's acre." From Shankill I journeyed to Friar's Bush.

(To be continued)

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Belfast Evening Telegraph, Friday, 12 October, 1906.



In the article by "The Chiel" under the above heading in the issue of the 9th inst., in which the Shankill Burying-ground is chosen for the first instalment of the series, a pardonable error has crept in, where a certain enclosed plot is called "the burying-ground of the Crawfords." This description is correct so far as the family of that name is interred in the enclosure, but which, however, is the private property of the Sayers family. Arthur Crawford, the formerly well-known iron merchant in North Street was married to a Miss Sayers. It may be noticed that the plot is peculiarly situated, not being on the same level as the graveyard itself, as it originally formed a corner of the garden attached to the dwelling-house of William Sayers, sen., who owned considerable property a century ago in the neighbourhood, as well as between the Shankill Road and the Old Lodge Road, near Peter's Hill. He was remarkable for his great weight, being said to turn the scales at 24st. On the interment of his son, John Sayers, the philanthropist, of Malone, in 1830, his great-grandson (who is still alive at an advanced age) recently informed the writer that he was then present, and was shown some of his great-grandfather's remains in the form of adipose. It was about this period that the watch-house mentioned by "The Chiel" was erected, just after the great Burke and Hare scare in connection with body-snatching at Edinburgh. The following notice of it appeared in the "Belfast News-Letter":-- "We observe that a convenient little watch-house is erected in Shankill Graveyard by Mr. William Sayers and Israel Milliken, for the use of which they get a donation from one of the most useful charities, and from the known kindness of these gentlemen we are sure they will give this accommodation on the same terms to any respectable person who may apply for it." The above was William Sayers, of Malone, a son of John Sayers, and grandson of William Sayers, sen., of Shankhill, and Israel Milliken was a relative of the family, who will be remembered by the older generation of citizens as the proprietor of the once well-known Warm Baths in Peter's Hill. "The Chiel" assumes that "thieves might come to unearth the newly-laid bodies for the purpose of securing any article of value that might have been buried along with the dead," whilst, as a matter of history, it is well known that it was for the purposes of dissection of the bodies by the medical professors, because, before the introduction of the Union Workhouses, it was very difficult to procure dead bodies for such an object in any other way. At the same period, in connection with the burying-ground situate off the present Clifton Street, the Belfast Charitable Society was obliged to adopt measures of protection by appointing responsible watchers, as indicated in the following paragraph, which appeared in "The Northern Whig" for 6th February, 1832:-- "We have been requested to state that in consequence of those persons who have been employed to watch the graves of persons lately interred in the Poor House Burying-ground, having been in the habit of firing guns charged with slugs and bullets, which sometimes alarmed the neighbourhood and passengers, and also injured the tombs and headstones in the grounds, the Poor House Committee lately came to a resolution that they would employ two responsible persons, for whose faithfulness they required considerable security, and for whose correct conduct they feel themselves accountable, to watch the graves of all persons buried in these grounds, and who will require a trifling remuneration. They will be well armed, and will have watch-dogs constantly with them. This arrangement, if faithfully adhered to, will give general satisfaction, and relieve the minds of many families."

We remember a scare in "the early forties" in connection with the dissecting rooms at the rere of the Old College, in College Square North, near Christ Church, in consequence of a foolish rumour which was circulated to the effect that a woman, who was passing the entrance gate, was kidnapped into the place for the purpose of dissection. As a result no woman could be induced to pass that way after nightfall during the following winter months. "The Chiel" will have some difficulty in discovering any external evidences of burials in the Old Parish Church burying-ground in High Street, now covered by St. George's Church, its surrounding grounds, and adjoining houses in Church Lane and Ann Street. When some alterations were made in the church windows (not the present ones) of the church, at the beginning of the forties of last century, the writer remembers seeing skulls and bones unearthed, and replaced in a heap alongside the church, and also when alterations at the boundary wall at the time Victoria Street was opened about 1849. Two or three years ago the premises formerly Cuddy's and later Frackelton's, were taken down to make way for a new erection, and during the course of the excavations several coffins, well preserved, were exposed, which were afterwards transferred to the Union Workhouse Cemetery and the Borough Cemetery. Henry Joy M'Cracken, who was hanged for high treason in 1798, was said to have been buried at the corner of the old school-house, near the door, in the churchyard. The exact location of this spot cannot now be ascertained, but it was rumoured that some enthusiastic admirer of M'Cracken fancied that one of the above-mentioned coffins unearthed contained the remains of that unfortunate individual, and endeavoured to have it reinterred in the graves of the M'Cracken family in Clifton Street, but we fear the identity of the coffin would be very difficult to establish.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

"W. C." writes:-- I was much interested in the very readable article which appeared in your issues of Monday last relative to Shankill Graveyard, and the publication of the series of articles on old graveyards which you have promised your readers will, I am sure, be much appreciated. It has occurred to me that these articles could be supplemented by stories culled from the recollections of many of our old residents. For example, it is only known to a few that the remains of a member of a well-known Belfast family were brought all the way from the United States of America a few years ago, and interred in the family burying-ground, Shankill. I can well remember, as a youngster, attending St. Matthew's National School, and with what delight we explored the section allotted as a soldiers' burying-place (immediately after an interment had taken place), on the look-out for spent cartridges.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

Mr. John Skillen, of Ballymena, writes:-- Since I noticed in your columns that "Chiel" was to contribute a series of articles on old graveyards, I have been looking forward to their appearance with great interest. Last night I perused the first of the series, and must congratulate "Chiel" on his initial effort, which will doubtless cause a pilgrimage to the old Shankill graveyard to examine the interesting remains which he has noticed. But, like "Old Mortality," I like to wander in graveyards, and as such a wanderer I am sure that "Chiel" will bear with me in a little criticism. First in reference to the "watch-house," which he says was used to prevent the abstraction of valuables which probably had been buried with the dead. Now the "Watch-house" was used to prevent a more gruesome occurrence, viz., the abstraction of the bodies themselves to be used for dissecting purposes. Prior to the passing of the Act which gave the bodies of unclaimed paupers to the colleges, the only method (if we except that one of the Burke and Hare) of getting subjects was by "resurrecting" them. The relatives, therefore, of the recently interred watched the grave until decomposition had rendered the "subject" useless. Another method adopted to prevent "resurrection" was the weighing down of the coffin with a heavy iron frame, a set of which was raised some time ago in Clifton Street graveyard, and are now, I believe, in the Museum. In the Alloway Churchyard, celebrated by Burns, there is also a set lying against the church wall, which had evidently been dug up. During a recent visit there I came on some people examining them and speculating on their use, and I was enabled to give them the desired information. There is an interesting variation from the watch-house in the old graveyard in Mallusk, where in place of a watch-house there is an iron lamp standard the middle of the graveyard, in which a lamp was kept burning after an interment to enable relatives to watch and prevent the resurrectionists engaging in their ghoulish work. Just another word in reference to the font in the Shankill graveyard. There is a doubt as to whether this is a font or not. Stones with a hollow in them like this are common, even apart from churches, and are known as bullan stones, but the association of cures with the stone evidently points to some ancient and sacred use. On the shore of Church Island, Lough Beg, there is an almost exactly similar stone, both in size and shape. Round this stone the bushes are adorned with rags left there by sufferers who had come for a cure. Another bullan stone that I know of acts as the foundation stone of a cottage in the village of Kells. It is supposed to be the font of the old Abbey of Kells. Half of the hollow in the stone is buried in the ground, and half is above the surface, plainly visible to any passer-by. In passing this place I have often thought it a pity that the stone should occupy such an undignified position instead of being preserved in the vestry of the church."


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