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Derry City Cemtery Series: The history behind our headstones maybe not as clear cut as we all believe
21 Jan 2019
In the run up to the 100th anniversary of the Great War, two historians in Derry began a research project into the conflict and how it affected local people. The project shed further light on the fact that the global conflict saw Irish Catholics and Protestants from this city and county go to Europe to fight with many of course set never to return to their native soil. At this time, Seamus Breslin from Creggan and Trevor Temple from the Fountain found themselves spending an increasing amount of their time at the cemetery researching the local names of those who have now lain in WWI graves for over a century. For many decades now, those from the Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist community in Derry have felt that the city’s main resting place has been an unwelcoming place for them. The outbreak of the Troubles at the end of the 1960s undoubtedly played a part in this. The cemetery’s geographical location in Creggan, of course a nationalist stronghold, also added to the sense of unease for Protestant people visiting the site or indeed using it as a final resting place for their relatives. Seamus Breslin said: “Myself and Trevor were already working on a project about World War I. He’s from the Fountain and I’m from Creggan. Some may have regarded us as unlikely allies at the time, but we both had a great interest in the war. “I went to collect Trevor at the Fountain because he wouldn’t walk through the Bogside or the Brandywell. He thought it was a ‘cold place’ for the unionist community, but once he arrived in the cemetery he felt at ease because his people are buried there and a lot of his family’s history is there as well. “I thought it was sad that he felt that way and thought we should do something to bring the unionist community back to the cemetery, to where their families are buried. At the same time there was a terrible spate of vandalism. At one stage there were 20 graves smashed in one night. “So, I thought an overall look at the history of the cemetery could stop the vandalism through education, bring back members of the Protestant community and generate a bit of community pride in what we have in the cemetery.” Both men were already aware that many other cemeteries in Ireland and the UK have history projects as a dedicated part of their make-up. They set out to make a study of cemeteries already hosting that type of project. Seamus continued: “We looked at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin and Glasgow Necropolis. Both of these places had found that the only way to stop anti-social behaviour was to get the community involved at the heart of the history of the places. “That meant there was no need for barbed wire, security men and guard dogs at cemeteries. So, five years ago we founded a group known as Friends of Derry City Cemetery which now has 3,000 members on Facebook, active members. We have high profile supporters from right across the community. Former MLAs Pat Ramsey and Ross Hussey have backed us. In fact, the late Glen Barr was a trustee of the group.” An almost immediate success of the group was the return of many people from the Protestant community, whether as individuals or part of large scale visits from community organisations. Another off-shoot of the project has been a development that has seen the wildlife of the cemetery given consideration as well. The fact that the Red Squirrel has made the cemetery a haven was featured last year on the BBC’s highly popular Springwatch programme that saw its well-known presenter Chris Packham pay a visit. Trevor Temple told the Derry News: "I did feel trepidation about going to the City Cemetery, that's true. Seamus would drive up and collect me at Carlisle Road. There was a discomfort there. "Initially I was working on the Diamond War Memorial Project at Holywell Trust. That charted the names of all those on the city's cenotaph. That's when it was discovered that the people named on the memorial were almost equally divided along being from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. "Seamus was part of an advisory committee and we became great friends. We shared a passion for local history. It was Seamus' idea to open up the gates at the war memorial at the Diamond and make it a shared space. "It occurred to us that this was an idea that could be extended to the City Cemetery. You can literally see the impact the exodus of Protestant people from the city side laid out in the cemetery. "The Protestant section has remained almost still apart from the occasional burial. I know of instances where Protestant people took their relatives out of the City Cemetery and reburied them in the Waterside because they'd feel more comfortable visiting the graves. "But my great-grandfather is buried in the City Cemetery so I have connections there. I still think there is a nervousness there about going to the City Cemetery. Protestant burials all but stopped about 50 years ago." It was while writing historical articles for the Londonderry Sentinel around 2004 or 2005 that Trevor Temple saw TV documentary featuring leading Sinn Fein member Tom Hartely who is also a leading authority on Belfast City Cemetery. "I told the editor about this and also that I thought I could produce a series of articles from our City Cemetery because I knew there was a rich history there. He told me he thought that it was a bit morbid, but that it would work. "It's really strange to watch that type of material being produced from other cemeteries now-to see what were doing 15 years ago being done elsewhere now. There doesn't seem to be the same appetite for that type of history here locally. You have small villages everywhere that have local history societies but we don't appear to have the same enthusiasm," said Trevor. The Derry News asked Trevor Temple if he thought that perceived lack of enthusiasm is because the Troubles are still to raw in many people's minds and put people off taking an interest? He said:" The history of the cemetery is about a lot more than the Troubles. There needs to be a better understanding of the complexities of our history and that understanding will help breakdown sectarianism. The fact we uncovered the shared history of the war memorial is a great example of that. That helped dilute sectarianism and I believe the City Cemetery can do the same thing. "One of the biggest monuments in the cemetery is for a Patrick Gilmour, but how many people know who he actually was? "He was a Presbyterian merchant who used his used his money to alleviate the suffering of the poor during the Great Famine. In other cemeteries across the city there are Celtic crosses on Protestant graves and Londonderry written on Catholic graves. Everyone thinks our history has been orange and green since Adam and Eve. That's absolute rubbish. It's a lot more complexed than that. Seamus Breslin added:“In the last few years we’ve had visitors from all over Ireland, Europe and the world. We’ve had New Zelander’s and Australian’s come and visit to see their connections. It’s because of Derry’s very strong maritime connections. “Derry’s former shipping companies run by the McCorkell’s, the Corscadden’s and the Cooke’s sent their ships all over the globe. In the 1800s they took tens of thousands of people to the new world via ports like Liverpool. “Generations later there are millions of people all over the world with connections to here. If we could get a fraction of them coming back it would be a major tourism boost for our economy.” Asked what the most revealing fact he learned about the cemetery since the tours began Seamus continued: “I never knew until I began that Catholics and Protestants were divided even in death. "Even the military graves are divided along those lines. I have travelled the world looking at military graves, and those who fought and died together are buried side by side everywhere else in this world. But, in Derry if you were a Catholic you are buried in one part and if you were a Protestant you were buried in another part of the cemetery. “I always thought the gap between the war graves in Derry to allow for more burials. It's not, it's because that's the Catholic section. "We found this out because when we did the research we found out that there was an option for it to be a non-denominational cemetery and the burials would have taken place in chronological order as they came in. "Or, there were Class A, Class B or Class C burials. Depending on the place you were buried in the cost differed. A Class C burial may have cost ten shillings but if you were rich you could have afforded a 'better view'. That's two reasons why graves are scattered all over the place and it doesn't seem to be much of a pattern to them. "Also, Catholic and Protestant paupers are even buried apart. The small patch behind St John's Primary School, is actually the Protestant paupers section. It's unmarked. Nobody really knew about that. There was a reusable coffin for this purpose. "People from the unionist community on tours said they never knew about that. We told them that we didn't either until we began to research it. "The Catholic paupers section holds about 8,000 people. It's on the way down the hill as you go towards the Brandywell. Within sight of that section are obelisks and tombs of the great and the good from the mansions. That really touches a lot of people when they hear about that." Seamus Breslin admits that it is shocking that despite the fact the city cemetery opened in the 1850s we as a population are just starting to learn and absorb this history now. Until a group of highly dedicated volunteers recently took the time and the trouble to digitise some of the city's burial records they only existed in hand written ledgers and that history was in danger of destruction had an accident or natural decay befallen them. "They were in the small building at the Lone Moor Road entrance to the cemetery. If there had been a fire, a flood or an explosion, that history would have been lost forever. "Thankfully, that team of volunteers along with the backing of the Tower Museum put all those records online. I honestly believe now that's been done it will generate huge interest from people that can network into that all over the world and it will draw them here. What I am saying is that people are not coming to Derry to sunbathe. They are coming here for an experience. They love it if they are called McLaughlin or Doherty or McCorkell or Corscadden or whatever and when they are on a tour the see a headstone with those names. "Now they have the possibility to look and research whether or not they have a relative buried here. It personalises it," said Seamus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the section of the cemetery tour that garners to most interest currently is that which deals with the Troubles. It has been well publicised already that the grave of the late Martin McGuinness has attracted visitors from all over the globe. Seamus Breslin said: "The graves of hunger strikers and those killed on Bloody Sunday have a lot of interest in them too. You have the sad tale of two former St Joseph's pupils buried side by side. Manus Deery was killed by the British Army and Ranger William Best was a soldier killed by the Official IRA, but there they are buried side by side. "Then we have those who were famous entertainers. Jimmy McShane who was known as Baltimora, Roma Downey's family is buried there. In fact every time she comes home the cemetery is one of the first places she visits to pay her respects. She's a supporter of the project. "Just across from the Downey family plot is the grave of the father of the famous guitarist Rory Gallagher. So, it's not just the politics and the Troubles that brings people although it is the most sought after story and experience that makes people visit. It's not until you see it in front of you that you realize how bad things were here. These were real people. "One of things that stunned me was this. I had American journalists visit during the Maritime Festival last summer. We were standing at the Bloody Sunday graves and one was from the Chicago Tribune and one was from a Washington paper. Both of them asked why those killed on Bloody Sunday buried in the republican plot. "They assumed despite all of the coverage of the Bloody Sunday inquiry that those killed that day were republicans. They didn't understand that they weren't Irish republican combatants they were completely innocent people. That brought it home to me that despite the fact the world watched what happened during the inquiry that the perception of the story was still completely wrong. That's one of the main reasons we do the tours, to inform and educate people of the real story. "We don't tell just one story or one side of a story. We tell them all. That's why Trevor and I working together can balance it up. "It's a really strange thing, but with the school and youth groups that visit we bring them around and speak to them about the Troubles-about the RUC, the IRA, the gun battles and riots, the republican dead, the loyalist dead and all of a sudden they look at a grave and realise we are speaking about the 1920s. "They say 'are you telling us this all happened before?' We tell them yes it did, then take them up the hill a bit and show them exactly the same thing 50 years on." The Derry News also asked Seamus Breslin what direction and purpose the cemetery project should have? "This project should be as big as Glasnevin Cemetery or the Glasgow Necropolis. It should have a visitors centre, a genealogy centre, it should have touch screen facilities to instantly find out information, it should have tour guides. "It should be employing local people who have the knowledge to share, because here in Creggan and the Bogside, the Brandywell and Fountain we really don't have enough to offer in terms of tourism. It should be expanded and developed and going on experiences from elsewhere it could employ at least 14 people with trainees coming through all the time to pick up the skills. "It's got brilliant potential for educational purposes, for schools history projects especially. One primary school teacher told me his class absolutely loved the balance between the sad stories, the humorous stories, the wildlife in the cemetery and the actual view itself. I don't think there's very many cemeteries anywhere in the world that we have from that hillside in Creggan." CAPTION: Pictured at Derry City Cemetery are from left to right, film maker Vinny Cunningham, Seamus Breslin and Trevor Temple.
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