A New Burying Ground
At a meeting of the Belfast Charitable Society in October 1795, the board decided on “appropriating one of the fields up the lane for the purpose of a burying ground”. This referred to the land along Buttle’s Loney as far as what is now the Antrim Road, directly behind the Belfast Poor House.
The designated field lay to the front of Vicinage, the home of Thomas McCabe, now St. Malachy’s College. The graveyard was to be enclosed and laid out in an ornamental fashion.
Clifton Street Cemetery Opening
On the 3rd May 1797 the cemetery was officially opened:
“The Public are informed that the Burying Ground near the Poor House is now ready, and that Messrs Robert Stevenson, William Clark and John Caldwell are appointed to agree with such persons as wish to take lots”.Clifton Street Cemetery, Announcement of Opening
The Belfast Charitable Society kept registers of all those who purchased plots in the cemetery and the prices paid. From 1831 onwards each burial was recorded in the Burial Register, including the cause of death.
Grave Considerations – Costs, Elite Residents and Body-Snatchers
The cemetery was a means for the Belfast Charitable Society not only to provide a resting place for the dead, but also to raise funds. Grave plots against the stone walls were the most expensive, ones in the centre the least costly.
Many of Belfast’s elite bought burying rights here, notable families from political, industrial and professional classes such as the Dunvilles, Workman, Ewart and Sinclairs.
The imposing mausoleums with their decorative stonework and wrought iron gates were a symbol of social status but also a measure to deter the feared body-snatchers.
Graves for the Poorest
In 1799 the Board minutes show that it was proposed that an area of the cemetery be kept aside as a Poor Ground noting that it was “resolved that a portion of the Poor House Burial Ground be laid apart for interring such poor persons as may die not having the funds for their interment in the same or some other Burial Ground”.
Clifton Cemetery Expansion and the Resurrection Men
By 1819 the original New Burying Ground or Clifton Street Cemetery, as it is also known, was full. There was added pressure after the closure of the old graveyard at St George’s in High Street. As a consequence, the Belfast Charitable Society acquired another neighbouring field, previously let to a Mr W. McClure, to extend the graveyard. There was now a lower and an upper graveyard. The area was laid out in pathways with suitable planting, mostly the work of Mr A. J. Macrory, Chairman of the Belfast Royal Botanic and Horticultural Com. Ltd.
After the enlargement of the cemetery in the 1820’s a new iron entrance gate was erected on Hamilton Hill’s Ave, now Henry Place. A gate lodge was built within the railings, first as a place of accommodation for the guards who were employed to see off body-snatchers and then as habitation for a caretaker. In Clifton House, an old flintlock gun is still preserved from the time when armed guards were a necessity against the Resurrection Men!
Cholera and Famine Deaths
One Section of the graveyard is the most melancholy. An area of grass surrounded by shrubs denotes the Cholera Ground and the Famine Plot. In 1851 the renowned doctor and public health reformer, Andrew Malcolm, spoke of the cholera epidemics of the 1830’s
“Though seldom a decade of years ever elapsed without bringing an epidemic of some description in its train, yet, for nearly two centuries, none has been so appalling in its rapidity or fatality, as to inspire horror or produce despair”Andrew Malcolm, 1851
The vast death rates of 1845-49 when almost the whole of Ireland was ravaged by the potato blight meant all of Belfast’s graveyards were full to overflowing. The Rev Richard Oulton, chaplain at the nearby barracks, describes seeing coffin heaped upon coffin till they were not more than two inches below the surface. Around 7,000 people, men women and children are buried in this area. A recently erected stone boulder marks their deaths, it is simply inscribed:
In this ground lie the remains of several thousand poor They all had namesClifton Cemetery Famine Grave Inscription
United Irishmen Graves
Of course, Clifton Street Cemetery is most famous for being the final resting place of some of the most prominent United Irishmen:
- Dr William Drennan (1754-1821) physician, poet and founder member of the United Irishmen. He was the first to pen the phrase ‘the Emerald Isle’ as engraved on his tombstone.
- Rev. William Steele Dickson (1744-1824) Presbyterian minister and member of the United Irishmen. Imprisoned after the Rebellion, released and spent the rest of his life ‘in reduced circumstances’, buried in a paupers grave
- Henry Joy McCracken (1767-1798) leading member of the United Irishmen. Arrested after the Battle of Antrim. He was tried for treason and hung in Cornmarket.
- Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866)] humanitarian and social reformer. Lifelong member of the Belfast Charitable Society and supporter of the United Irishmen. Younger sister of Henry Joy.
Other Interesting Graves
- George Crawford Hyndman a member of Belfast Botanical and Horticultural Society, which founded Botanic Gardens in 1828. He was an auctioneer and an amateur naturalist. His monument was topped with a carving of his faithful dog [now removed]. It is reputed that he kept a chameleon and a crocodile as pets!
- Valentine Jones a prosperous merchant and founding member of the Belfast Charitable Society. His stone is inscribed ‘Mr Valentine Jones of the town of Belfast. Merchant who lived respected and died lamented by numerous Descendants and Friends on the 22 nd March, 1805 aged 94 years’.
- Alexander Mitchell the blind engineer and inventor of the screw pile.
- John Ritchie pioneer of the shipbuilding industry in Belfast. When he died in 1834 it was written of him “…there was no institution in Belfast of a public nature, whether literary, scientific or charitable which was not largely indebted to him for support”.
- Francis Dalzell Finlay founder of The Northern Whig. His aim was that the people of Belfast should have a “Free Press: a Press that no man can call servant, and that will acknowledge no master but the Law”
- Alexander Haliday a distinguished doctor, poet and first president of the Reading Society, now the Linenhall Library
- Edward Benn one of Belfast most generous philanthropists.
- Dr Samuel Smith Thompson described as ‘Father of the Profession in Belfast’. Founder of the Anacreontic Society, subsequently the Belfast Philharmonic Society.
- Henry Joy, the son of Robert Joy, one of the founders of the Belfast Charitable Society and designer of Clifton House. Henry was a Committee member for several years and proprietor of the Belfast Newsletter until 1795
- Dr William Haliday nephew of Alexander. A physician dedicated to his work in Clifton House. He was the second president of the Medical Society and president of the Reading Society in Belfast.
- The Journeymen Coopers of Belfast 1812. This was erected by the Guild of Coopers, 13 members are interred in this plot. The headstone is decorated with the Coopers Arms and the motto “Prosperity attend the integrity of our cause”.
Further Information & Contact Details
For further information and a virtual tour of the graveyard please see
Clifton Street Cemetery Video at www.glenravel.com & www.belfasthistoryproject.com
Clifton Street Cemetery
Belfast BT15 2BB
Open by appointment only
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argonaut · 4 June 2021 at 3:51 am
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P&P · 4 June 2021 at 9:41 am
We try to make the site interesting and readable for everyone
Joe Baker · 4 May 2021 at 8:25 pm
Give me a shout anytime you’re looking in to see around. For those wishing to visit the graveyard you can only do so through the tours. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for next available places.
P&P · 4 May 2021 at 9:14 pm
Joe, we might well take you up on that offer. We did a tour of historical locations a few years ago and loved hearing the stories – an inspiration for this website.