The Hidden History of Belfast City Cemetery

*this piece was originally written for the East Belfast - Shankill Extra newspaper in February 2017

On a recent visit to Belfast City Cemetery I was struck by what I considered to be an abundance of history that has been obscured from view. In the past, nationalist West Belfast has felt little affinity to a cemetery which contains monuments and headstones to the unionist and Protestant dead, while the wider unionist community of Belfast have felt little affinity to a cemetery which is located in nationalist West Belfast. Thus, a site that is crammed with symbols of remembrance and commemoration has, in some ways, been forgotten or obscured. Indeed, the cemetery provides us with a catalogue of paradoxes that can uniquely highlight the complex and multi-faceted history which our city possesses.

Peter McCabe of the Practical “Lest We Forget” Facebook group showed me around the cemetery. The group have been busily tidying and maintaining the graves and memorials of men and women who died as a result of the two world wars as well as some other notable individuals. Indeed, on our stroll around the site we bumped into group member Ricky Cole who explained to me about his process of logging and cataloguing graves with the sole intention of “sharing them with anyone who has an interest in this history”. For Ricky and Peter the thrill of unearthing ‘hidden history’ was a mutual motivation but also a sense that ‘remembrance’ can (and should) be about much more than visiting a cenotaph once a year.

Belfast City Cemetery contains a wealth of graves and family memorials that refer to the First World War, some of which are connected to East Belfast and the Shankill. On an obelisk at F-443 an inscription commemorates Major George Horner Gaffikin of the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles (West Belfast Volunteers) who is believed to have led his men on to the battlefield waving an orange handkerchief. As a Captain, Gaffikin sat on a court martial which sentenced to death James Crozier of Battenburg Street, Shankill Road – he was tied on hooks to a stake, blindfolded and shot at dawn in February 1916. Another example at L-391 is Gertrude Annie Taylor who was a staff nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Gertrude’s father was the Managing Director of the Owen O’Cork Mill on the Beersbridge Road and the family lived at Strathearn House, East Belfast. Gertrude died of pneumonia on 12 December 1916 aged 37 while ‘On active service at First London Central Hospital, Camberwell’.

The cemetery also reflects Belfast’s former industrial prowess. Samuel Joseph Scott (R-474) from 70 Templemore Street died aged 15 while a junior member of a riveting squad at Harland & Wolff. Samuel is reputed to be the first person killed in an accident during the building of the Titanic. Ironically, according to Tom Hartley, there was no stone on his grave until 2011, when one was provided by Féile an Phobail. Another irony here is that men and boys from the shipyard like Samuel Scott can be buried on the same site as someone like William James Pirrie (K-468/9), who, by 1904 had assumed total control of the Harland & Wolff company. Under the direction of Lord Pirrie, a former Unionist turned Liberal Home Ruler, the Belfast shipyard became an integral part of life in East Belfast and further afield. Tom Boyd was an employee of the shipyard at the time, he commented on Lord Pirrie’s politics, “It was a paradox in Belfast terms but it was well known that Lord Pirrie was a Liberal and a Home Ruler…But despite that, Lord Pirrie was looked up to by the shipyard workers and by the people generally…The people didn’t seem to mind that Lord Pirrie had those political ideas.” Consequently there was a curious situation whereby a Home Ruler was in charge of the Harland & Wolff shipyard while a vast majority of his employees were anti-Home Rulers.

Unionism and loyalism is well represented within the cemetery. James Cunningham of Glencairn, for example, at L-754 was part of a sub-committee of the Ulster Unionist Council tasked with organising armed resistance to the 3rd Home Rule Bill. Some of the money used for the purchase of weapons and ammunition for the UVF was channeled through the Cunningham & Co. stockbroking business, while UVF weapons were stored and reviews held at Fernhill House on the Cunningham’s Glencairn Estate. Sir William Whitla, buried at K-194, gave £1000 to gunrunner Fred Crawford ‘as a token of appreciation for what he has so heroically done for Ulster and the empire’. The Whitla Hall at Queen’s University is named after him. Crawford himself is also buried at the cemetery (K-73/4). For many people he will require no introduction; suffice to say he had been involved in militant branches of unionism since before the 2nd Home Rule crisis and is best known for his leading role in the UVF gun smuggling operation of April 1914. One of the most intriguing unionist graves is that of Richard Rutledge Kane (M-945). Kane entered the Church of Ireland ministry in the 1860s and his first curacy was in Dundonald. He played an active role in unionist politics as well as a leading role the Orange Institution. Kane was reputedly an Irish language enthusiast and a patron of the Gaelic League. At the Unionist Convention, held on 17 June 1892, Kane was thought to be responsible for the prominent display of the Irish slogan ‘Erin go Bragh’. On 22 April 1898 Rutledge Kane laid the foundation stone for the West Belfast Orange Hall on the Shankill Road. An Orange Lodge, Kane Memorial Temperance Independent Lodge, was also named after him. He is described on his headstone as, amongst other things, ‘a loyal Irish Patriot’.

As well as Richard Rutledge Kane there are numerous Protestant churchmen worthy of mention. The grave of the Reverend John MacDermott, for example, of Belmont Presbyterian Church can be found here as well as Canon Harding, Rector of Willowfield Parish until 1922. Harding’s interest in the welfare of children led to the building of Willowfield National School No.2 in 1913 which was renamed Harding Memorial Primary School (Cregagh Road) in his honour. There are also graves of a Presbyterian minister who had served time in Damascus, Syria and a Methodist minister named Belshaw who had served time in Ghana.

Some notable footballers can also be found at the City Cemetery. John Pedan, for example, played in the first Linfield side of 1886, but also became the first Irish player to turn out for Manchester United (then Newton Heath). Pedan was a tricky winger from Sandy Row who earned 24 international caps before returning to Linfield and eventually served on their Management Committee before he died in 1944 aged 81. Also buried here is the famous Liverpool goalkeeper Elisha Scott (M-74). Scott began his playing days as a forward with the 4th Belfast Company Boys’ Brigade before keeping goal for Liverpool over a 22 year period. He returned to Belfast and played 2 games for Linfield before switching to Belfast Celtic where he enjoyed much success as both a player and a manager until 1949.

Elisha Scott

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