In the mid-1960s, the National Graves Association in Belfast produced two commemorative booklets as part of an attempt to raise funds for works in Milltown cemetery. One was 1916-66: Belfast and nineteensixteen which I posted previously. The other was Antrim’s Patriot Graves which had appeared previously in various formats, as Belfast Patriot Graves and, to some extent, had originated as the song Belfast Graves.
The latter serves as a reminder of the breadth of the wider commemorative landscape created by republicans in Belfast in the period up to the 1960s. Access to the production of physical monuments and architecture was severely limited due to lack of resources and vigilant opposition of the northern government. Instead, republicans created an imagined architecture (in the sense of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities) overlaid upon the unionist-dominated physicality of the city. This took various forms. GAA clubs, most obviously Joe McKelvey’s, but also Sean McDermot’s, Pat Nash’s, Sean McCartney’s, Sean Martins, Seamus Burns, Tom Williams and other clubs were named after individuals in the city’s republican canon. The popularity of gaelic games served to keep their names in circulation. Pipe bands and other cultural organisations could be named in the same way. Similarly, poetry and ballads that referenced the same individuals kept their names and exploits current in popular culture. Thus Belfast Graves, became a popular song in venues in the late 1930s (it was written in 1936). To understand republican commemoration gives a better sense of how the forms of resistance they manage to maintain in spite of the attentions of the unionist government.