Saturday, 6 February 2016

N307: no angel

Belfast City Cemetery's ivy-draped Victorian paths are watched over by a detachment of stone angels. These creatures, more beautiful now with their missing arms and noses than they must have been when they were first carved, decorate dozens of graves. 

Many of them were set in place at a woman's tomb - they seem to reflect an idealistic attitude to middle-class or wealthy women that might have been prevalent in the late nineteenth century in a city like Belfast. They must have been expensive to commission. They're all different, and some of the carving is really fabulous. 

Perhaps these angels provided a focus for the grief of a bereaved family. Perhaps they were intended too to show others how much the departed loved one was valued and missed. 

Margaret Service

Eva Kenmare

Joseph Davison

Margaret Baird

Rebecca Peacock

Mary Inglis

Some of my ancestors are buried in Belfast City Cemetery. Catherine and Alexander Bryans, my great-great-grandparents, and their daughter Isabella, my great-great-aunt, lie in plot N307.

The Bryans family had moved to Belfast for work from Clones, having lost three of their six children there already. (You can read about their life in Clones here.) I always think that Isabella might have worked in a mill, judging from the addresses round the Crumlin Road at which they lived. Both remaining sons trained as painters with their father but went on to become Methodist ministers (and you can read about that here).

Alexander, a painter and decorater, died in 1896, at the age of 55, of lead poisoning. Isabella died four years later, aged 32. Her burial certificate states the cause of death as "debility". Catherine succumbed to cancer in 1905, aged 62.

Also buried in N307 is William Alexander Hewitt, aged three months. He was the child of Isaac and Anna Hewitt, with whom Catherine lodged in her widowhood. Isaac was a friend of William, my great-grandfather, and his younger brother Alex, after whom the child was named. Little William died in 1899, and I imagine that Catherine, as the proprietor of a recently established grave plot, offered it as a resting place for her friends' baby.

There is no angel at N307. There isn't even a gravestone or an iron marker. It would have been too expensive.

Today it's just a patch of grass between the stone grave-beds of two richer families.

I visited it this afternoon. I walked towards it through an avenue of big headstones, with my hood up, sheltering from the cold Belfast rain. I felt both sad and proud to stand by our unmarked green patch. This was a brave, devout, fractured, transplanted family. Each of them in turn was sorely missed and mourned. But they have no angel.

There I was, standing crying on my great-great-granny's bones, and a thought came to me: We are their angels. Nobody carved stones for them, but they have a heritage of flesh and love, creativity, intellect, faith and integrity. We are their angels.

I tied a black cotton ribbon round the bunch of flowers I'd brought, set it gently on the grave, and walked back down the Falls Road in the rain.

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