Friar’s Bush Graveyard – A Fascinating History
Friar’s Bush is Belfast’s oldest Christian burial site. Traditionally it is said the graveyard was established by St Patrick. While this cannot be proved, there is evidence of the existence of a medieval Church at this location. A land survey completed in 1613 refers to the Capella de Kilpatrick (St Patrick’s Church) at Stranmillis. There is also a worn 2ft high stone pillar in the graveyard with a hole near its top which many believe was the original Holy Water Font. The famous Friar’s Stone inscribed A.D. 485 is now thought to be a Victorian addition to the cemetery. The oldest legible headstone is of a Thomas Gibson who died in 1717.
The Friar’s Bush
The 2 acre site, now situated in the middle of the city on the busy Stranmillis road, is an enclave of haunting beauty and stillness. The graveyard takes its name from the Penal Era when Catholics were not allowed to celebrate their religion. People would gather at designated hidden spots to hear Mass. If caught, the priest would be arrested and likely executed. In Friar’s Bush, Catholics from the Belfast area would assemble clandestinely at the old Hawthorn bush growing in the centre of the graveyard. This secret worship continued in Friar’s Bush until 1769, when Fr O’Donnell, by subterfuge, gained a lease on a house in Mill Street (see Squeeze Gut Alley).
Inside the Graveyard
Entrance to Friar’s Bush is through an arched gothic-style gate lodge paid for by the Marquiss of Donegall in 1828. He also had the cemetery enclosed with an 8ft high wall at the same time.
Thousands of victims of the cholera epidemics of the 1830’s and famine victims of the 1840’s are buried here. Just inside the gates is a grassy mound known as Plaguey Hill were these poor people were interred. Fever was endemic in Belfast due to the crowded and unsanitary conditions in which people were forced to live. The bodies of the typhus and cholera victims were first burned in an area of the graveyard next to Botanic Gardens and their bones buried in the mound.
Like most graveyards of the time, Friar’s Bush had its ‘poor ground’. An area set aside for folk who had not enough money to buy a grave plot or a headstone. In Friar’s Bush it is known as the Paupers’ Pit.
During the nineteenth century Friar’s Bush was frequently raided by body snatchers. These robbers stole fresh corpses from graves and sold them for profit to doctors and medical teachers for anatomical research and surgical practice. Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses was those who had been executed following a criminal trial. With the expansion of medical schools the need for cadavers increased and body snatching filled the gap in the market. Body snatchers were often known as ‘Resurrection Men’.
Closing of the Graveyard
By the mid 1850’s Friar’s Bush was becoming overcrowded. A.G. Malcolm in his report ‘The Sanitary State of Belfast’ (1852) states that Friar’s Bush “….is excessively overcrowded and were it not far removed from the town, would certainly prove injurious to the public health of its immediate vicinity”. Subsequently only those holding grave rights could be interred here.
In 1869 Friar’s Bush was replaced by Milltown Cemetery as the main Catholic graveyard in Belfast. Friar’s Bush is a place of peace and melancholy beauty. It is interesting and uplifting to know that the friar’s bush, the old Hawthorn tree is still growing here.
Some Interesting Graves
Kevin T Buggy a Kilkenny man and editor of the Vindicator, Belfast’s first Catholic newspaper. The tombstone is a large carved stone harp surrounded with a wreath of shamrocks bearing the motto “Fortis profide et patris”. It was erected by ‘The Repealers of Belfast’.
Bernard Hughes well -known baker and philanthropist. ‘Barney’ was Belfast town’s first Catholic councillor. The grave is enclosed with railings and the headstone is of Greco-Egyptian design attached to the west wall of the graveyard.
Robert Read another newspaper man. Read founded ‘The Belfast Morning News’, the first penny newspaper in Ireland. His premises were at 12 Crown Entry, off High Street. The paper had the largest circulation of any newspaper in Belfast at the time. It was incorporated into the Irish News in 1891.
Fr Jeremiah Ryan McAuley an architect who designed many churches in the diocese and supervised the building of St Peter’s Cathedral on the Falls Road.
Andrew Joseph McKenna who founded the Northern Star newspaper in 1868. An outspoken and fearless liberal all his life, his funeral in 1872 was attended by several thousand people.
Location: 12 Stranmillis Road,
Belfast BT9 5AA
Tel 028 90270296
Open by appointment only – See Friar’s Bush Cemetery
If you enjoyed this article…
If you like our posts please help us to grow our readership by sharing any posts that you like using the social media sharing icons shown with each post.
Please Consider a Small Donation
Belfast Entries is a husband & wife hobby website featuring articles on our shared history, memories and entertaining stories of our past. To help us meet rising website hosting costs please click the coffee cup below to learn how to make a small donation. Please note that every contribution is valued and that we will not contact you directly in order to respect your privacy.
Donations this month 5 😊
Thank you Declan
Thank you Anonymous
Thank you Donnah
Thank you Kevin
Thank you Sheril
We had 6 donations last month
What are others reading now?
Cost of Living Crisis
Given the current cost of living crisis that will impact so many in coming months we have added a page signposting organisations that may be able to offer support. We have no relationship with these organisations and cannot offer financial advice but we hope that some of the links may prove useful.
Ancestry Antrim Arthur Chichester artist Belfast Belfast Entries Belfast Family belfast roots Carrickfergus Castle Cemetery Church Clifton House County Antrim County Down Department Store Donegal education. family tree Famous Folk Forgotten folk Genealogy Ghost graveyard Historical places History Hotel Ireland Irish Census Records Irish Family Irish genealogy irish roots Mary Ann McCracken Operation Overlord Otto Jaffe Outlaw People Philanthropist Places to see Poor House Sailortown St Patrick Titanic Tourism United Irishmen
Belfast Entries posts & photos are our intellectual property and copyrighted to us. Where we use photos that do not belong to us, it is because we believe them to be in the public domain or shared under a Creative Commons licence with appropriate attribution. None of our content or images can be used without our consent. Note that a link to our Copyright & Takedown notice is included in the website footer on all pages.