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Two metres of landfill above some burial sites


By Ciara Quinn

HEARTLESS dumpers who are illegally depositing waste over the location of Milltown Cemetery burial grounds are badly hampering the search for the grave sites of the poor – including babies. In a special feature for the Andersonstown News today ahead of Milltown Cemetery Sunday which is due to take place at the weekend, an archaeologist working on the hunt for the lost graves says human remains lie buried under a carpet of rubbish that includes furniture, discarded mattresses and domestic waste. She claims that areas that are recorded as containing mass graves are in some instances covered by up to two metres of illegal landfill, making an already hard job harder. She says the dumping has been taking place on “a truly industrial scale”.

Cemetery Sunday is fast approaching and heralds once again the annual blessing of the graves at Milltown Cemetery.

Our first introduction to Milltown is the magnificent Romanesque arch. It towers like a sentinel above us as we pass through its gates and step back into a history which the arch has been privileged to oversee from its earliest days. Unfinished to this day, the arch has stood tall, a silent witness to  and protector of the history of our past and present. It has survived attack from bombs, bullets, armoured cars and the impact of millions of people who have walked underneath it during the last one hundred and forty years.

The final sentence from the Nicene Creed adorns the arch at Milltown and reads, ‘Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen’ – ‘And I await the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.’  This sentiment is at the core of Catholicism and implies that the dead are simply resting, waiting for the Day of Judgement.  On Cemetery Sunday, the arch will witness an influx of people from every social background across Ireland, and indeed from far-flung corners of the world, to pay homage to their dead. This strong, entrenched tradition is about recognising and discharging a duty the living have to remember the dead, be it quietly in our heart every day, or publicly once a year.

As the population of Belfast grew through its early years of industrialisation, the need for more burial ground also grew and Milltown had to evolve to keep pace with this expanding city from its original 15 acres of farmland bought by Bishop Dorrian, to include the Bog Meadows and the flood plains of the Blackstaff River.  Milltown Cemetery, like most cemeteries, is an arena where status is not only displayed, but negotiated and maintained. The inclusion of the various republican plots, such as Harbinson, Antrim, and not forgetting the Cross of Sacrifice from World War Two, all in recent decades, reflect our changing attitudes to openly remembering the dead.   Another less contentious monument is the circular stone structure located at the corner of the central Poor Ground plot which bears the title ‘Na Leanaí’ to commemorate the thousands of children who are interred across the cemetery in hundreds of unmarked graves, most notably the strip of land along the boundary of the cemetery and the Bog Meadows.

Milltown has always given up its ghosts reluctantly, but when it does it can do so in the most unexpected ways.  The controversy that erupted in the media in 2008 over the sale of cemetery land which later proved to contain the graves of tens of thousands of adults and infants buried in mass unmarked graves shocked the Irish community both home and abroad and reflected the same levels of disbelief and anger which accompanied the disclosures associated with the Magdalene Laundries and the Bethany care home.

However, a point worth remembering is that the issue of marginalised infant and adult burial in unhallowed ground is not unique to Milltown Cemetery; in fact, it is not even an exclusively Catholic tradition, as it was retained after the Reformation and extended across many cultural and religious traditions in Ireland, the British Isles and indeed Northern Europe. Recent scientific and archaeological research into such graves at Milltown Cemetery and the associated land of the Bog Meadows over the past four years has resulted in the recovery by the cemetery trustees of over six acres which contains tens of thousands of individuals buried in what constituted mass disposal of Catholic dead in this anonymous and unsanctified way.

Desecration and disregard of the dead at Milltown has over the years been an everyday occurrence with blatant disrespect that involved broken headstones, graffiti and the use of the cemetery as a dumping ground for everything from old furniture, discarded mattresses and household rubbish. The recent excavations at Milltown have proved eye-opening with areas recorded as containing mass graves  covered in some instances with two metres of what amounts to landfill. This was dumping on top of documented mass graves on a truly industrial scale. This behaviour was morally and religiously reprehensible and demonstrates the need for local communities to take ultimate control over the future protection of such burial grounds.

The presence of the invasive species Japanese Knotweed in Milltown Cemetery has a common name which reflects an inescapable fact: the older gravediggers call it ‘the Blood Plant’ due to its red stem and it is considered by past staff as a sure indicator of the location of graves within the landscape. This plant spreads by sending out rhizomes through the soil which search for ground which has been disturbed, such as the softer backfill covering a grave, it then pushes new shoots to the surface.

In this way you can stand among the baby graves at the bottom of the cemetery in early spring and clearly see the rows of graves in the ground marked by the young Knotweed shoots, graves which recent excavation has shown to extend beyond the recorded burials of the cemetery.

If the inscription above the Milltown arch does indeed state the case for Catholic belief, then should our Church not accept their duty to see that the dead of Milltown rest unmolested, either by vandals or dump trucks? This duty must extend to those souls who are currently interred in the unmarked graves of the Poor Ground and Cilliní (Children’s Graveyard)

It is about time we considered the open recognition of these lost souls by religion and society alike and reject the usual head-in-the-sand approach which has prevailed in the past and led us into this predicament. We cannot change what has happened in the past, but we can accept it and try to make amends by protecting what has survived of these anonymous and emotive burial grounds which hide in our landscape. Lobby groups such as The Milltown Action Committee and HUG Alliance (Hidden in Unconsecrated Ground) are actively  working to establish new legislation which will address issues of control and accountability for private cemeteries across the North, including the need to identify and mark previously unmarked mass inhumation graves in Poor Ground and the presence of Cilliní.

Milltown’s history is what it is – the sale of the infants’ burial ground, the resale of Poor Ground graves and the eviction of those already buried there are all parts of its chequered past and chart the issues of  systematic abuse over generations.  Should you visit Milltown on May 12, look at it with informed eyes and consider the thousands of lost souls who were discarded by a hierarchy entrusted with their care. Walk among the baby markers in their new garden-like setting and read the sad information they display, but remember, beauty is only skin deep and the truth that lies beneath often contradicts what is on the surface. We wonder how the arch will view in future years our contribution to Milltown’s history.



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