The Silent Land

Belfast Evening Telegraph, Tuesday, January 22, 1907

IX -- Umgall Burying-Ground

The subject of this week's article cannot by any means be included in the category of the ancient, but if only an account of its quaintness it is, perhaps, entitled to a position in this series. If you ask me where it is situated I would be inclined to answer that it was somewhere at "the back of beyant," but rather a tiresome journey for anyone other than an enthusiast. I can remember that it was a hazy Sunday morning as I wandered up the mountain side via the steep street of Ligoniel, and that the sleepy little village (except for a few vigorous spirits) had not yet raised its morning blind. I could hear the Albert Memorial away down in the hollow striking the hour, and, looking back, found Belfast submerged in a thick mist, with only the tops of the tall chimneys or spires penetrating the bank of haze. As I reached the brow of the hill I felt that I was parting from the last vestige of civilisation. Like Nansen, I was on a voyage of exploration into an unknown land. There at the door of a little hostelry on the very top of the mountain early on that Sunday morning stood a woe-begone collection of thirsty souls, anxious to embrace the earliest moment in which they might relieve the thirst created by their exertions on the previous night. I said a metaphorical "goodbye" to the miserable little band, and plunged on over the hill into that wonderful country beyond, which has provided many valuable contributions to the archaeological history of a country rich in this respect.

I have plodded along for a couple of miles, admiring the bright green of the landscape and drinking in the invigorating ozone, away above all the surrounding hills -- Divis and Ben Madigan are both hidden -- but presently I descry among a thick clump of trees evidences of the place which I am in search of.

I take a cross road, and arrive at an iron gate with stout stone supports on either side. The gate is locked securely, but entrance is provided by an old-fashioned stone stile, which drops you in a narrow lane. At the end of this there is affixed to a tree some wire netting that it is impossible to read the contents of the bill. That it belonged to the Union of Antrim was as much as I had time to decipher, for the next step brought me into the graveyard proper.

There is scarcely an acre of ground, altogether, and it does seem a lonely spot, away so many miles from train to tram, hardly a habitation within reasonable distance, and yet there was an abundant evidence that the living relations of the dead occupants were not allowing the grass to grow over their memories. Everywhere fresh flowers were laid on the graves, and the plots were for the most part carefully kept, but unfortunately there were few of those ancient memorials which I take such an interest in.

It might well be described as a family burying-ground, for the "clans" of the different families thereabouts are carefully gathered together. Perhaps the most remarkable is that of the Reas, who have an entire corner all to themselves. The most ancient reads --

Here lieth the dear Remains
of affectionate husband and a tender
Parent and a sincear friend Daniel Rea
late of Ballynalough who departed this
life 27th Feby. 1817 aged 80 years.
Alfo his wife Jenn Rea alias Williamson who
Departed this life 25th Decr. 1816 aged 80 years.

There is a second stone bearing a similar record. It lies flat on half a dozen granite pillars, and the corner is shown in the accompanying photograph. It is remarkable that both husband and wife died at exactly the same age with such a short period between the two deaths, that of the wife taking place on Christmas Day. That the Reas have not been neglectful of the poetic spirit of the age is attested by the verse in the usual style on one of the stones in this collection --

"Come, my young friend, and view the place,
     And here a silent lesson learn
That ere to-morrow's sun doth rise
     Your present life may have an end."

The rhyme is not all that the artistic soul might desire, but that the logic is sound cannot be gainsaid. It would be interesting to look into the author's mind and ascertain why he felt it absolutely necessary to address his "young friend." Did the "elders" of those days not require any admonition? On a neighbouring stone the sculptor has made a peculiar blunder. The inscription runs as follows: --

The Family
In memory of their

and until I read it carefully I had made up my mind that here was exemplified the old saying that every Catholic family (I do not know that the Reas were Catholics) had its own priest, and I felt sure that Monsignor O'Laverty in his able histories would help me to identify the family, but I found that the father referred to was merely an earthly and not a spiritual one.

The poet has been at work in another case --

"This stone will show to some the place
     When my short race is run
'Tis here I wish my bones to rest
     Till the last day shall come."

The rhyming dictionary cannot have been published at this time, and it may be that the "reason" of the effort here is as questionable as the "rhyme." It is not usual for the departed to be allowed to wish, but we presume the poet took the liberty on himself. I stop in amazement before one memorial.

Samuel Smyth
Of Ballyutogue
in memory of his
Fathers and Mothers
Sisters and Brothers.

Surely the record of a person who has been so liberally dealt with in the matter of parents is worth preserving. On another stone I picked out this pathetic little verse --

"The voyage of life's at an end
     The mortal affliction is past
The age that in heaven they spend
     For ever and ever shall last."

and was about to bid the quaint little burial ground a sad farewell when my attention was drawn to a plot of about three graves' breadth on which the grass seemed very dilatory about settling. I was informed in mysterious whispers that there was a legend connected with the plot. In the long, long ago some person had been buried there whose reputation had been justifiably bad, and despite all the attention which had been lavished upon the soil, and all the new soil which had been carried to the spot, the grass refused to grow. Time was too precious to permit of my staying to prove the truth of the story, but one cannot fail to observe the luxuriant growth all around the square patch which lies there to all outward appearances blighted. No doubt the scientist could furnish us with reasons galore, but as any solution would rob Umgall of its chief charm we will allow the story to stand as it is given.

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