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The Vacuum Issue 9 spacer Issue 9
What's He Building in There? - The Friar's Bush
by James Bartlet
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"In Penal times, as peasant tell,
A friar came with book and bell
To chant his Mass each Sabbath morn,
Beneath Stranmillis trysting thorn"
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From the poem "The Friar's Bush"
by Joseph Campbell 1905
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King William of Orange rode past en route to the Boyne and it is rumoured that St. Patrick himself built a church here, yet today thousands of people pass by one of oldest cemeteries in Ireland without giving it a second glance, even though they are yards from the graves of noted Belfast newspapermen, the inventor of the "Belfast Bap" and the infamous "plaguey pit".
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That is soon to change however, as the Stranmillis Road cemetery is about to re-open its gates to the public after a long period of renovation by Belfast City Council. Improvements to the two-acre site are planned to continue, including a monument for the plaguey pit that marks the resting place of anonymous thousands who perished from cholera and typhoid in the 1830's and 40's, as well hundreds of famine victims also buried there.
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Today, rare herbs and wild flowers grow on the plaguey pit, so Belfast City Council has ordered the ground left to grow wild in order to see what biological mysteries the cemetery contains.
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Friar's Bush dates back to the 14th and 15th century, when it is believed to have been the site for a friary; this being the origin for part of the name. The "bush" dates back to the times of the 1691 and 1793 Penal Laws when the practice of Catholic Mass was forbidden.
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It was these Laws that led to the creation of secret "Mass Stations" where a friar, often after being smuggled across the Lagan, could perform the ceremony. To this day, a large and twisted thorn tree - the "Friar's Thorn" - grows on the mound where the ceremonies were carried out and it is near here that the "Friar's Stone" is located.
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Dated A.D. 485, the stone is the reputed resting place of a friar who was shot in the heart whilst performing one of these secret masses - though this is more than likely the work of a sneaky Victorian antiquarian.
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Local expert Dr Eamon Phoenix from Stranmillis University College will work alongside Gerry Ward, who runs the cemetery's web site (www.friarsbush.org) and actually lives in the gothic Gate Lodge, to lead tours of the cemetery and talk about its connections to Belfast and the history of Ireland, as well as its famous - and not so famous - inhabitants.
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The local newspaper industry is well represented, most notably with the resting places of Robert and Daniel Read, founders of the Belfast Morning News, the first penny newspaper in Ireland that still remains - in spirit - as it was incorporated into the Irish News. Bernard Hughes, the rags-to-riches entrepreneur and inventor of the "Belfast Bap" rests alongside them.
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The more spooky past of the cemetery will also be represented on the tour, with a look at "the Resurrection Men" of the early 19th century who dug up fresh graves to sell the bodies for medical research and there are the tragic stories of servant girls from the upper-class houses who, petrified of scandal and illegitimacy, threw their babies - alive and dead - over the wall.
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More recently, since Milltown Cemetery became the main Catholic burial ground in 1869, Friar's Bush has been quiet, with only burials from within families who have established rights are allowed.
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For those who wish to dig deeper, "Two Acres of Irish History: Friar's Bush and Belfast 1870-1918 (published by the Ulster Historical Foundation, £6.95) has been written by Dr Phoenix and is available now.
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