It is now more than twenty years since Edward and Primrose Wilson entitled their article in Review, 'In Praise of Graveyards' and set out the historical background to the cemetery adjoining St.Mark's Church, Ballymore, Tandragee. (Review, Vol.4 No.3). Many, many people share this sentiment, and the remarkable turn-out attending a Festival-event held in Shankill Graveyard, Lurgan, in mid-August 2002, was a public manifestation of the deep respect which thinking people have for sacred places.
Shankill Graveyard is located three hundred yards from Lurgan town-centre and is enclosed by three housing developments and the Belfast-Dublin railway line. It began life as a modest double-ring fort, the outline of which is still discernible. A tiny river flows nearby. Being adjacent to a plain and a wood which opened out unto Lough Neagh, the site was ideal for a simple religious foundation so characteristic of the first Christian millennium. Water, food, shelter and an ambience of peace were at hand.
It is likely that the small church which was erected on the mound in the centre of the fort served as a parish church for the small community of the district. In so doing, it joined a group of such churches on or close to the southern shore of the tough. The church at Oxford Island was close at hand. So also were those at Donegreagh, Maghernagaw and Old Aghagallon. Seagoe, by far the most important and largest of the local sites, also belonged to the ecclesiastical cluster.
The deterioration of these small churches was the result of various factors not always easy to specify or quantify accurately, but, through time, peer building methods, storms, fluctuating levels of religious commitment and territorial rivalries, took their toll. It is said that when the Brownlows arrived, in 1610, they found the churches at Shankill and Oxford Island in poor repair, yet it is likely that they were still in use for public worship.
There is a strong possibility that during the first settling-in period of the 1620s, Shankill Church was repaired and used for both Anglican and Catholic worship given the duo-racial make-up of the Brownlow household, William having married Eleanor O'Doherty, a scion of a high-ranking Irish family.
There is little doubt that the graveyard adjoining was in continual use from its earliest years, and the most surprising aspect of Shankill is that in spite of its antiquity, the ground underfoot is relatively even and easy to walk upon, unlike the old graveyards at Tassagh, Ballymacnab and Ballymoyar where one walks with great caution.
In 1718, Shankill Vestry decided that a new Church of Ireland was needed. The elevated site at Lurgan Green, adjacent to the market-house, was selected, The old church was subsequently taken down, and the Brownlows erected their burial vault on the site. Previously, burials in the nave of the church were most likely reserved for the Brownlows and a few leading families. We do know that on June 10th, 1709, Daniel Quinn was buried in ye church'. What we do not know is, who was Daniel Quinn! Throughout Ireland, there has been a propensity for well-off families to seek burial ground within the confines or ruins of old churches,
The Reverend Arthur Fforde, Rector of Shankill Parish, and cousin of the Brownlow family, had an altogether different approach to his burial. Common among people in many English parishes was the belief that it was unholy to be interred on the north side of a church - the phrase was, 'without sanctuary'. In some early churches, there were no windows on the north side, viz. Old Tartaraghan, Old Newtownhamllton, and the present churches of Collon, in County Louth, and Hackettstown, County Carlow. To eradicate this belief locally, the Reverend Fforde, Rector from1748, to his death in 1767, gave instructions in his will as to the place of his burial on the north side of the mound which once held the old church.
The inscription on his tombstone reads:
'The Reverend Arthur Fforde late rector of this parish, died the 24th day of December, one thousand seven hundred and sixty seven, in the sixty sixth year of his age and is interred here agreeably to the special appointment of his will, in order, as he himself expressed it, to remove that superstitious imagination which prevails among many that such part is profane and unholy.'
Gradually, people followed the late rector's lead and the north side filled up. For thirty years approximately, the large horizontal memorial dedicated to the Reverend Fforde lay broken in two in the graveyard, the upper section resting on the original supports, the other section lying three yards away across a path leading to the rear of the Brownlow vault.
In September 2002, contractors restored the memorial and joined the two broken parts. It is indeed most fitting that this work was undertaken as, however faint the inscription now is, it is possible to read it, particularly when a low winter sun strikes the stone following a shower of rain. It is a sobering thought that upwards of eleven thousand people of Shankill Parish and beyond lie buried in the local graveyard which was extended at the beginning of the 19th century. One thinks of the hundreds who were buried within during the two crises years of 1708 and 1713; of the hundreds who died in the 1740s during almost a decade of Arctic cold, droughts, heavy rains and poor harvests; and of the 229 people who were brought to Shankill for burial from the workhouse, in 1847, a year when the total number of local burials amounted to 492. As the Reverend W. Oulton, Curate of Shankill recorded in that year: -
"1847: There were 492 burials in Shankill Graveyard, this year, of which 229 were from the workhouse. The total arising partly from the great mortality occasioned by dysentery and fever in this, as well as in neighbouring parishes, but chiefly arising from the burial here of persons from all parts of Lurgan Union who died in the work house."
It is appropriate to add that the total number of people dying in Lurgan workhouse, in 1847, was 1,119, the most of whom were interred in and around the workhouse grounds in Sloan Street. Vandalism and voids have taken their toll in Shankill. Vandalism was at its worst in the 1970s and '80s.
A high fence erected on top of the perimeter wall has helped enormously. The voids within graves have built up over decades causing in some instances the headstones to fall over. There are seventy-nine in all requiring re-erection and restoration; Craigavon Borough Council is active in this regard. Some headstones seem broken beyond repair but there are always possibilities. There remain, however, many memorials of enduring age and quality. The oldest headstone in the graveyard, located eight paces south-west of the Brownlow vault, commemorates the life of John Walker. The inscription reads:
'Meme .. On John Walker Who Dyed 1696. Here Lyes An Honest Gardners Dust Who In His Calling Was Soe Just That His Great Lord Did Him Remove From Serving Here To Serve Above'.
High up on the southern slope of the mound, are some 18th century headstones, standing erect, and easily read. One engraved with I.H.S.(Jesu Homlrum Salvatorem) reads:
'I.H.S. Here Lyeth The Body of Dines O Hara Who Departed This Life October 30th 1785 Aged 91 years And Also His Son Wm O Hara of Kinnego'.
Well beyond the mound, in the approximate centre of the graveyard, a white headstone stands with an impressive inscription which reads:
'The Reverend Wm. Magee, Minister of the Presbyterian Church, Lurgan, Died 9th. July 1800'.
His Widow bequeathed about £60,000 to the Irish Presbyterian Church Including £20,000 For the Establishment of a College from Lurgan, therefore, emerged Magee College, now Magee University, Londonderry. And then there's James Boyd, of whom John Hancock wrote to Charles Brownlow, soon to be Lord Lurgan, who was holidaying in Brighton, in 1837:
'James Boyd left £371 to the poor of Lurgan'.
The Boyd memorial lies flat beside the path at the north side of the graveyard. The beautifully engraved inscription, in a variety of letterings, embraces three generations:
'To the Memory of, Eliza wife to James Boyd of Lurgan who died 12th, of April 1808. She was an excellent wife, a most affectionate mother, a faithful friend, and a good Christian.
James Boyd, died 6th.November 1831, Aged 76 years. Pure in heart, and pure in mind, He left this fleeting world behind. And died a friend to all mankind. Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
Their son, Matthew Boyd, died 22nd. of March 1839, aged 45 years.
Elizabeth, relict of James Boyd, died 18th.May 1842. Aged 80 years'.
Shankill contains a great variety of impressive memorials. Those of the linen merchants and business families stand out. But so also does the toll of infant mortality engraved upon these stones - the best-off families losing three and sometimes four children in early childhood. Wealth and heart-break engraved together. Shankill Graveyard is a sacred place. It is a place where all can stand and reflect together.
On the right is a picture of the damaged and repaired headstone of Marjorie McCall, the lady from the mid-18th century of whom it is said "Lived once, twice buried".
"Old graveyards with a scatter of lichen-encrusted gravestones and trees standing to attention rank among the most evocative features of the Irish landscape" ... Sacred ground to be left in peace.