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by Tom Hartley
The Blackstaff Press
I like cemeteries. I am not always comfortable in them, but I find them fascinating places. When not attending a funeral service and enduring the grief and sadness of losing a loved one, I enjoy spending time as a kind of a graveyard tourist, browsing headstones and trying to form some kind of a picture of other people’s lives, especially those poor souls who died at very young ages. My local graveyard when I was growing up in Belfast was Milltown Cemetery, a place that houses, if that’s the word, some of my family and friends. I tend to associate it with strong winds and heavy rain, but that might just be the (un)luck of the draw when I have been at funeral and burial services. Bad weather is a reminder, perhaps, that whatever else they are, cemeteries have a right to appear and feel miserable. It’s their job, in a way. But there is so much more to tell beyond the gravestones.
Tom Hartley wrote about Milltown Cemetery and Belfast City Cemetery in his first two books in this trilogy on the history of Belfast ‘written in stone’. I have not read either book but I may well do on the strength of this latest volume on Balmoral (Malone) Cemetery in Stockman’s Lane. This is history thoroughly researched and explored in great detail. It is not only a book about the cemetery. It covers much wider territory beyond the walls and railings and takes us through Belfast Presbyterianism’s past. This is a story of power and strong influence from religious and political figures played out in meeting houses and schools, in missionary and temperance halls.
Tom Hartley writes: ‘In setting out to write this book I had sought to tell the story of a burial ground, but history, and my own curiosity, intervened to widen my area of research. The lives of Presbyterians buried in Balmoral Cemetery are intertwined with the bigger, dynamic history of nineteenth-century Belfast Presbyterianism, and that of Belfast itself.’
The book covers the opening, development and eventual closure of the cemetery, some of the extraordinary people buried there, the origins, historical roots and troubled times of Presbyterianism and the fate of church and school buildings, all enhanced by informative appendices and an impressive array of illustrations. The writing is neither stuffy nor off-putting, as some history books are. As I read through, I wanted to ‘do a Portillo’ and visit Balmoral Cemetery with tome in hand to get closer to the details. But, not having the time or the opportunity to do so just now, I might well pack the book when I have more time to explore on a future back home visit.
Tom Hartley has achieved something remarkable here. I told some friends that I was reading a book about a cemetery and their eyes rolled as they scoffed that a book about such a place would be so depressing. Not so, and far from it. Balmoral Cemetery: The History of Belfast, Written in Stone reinvents what the story of a graveyard should be. Of course, the core focus is the ground within the walls and the inscriptions, but it’s the stories of individuals and congregations, of flesh and blood, of people that, if you’ll allow me, breathe life into the stones and the historical relevance of those beneath.