Stand at the new burial section within the cemetery and look across towards the 16th Irish Division memorial cross on the main walkway crossroads, and your eyes scan across an open area of open fields which to most appear as unused ground for future burials. But sadly this is not the case for that area holds a secret of despair, poverty and a neglect to human dignity. For this is Milltown’s poor ground where thousands upon thousands of human beings are buried on top of each other because they were deemed to poor to afford a piece of ground in which to have their remains buried with some dignity.
The tragic stories of these people are buried with them and is a book in itself which would be well titled as ‘Mans Inhumanity to Man.’ To highlight the poigency of one case we have sighted as an example a youth called James Curran This fifteen year old, who lived at 11 Trench Street on the Short Strand, became the first victim of the political riots of June 1886 which originated out of Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill. Orange anger was inflamed from press, platform and pulpit, spelling out what dire disaster would fall upon them if the Home Rule bill became law. In what was now the customary beginning, Catholic workers were attacked in the shipyards. The ship wrights employed in Harland & Wolff attacked the dockers at Alexandra Basin overwhelming them in numbers. James Curran, a boy who was not in the best of health, probably under nourished, working to support his mother, was flung into the water, but despite not being able to swim found refuge on a raft. However while clinging for his life he was ‘riveted’ off the raft with iron bolts flung by the ship carpenters until he fell back into the water and disappeared. Andrew Boyd’s book Holy War in Belfast describes the horrific details;-
Michael Hale, who worked for the Belfast Harbour Board, was the first to see the shipyard men approaching, and he reckoned there were more than 300 of them, all armed with staves, iron bars, hammers, axes and anything else that would serve as a weapon. They surged into Alexandra Dock, shouting abuse at the navvies. The navvies in the dock, surprised and outnumbered by the shipyard men, were trapped. Their only way of escape was by water, and some of them clambered on to a raft which Hale and a carpenter named Walsh had pushed out into the stream. The raft was but a few yards out from the dockside when the shipyard men reached the waters edge and began throwing iron nuts and bolts, stones, metal rivets and lengths of piping at the navvies. Hale, who was a good swimmer, pushed the raft out as far as he could, then left it and swam towards a barge which was also crowded with men. Those navvies who were too slow in making their escape fell into the hands of the shipyard men and were given terrible beatings. Ten of them, including the carpenter Walsh, were so severely injured that they had to be taken to hospital. Walsh lay critically ill with multiple injuries for several weeks. When Hale reached the barge three men were still struggling in the water. Two were pulled aboard, but before anyone could rescue the third, a youth named James Curran, the barge drifted away. Hale watched Curran struggling in the water and hoped he would be able to make the shore. But Curran could not swim. He drowned in full view of hundreds of navvies and shipyard men, not one of whom made the least effort to save him. According to one report circulating in Belfast that day, Curran actually caught hold of the jetty but was kicked into the water again by the shipyard men.
His body was recovered on the 6th June, and he was buried two days later on the 8th of the month. It was reported that thousands gathered from all over Belfast for the funeral as it made its way from Short Strand to Milltown.
Belfast was fraught with tension, serious rioting had already erupted on Sunday night of the 6th, but despite this one witness said “the funeral procession was a most orderly procession and everyone seemed to be impressed with the sadness that called it forth.” At one point before arriving at Milltown a section of the procession was stoned, and shots were reported being fired into the air at the direction of mourners.
It was reported that 15,000 people gathered to watch or mourn that lad’s death. This being the case it is ironic that he was buried in the poor ground with not even a marker! A fair amount of those people were probably no better off than James Curran’s mother, but had even a small percentage of that 15,000 donated a half penny, James Curran would have been buried with some decency. As it stands he is an unknown statistic among the thousands piled into the large baron space that is simply referred to as the ‘poor ground.’
James Curran does not have a headstone, but he is no longer a forgotten statistic, for this book is his marker, a headstone for the thousands he lies buried with, this is their dedication, as there is not even a small memorial stone marking the poor ground.