Shankill Graveyard – A Fascinating History
Background to Shankill Parish
The Parish of Shankill
Shankill Graveyard formed the grounds around an ancient church or monastery in County Antrim (the nearby Glencairn was once known as Monks Hill). The Shankill name comes from the Irish sean cill meaning ‘old church’.
The parish of Shankill once covered a large area of County Antrim including the little village of Belfast. The church was situated beside the River Farset on the slope of the hill, avoiding the low-lying marshy area around the Lagan.
The most important church in the area in the Medieval period was the one at Shankill.
“The original church of the district was situate near the little stream of the Farset. It is probable that it was founded by St Patrick on one of his missionary journeys, possibly when he was on his way from Saul to Slemish, or on his return”Rev Charles Scott, Ulster Journal of Archaeology Vol 1 1894
Everyday Life around Shankill
The local population at this time lived in raths (circular earthen-walled forts) and caves on the slopes of Divis and Black Mountain and surrounding hills above the church site. The fertile land and plentiful water supply resulted in quite densely packed clusters of habitation. Numerous examples of raths and ring-forts are scattered over the district.
Travellers from the ford at Belfast heading north would have followed the route from North Street to Peter’s Hill and along the path of today’s Shankill Road.
“If travellers’ destinations lay inland, they probably followed the line of what is now the Shankill Road, where the medieval parish church of Shankill was located, and crossed the Antrim Plateau at Ligoniel on the col between Squire’s Hill and Divis Mountain”Raymond Gillespie, Early Belfast, 2007
The Church at Shankill
Archaeological finds of pieces of a late eighth or ninth century crozier (a bishop’s ceremonial staff) prove the ecclesiastical building here pre-dates the Anglo-Norman invasion. The highly decorated bronze fragments, discovered in the Shankill Graveyard, are held in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. One segment appears to be the ferrule (the bottom of the staff) and another the reliquary box (a small container within the shaft containing a relic).
The original church would have been made of wood. It is likely that it was rebuilt in stone in the twelfth century by the reforming archbishop of Armagh, Malachy. In the 1306 taxation records of Pope Nicholas, the church is called Ecclesia Alba the White Church. It was valued at 12 marks.
Shankill Church was in a rural setting over a mile from the main ford at the River Lagan. The church at Shankill was the main or mother church and had associated chapels at Le Ford (now St George’s in High Street), Henrystown (now Ballyhenry) and Westone (now Ballyvaston).
The Church in Ruins
At some point the old church at Shankill fell into disrepair. By 1604 it was already in ruins with the Corporation Church in Belfast taking precedence.
“The parish, according to the Ordnance Survey, contains 19,559 statute acres, anciently called Shankill, but no church having existed at the latter place for more than two centuries, it is now generally designated the parish of Belfast”Samuel Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837
The Bullaun Stone
It is recorded that all vestiges of the old church completely disappeared. However, in 1855 an ancient bullaun stone was discovered in the graveyard. This is a roughly circular boulder with a shallow basin-like hollow.
One theory is the stone was used as a Holy Water Font in the original church. Another is that it was used by druids for ceremonial rites.
It was quite commonplace for early Christian leaders to build their churches on previous sites of pagan worship. Many bullaun stones have been found at churches, so the stone may well have been part of a pre-Christian religion.
Up to the nineteenth century bullaun stones were regarded as having healing properties. This one was apparently good for the removal of warts. You pricked the wart with a pin and placed the pin in the rainwater that gathered in the depression of the stone, and the wart would disappear.
On the 2nd June 1911 the bullaun stone was placed in the grounds of the nearby St Matthew’s Church for preservation.
The Shankill Area
While the church at Shankill had fallen into decay the graveyard remained a burial place for the people of the district.
“Whatever the date of the abandonment of the old church, its graveyard continued to be used for burial for succeeding generations, maintaining a tradition established perhaps a 1,000 years earlier”R S J Clarke, Gravestone Inscriptions Belfast Vol 1 1982
A map compiled in 1767-1770 by J. Crow shows the entire area as a network of fields. However, with developments in industry and manufacturing the land quickly became more urbanised. The power of the Farset and Forth Rivers were utilised, particularly for the linen industry.
Bleachworks, beetling mills, bleach greens and other associated buildings sprang up. Businessmen built homes close to their works and then constructed cottages, shops and facilities for their employees.
The proximity to the growing town of Belfast and the influx of workers hastened the changes to the area. The application of further mechanization and mass production techniques led to a dramatic alteration to the landscape.
“During the last three centuries the Shankill area has been completely transformed. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, it was an area of gently sloping semi-wooded foothills interspersed with meandering streams which spilt down from the upper slopes of Divis, Black Mountain and Squire’s Hill. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it had become a sprawling industrial suburb of Belfast”R S J Clarke, Gravestone Inscriptions Belfast Vol 1 1982
Shankill Graveyard Expansion and Decline
As a result of the industrialisation, the number of burials in the Shankill Graveyard increased to match the expanding population of this now densely packed district. The area of the graveyard was twice enlarged and once reached as far as the Crumlin Road. The streets surrounding today’s graveyard are actually built on the old cemetery.
The deceased of both religions were laid to rest here at this time.
By the 1860’s the effects of disease, famine and urbanisation of the region meant that the graveyard had reached saturation point. Belfast Corporation was forced to look for alternatives and in 1869 opened Belfast City Cemetery on the Falls Road.
Private burials continued in the Shankill Graveyard up until the twentieth century. The last interment was in 1934.
However, as families died out the cemetery became neglected and over-run.
“The wayfarer passing along Shankill Road, and glancing at the wilderness of bushes, grass and weed-grown graves with, here and there, headstones standing at all sorts of angles, could scarcely imagine that the prospect meeting his vision was Belfast’s oldest graveyard, with an antiquity of probably 1,500 years. The quiet dead do not care about their surroundings, but the living community of to-day have a duty, not only to the resting place of their forebears, but also to their own self-respect in seeing to it that the present discreditable condition of Shankill Burial Ground is remedied and provision made for its efficient maintenance”Belfast Telegraph, 20th October 1932
Belfast City Council and the Shankill Graveyard
The Garden of Rest
Today the graveyard has been taken over by Belfast City Council and transformed into a Garden of Rest. While some headstones remain, the majority have been removed.
The Garden was officially opened on 3rd June 1964 by the Right Honourable Herbert Kirk M P. Also at the opening ceremony was Archdeacon McDonald who had strenuously argued the need to preserve the graveyard site.
The graveyard on the Shankill Road in north Belfast in the heart of the city, has a wealth of stories, interesting in themselves, but invaluable for social historians and genealogists.
The most ancient part of the graveyard is on the left-hand side of the main path. While many of the headstones have been lost or are illegible, the oldest burial found is that of George McCauley who died in 1685. This is followed by Homer Jackson and his wife Janet Cunningham whose grave is dated 1689.
The Plague Pits
Shankill Graveyard has its plague pits where victims of disease and epidemics were buried.
There are no headstones for these poor people. When the pit was full and closed over it was ordered never to be reopened for fear that the virus would be released into the atmosphere. The green lawn covers the final resting place of these souls.
Depressions in the ground level can still be seen marking the three pits, two for cholera and one for typhoid.
The Watch-House and the Resurrection Men
In the early 1830’s a watch-house was constructed in the graveyard. This was provided by William Sayers and Israel Milligan.
Its purpose was to have guards or watchmen stationed in the cemetery to prevent the activities of body-snatchers, often referred to as ‘Resurrection Men’.
At this time there was a profitable trade in fresh corpses. Medical Schools, like the dissecting room in College Square North, would illegally pay to have cadavers supplied for teaching purposes. The only legally permissible bodies allowed for such purpose were those of executed criminals. There was always a need for new corpses hence the trade of the ‘Resurrection Men’ or ‘stiffy-lifters’.
Naturally the families of the recently deceased were desperate that their loved ones remains were undisturbed so various means such as grave cages and watchmen were deployed.
The body-snatching trade was rendered obsolete in 1832 with the passing of the Anatomy Act.
Thomas Gaffikin in his interesting book Belfast 50 Years Ago, published in 1875, refers to Mr Milligan as the operator of the public baths on the lower Shankill Road.
“Israel Milligan, who attended his customers personally, and administered to each one a good glass of punch after the bath – the charge for all being two shillings. When one of his customers died, Israel Milligan attended the funeral, and in fact he and his pony-gig appeared as necessary appendages at almost every funeral procession of the time”Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast 50 Years Ago, 1875
The Impact of Famine
During the Famine, the Shankill Graveyard, like the others in Belfast simply could not cope with the vast numbers of dead. Coffins were piled on top of coffins with barely any soil covering them. So much so that decomposing remains could often be seen.
The cemetery was over-run with rats. To deal with the increasing deaths, older graves were opened and coffins and bones burnt to make room for the recently deceased.
“On Saturday I visited this receptacle for the dead, and was truly horrified at the scene I witnessed. The great majority of the graveyard presents the appearance of newly ploughed field; and in the north-west corner there was a huge pit, covered by a framework of wood, with a sliding door; while along side of it another pit was opened, about 20ft square and about 12ft deep nearly half filled with water. The banks on either side were filled with coffins, out of some of which, I could observe human skeletons protruding……”Letter to the Banner of Ulster, June 1847
Even a quick perusal of the grave memorials will indicate the high infant mortality rate of the times:
- Erected by Robert Burton in memory of his son Robert who departed this life 22nd May 1871 aged 11 years. Also his son John who died 17th September 1869 aged 4 years. Also his daughter Anne who died 8th June 1878 aged 11 months.
- Erected by William Hayes of Belfast in memory of his daughter Jane who died 15th July 1862 aged 6 years. Also his son John who died 19th November 1866 aged 5 years. Also his daughter Eleanor who died 26th September 1871 aged 5 years. Also his daughter Minnie who died 3rd August 1872 aged 13 years.
- Erected by Eliza Campbell in memory of her husband Robert Campbell of Ballysillan, died 13 Dec. 1889 aged 66. Also 6 children who died young.
The Grave of Corporal Brown
Soldiers of the Belfast garrison were interred along the edge of the graveyard that borders the Shankilll Road. There are also several Commonwealth graves here.
One notable memorial was that of Corporal Brown. It is inscribed ‘Corporal Robert Brown, shot by his comrade’
His killer Robert Henry O’Neill, aged 19, was a Private in the same regiment, the 1st Battalion of the 12th (East Worcestershire) Regiment of Foot. They were both based in Belfast Infantry Barracks.
O’Neill was hung for his crime, one of the first executions at Crumlin Road Jail. Wearing his full military uniform, he died on the scaffold outside the prison on 21st June 1854. It is said that the hangman was actually another prisoner in the jail. It is estimated a crowd of 15,000 stood in the pouring rain to watch the event.
Queen Victoria Statue
A striking feature in the cemetery is the statue of Queen Victoria situated opposite the main entrance. It is the work of sculptor John Cassidy, born in County Meath on 1st January 1860.
John attended night-classes in art in Dublin before winning a scholarship to study in Europe and establishing his own studio in Manchester. He exhibited in England and Ireland and was commissioned to produce sculptures for wealthy patrons such as John Ryland and Edward Colston. He was also asked by Manchester Corporation to design public fountains and war memorials. John Cassidy died on 19th July 1939.
This larger than life-size statue of Victoria was originally situated above the entrance of the Queen Victoria Royal Jubilee School in Durham Street. It was made to celebrate the monarch’s golden jubilee. When the school closed in 1974 the statue was taken to Rowallane House and finally placed in its current location in 2003.
The statue is composed of Portland stone. It displays the queen holding an olive branch in one hand and the royal sceptre in the other. Her gown is of Nottingham lace which is exquisitely carved. She is also depicted wearing the cloak and sash of the Order of the Garter. On her head is a coronet.
Victims of the Blitz
Also, within the graveyard is a simple but striking memorial to those who lost their lives in the Belfast Blitz of 1941. It is a square red-brick pillar topped with granite, made to resemble a chimney, like those on the terraced houses all around.
Burials of Note
Some interesting Burials:
Francis Anderson Calder
Francis Anderson Calder was interred here in 1855. A well-known philanthropist, Calder was the Secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society. He is perhaps best remembered as the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Belfast. Through his work water troughs for horses and livestock were erected in the town. Though his headstone no longer remains at the cemetery, the Calder Memorial Fountain can be seen outside the Customs House in Belfast.
William Savage Baird
William Savage Baird from Randalstown came to Belfast as an apprentice in the printing trade. In 1870 he founded the Belfast Evening Telegraph, still a popular newspaper today. He died on 21st July 1886 at his home Avonmore at Fortwilliam.
A skull and crossbones is carved on the headstone of trooper sergeant John Brown He was a member of the 17th Lancers who charged with the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 during the Crimean War. Hundreds of men and horses were killed and injured during this doomed manoeuvre against the Russians, which was the result of a miscommunicated order. John died in 1860. Ironically a street not far from his final resting place is named Crimea Street.
Rev Isaac Nelson
The Rev Isaac Nelson, a Presbyterian minister and nationalist M P for County Mayo (1880-1888) is buried here. He was minister of the Presbyterian Church in Donegall Street and a founding member of the Home Rule Confederation. He passed away on 7th March 1888.
The Gillis family
A striking mortuary monument is that erected to the Gillis family. This family originally came from low-land Scotland and settled in Killead, County Antrim. In the 1760’s Thomas Gillis set up a merchant business in Belfast. His sons Joseph and Benjamin furthered the business with extensive premises in
North Street and John Street. Joseph in particular, was famous for his unstinting hospitality in his Arthur Street home. He was also prominent in the civic and charitable movements of the day. He was a founder of the Academical Institution and was on the Committee of the Belfast General Hospital (now the Royal Victoria Hospital). The full size sarcophagus of polished sandstone with marble panels on raised plinths reflects the eminence of this once prestigious Belfast family.
“About the most graceful tomb in the ancient graveyard of Shankill is that of the old Belfast merchant family of Gillis, which still preserves its grace and dignity”Francis Joseph Bigger, Belfast Telegraph, 21st October 1921
William Braithwaite was a Belfast wine, spirit and provisions merchant. Subsequently the Braithwaite and McCann pub chain owned bars such as the Hatfield and Red Lion on the Ormeau Road, the Garrick and the Ulster Tavern on Chichester Street and the Store Bar on Church Lane. Braithwaite was a renowned marksman which earned him the nickname William ‘Bullseye’ Braithwaite. More importantly he was dedicated philanthropist, his inscription reads:
‘Erected to the memory of William T Braithwaite, died 22nd January 1918 aged 78 years. His munificent bequests to local charities will cause his name to be held in veneration for all time and be a lasting memorial of his practical interest in the cause of the poor and distressed’Inscription on William Braithwaite Headstone
The Garden of Rest Today
Today the Garden of Rest provides a welcome oasis in a very busy inner-city neighbourhood. The site itself plus its gates and railings are listed because of their historic importance. It is thought up to half a million people are interred in this graveyard which was once much bigger than the gardens now.
Although there are no further burials here there is a specially designated area where ashes can be scattered. In spite of its situation on a busy thoroughfare surrounded by houses, shops, a school and lots of traffic the Shankill Graveyard retains a sense of peace and tranquillity and surprisingly a rural charm.
If anywhere captures the history of Belfast it is here.
Gallery of Images
For further information on Shankill Graveyard please see:
Gravestone Inscriptions Belfast, Vol 1 published by Ulster Historical Foundation 1982 (Editor: R S J Clarke)
Location: Shankill Graveyard, 400 Shankill Road, Belfast, BT13 3AE Tel 02890270296
This article includes references to a number of earlier posts. These include:
St George’s Church is a place of peace within Belfast’s city centre that visitors cherish, on a site used for worship since Capello de Vado
The Belfast City Cemetery was opened in 1869 by Belfast Corporation. Nearly a quarter of a million people are buried in this tranquil place
Francis Calder – Founder of the Belfast Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals . The Calder Memorial Fountain was erected 1859.
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