A lost 1798 burial ground in Belfast

“At this disastrous period, when death and desolation are around us, and the late enthusiasm of the public mind seems sinking into despair, when human sacrifices are become so frequent as scarcely to excite emotion, it would be a folly to expect that the fate of a single individual should excite any interest beyond his own unhappy circle.”

Mary Ann McCracken, 22 August 1798

The letter above from Mary Ann McCracken, is quoted by Madden in his nineteenth century study The United Irishmen. She is discussing what Guy Biener calls ‘social forgetting’ the process by which memories of events like 1798 get obscured and confused. After the events of 1798 in Ireland disturbances continued intermittently for a number of years. As Biener notes, some of those who had been active United Irishmen before 1798 subsequently tried to quietly obscure their former political allegiances, neither openly discussing events nor revealing their former sympathies by publicly marking the passing of those killed during the rebellion.

In 1910, F.J. Bigger noted in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, that “The late Henry S. Purdon, M.D., records the burial of many ’98 victims in May’s fields, a short distance beyond the termination of May Street. Here was a narrow strip of ground, with a row of graves, known as the croppies’ burial ground.” At the time, Bigger and others were trying to erect memorials and plaques at locations such as graves of those associated with the likes of the United Irishmen that had, up to then, been overlooked, forgotten or simply ignored. A letter by W.S. Corken to the Irish News (2 January 1971) about Henry Joy McCracken also states that “…the burial place of the ’98 men – his companions – was in May’s Market where the spot was known as ‘The Felons Plot’. The whereabouts of this sacred spot is unknown today in the Markets.”

Taking Bigger and Corken’s accounts, ‘The Felons’ Plot’ lies somewhere beyond the eastern end of May Street, in the vicinity of May’s Market. They likely layout around 1798 is shown on the map below which represents Belfast in 1791 (not always accurately, though). Given that a variety of markets were held in the area either side of what is now Oxford Street, beyond the limits of May Street, the specific location is unclear. This is the area also formerly known as Mays’ North Field. An 1848 map of Belfast (included with the Belfast Historic Towns Atlas, Vol. II) labels both sides of Oxford Street as ‘Mays Market’. True to the ‘social forgetting’ Guy Biener has noted for post-1798 Belfast, none of the nineteenth century maps indicate the actual position of a graveyard.[1] Nor may there have been an attempt to formally mark the location as the space isn’t recorded on nineteenth century street directories or valuations. As the first reference to this burial ground appears quite late, it is worth then exploring the likelihood that such a burial ground even existed.

1791 Map of Belfast (from Belfast Historic Towns Atlas Vol. 1), a likely location for a 1798 burial ground is between ‘The Bank’ and ‘Mill Dam’

Belfast in 1798

Belfast was the scene of executions in 1798 and 1799 rather than actual fighting. While it is possible that the dead from violent clashes elsewhere in Antrim or Down were brought to the town, it appears that the most likely candidates for burial there are among those known to have been executed in the town. Executions were mainly by hanging on a temporary scaffold erected at the Market House, in some cases on a nearby lamp-post. A Court Martial often sat in the Donegall Arms in Castle Place while the New Inn was often used to hold prisoners.

In 1798-99, the terms of a death sentence often extended beyond the actual execution as prisoners were regularly de-capitated, with their heads displayed in public. Their remains were also not to be released to their family for burial. According to George Benn’s A History of the Town of Belfast (published in 1823), there were seven executions of United Irishmen in Belfast in 1798-99. Based on contemporary newspaper reports the seven were William Magill, James Dickey, Hugh Grimes, Henry Byers and John Storey in June 1798, Henry Joy McCracken in July 1798 and George Dixon in May 1799.

William Magill, from Loughbrickland, was condemned to death on 9th June 1798 in Belfast. The Belfast Newsletter (11 June 1798) reported that he “…was executed on a lamp-post opposite the Market-house, pursuant to sentence of Court Martial, for swearing soldiers from their allegiance.” There is no mention in the newspaper reports of what happened to Magill’s remains.

After William Magill, four more United Irishmen, James Dickey, Hugh Grimes, Henry Byers and John Storey were all hung on a temporary scaffold that was erected opposite the Market House. That a temporary scaffold was put in place seemed to portend many more executions. After being hung, each of Byers, Dickey, Grimes and Storey was then beheaded and his head placed on a spike at the Market House. Dickey had requested, at the time of execution, that his body be given to his friends but it is not stated whether that happened (Belfast Newsletter 29 June 1798). Press accounts state that their heads were to remain on the spikes at the Market House until 16 August 1798. Even then there is no mention of whether their bodies were given to friends.

What then happened to Henry Joy McCracken was different. It is specifically stated in reports of his execution that his body was handed over to his friends (e.g. see Belfast Newsletter 20 July 1798). His remains were then buried in the old graveyard around St George’s Church (and later claimed to have been reburied in the new burying ground behind the Belfast Charitable Society building). In 1799, George Dickson, the last of the seven, was hung opposite the Market House on 17 May, for treason and rebellion. There is no mention of either the display or disposal of Dickson’s remains.

Other individuals condemned to death in Belfast, like David George Woods, were executed elsewhere (Woods was hung at Doagh). There are also some, like Richard Frazer, who were sentenced to death but the execution was apparently not carried out (in some cases sentences were referred to Dublin Castle for confirmation and later commuted to transportation or military service).

McCracken’s treatment seems to have been recorded and reported in the press as it was deviating from established policy. Executions appear to have been the responsibility of the local authorities and carried out in public, and, as noted by Guy Biener, “…As a further humiliation, executed rebels were often denied burial in consecrated ground and their corpses were interred by the gallows, so that they could not be memorialised in accordance with funerary custom.” (Biener 2016, 153).[2] As the gallows in Belfast had been erected at the Market House, burial there was impractical as it was in the middle of the commercial hub of the town. So, presumably, the town council had the remains taken from the Market House out to grounds owned by Belfast Corporation and interred there. The closest suitable location would have been the ground just outside the town in the location suggested by Bigger. Here, maps in the second half of the nineteenth century show it was still the location of Town Council yards on the east side of Oxford Street.

1860s map of Belfast (2nd edition OS Map) showing the markets either side of Oxford Street, the location described by Purdon appears to be within the Horse Market.

So, what can we say about Bigger’s account of a burial ground containing the dead from 1798? Given the lack of fighting in Belfast, those interred there could have included six of those executed in the town (unless the dead from elsewhere were brought to Belfast). Those likely to have been interred in such a plot are William Magill, James Dickey, Hugh Grimes, Henry Byers, John Storey and George Dickson. It is possible some were disinterred and taken elsewhere. Henry Purdon, whom Bigger is quoting, had family connections to Belfast Charitable Society, an organisation in which former United Irishmen like William Drennan and the like of Mary Ann McCracken were active, alongside Purdon’s father. This lends Purdon’s account a reasonable level of plausibility and suggests such a graveyard existed.

The location given, “…in May’s fields, a short distance beyond the termination of May Street.” is not specific enough to identify the exact location. But it does roughly correspond to the area later used by the Town Council as a yard (to the east of Oxford Street). Somewhere on early nineteenth century rental papers and maps, there should be an annotation that identifies what Bigger describes “…a narrow strip of ground, with a row graves”. Once found, this can now be identified as the place called ‘The Felons Plot’ and which held, and possibly still holds the remains of Henry Byers, James Dickey, George Dickson. Hugh Grimes, William Magill and John Storey.

Another United Irishman, James Hope, names some of them in his poem ‘McCracken’s Ghost’:

“While Storey lay martyred and Dickey lay dead,

And the hands of oppressors on spikes placed their heads,

Their spirits in glory triumphed to the skies,

And proclaimed through the air that the Croppies would rise.”

There are some others hints to a possible memory of the location. A John Holness gave a talk in Hewitt Memorial House in January 1930 on “Streets and Placenames in History” with special reference to Belfast. In that he noted that “…Cromac Street had gloomy connections as the name originally meant ‘the way to the gallows’.”(Belfast Telegraph, 25/1/1930). The reason for this association with Cromac Street isn’t clear.

While there are a remarkable number of reported discoveries of burials in and around Belfast city centre, there are none in the most likely areas in which the 1798 graveyard was likely located, despite substantial redevelopment with archaeological testing, excavations and monitoring. I published a paper a few years ago looking at some medieval burials and finds from Belfast city centre (in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology) at High Street, Castle Place and Castle Market. I’ve reviewed the information for finds of human remains around Belfast city centre to produce a Belfast bones map (see below). While there are a handful of known burial grounds around Belfast city centre – St George’s being the obvious one, but also Shankill (the oldest of them), Friars Bush (like the other two clearly medieval in origin) plus there was a paupers burial ground behind Clifton House that predated the ‘new burying ground’ that now lies between Henry Place and the Antrim Road.

There are clearly others, though.

Two long forgotten burial grounds are marked on a 1696 maps in the first volume of the Historic Towns Atlas for Belfast. I’ve managed to relocate these, plus identified discoveries of human remains in other locations that appear to be burials. These include Millfield, at several sites on the north side of Waring Street, a cluster around the Belfast Castle that burned down in 1708 in Castle Place, Castle Market and Cornmarket. A skull found in Castle Market in 1922 was radiocarbon dated and is medieval in date, while the other human remains appear to be formal burials, some clearly indicating former use as a cemetery. None appear to match the location described for a 1798 burial ground (shown on the bones map close to Georges Market). If people are interested I’ll post up information on the other burial sites. Other locations, like Peters Hill, are at least seventeenth century if not earlier. Ironically, newspaper accounts of discoveries of the bones often suggests they date to the 1798 rebellion. But I’ll post more about those another day.

Belfast bones map – discoveries of burials and human remains around Belfast city centre.

Work on the 1798 burial ground was undertaken as part of research for the Market Development Association and the Pangur Bán Literary & Cultural Society as part of a wider heritage project in the area.

[1] It is possible the location is recorded on early rental papers in PRONI (which are not currently accessible).

[2] Biener, G. 2016 Severed Heads and Floggings: The Undermining of Oblivion in Ulster in the Aftermath of 1798. In The Body in Pain in Irish Literature and Culture. pp.77-97. See also his Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster.


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