Friar’s Bush Graveyard – A Fascinating History

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Inside Friar's Bush Graveyard
Inside Friar’s Bush Graveyard, Belfast


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.

Famine Victims Memorial
Famine Victims Memorial

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.

Friar’s Bush Graveyard, Belfast

Body Snatchers

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’.

Entrance to Friar's Bush Graveyard
Entrance to Friar’s Bush Graveyard, Belfast

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

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