There is no doubt that Milltown Cemetery is a famous landmark the world over due to the Republican graves contained within it. Many of the burials which have taken place in this ground have been screened worldwide with the most notable being that of Bobby Sands, the 1981 hunger striker who died in the H. Blocks. Another single incident which helped make it a famous also occurred at one of the Republican Plots when a lone Loyalist attacked the funerals of three IRA members who were shot dead by the SAS. Images from Milltown were shown around the world when an almost suicidal attack was carried out by Michael Stone against a crowd numbering many thousands. Three people died in this attack with Stone being captured by the crowd and then rescued by the RUC and arrested. For some people this is the only history they know and therefore it is here that our history of Milltown begins.
In the year 1867, Ulster’s first Republican martyr of the Fenian period, William Harbinson, died whilst in terned in Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road.) A former Colour Sergeant based at Victoria Barracks in the New Lodge area of Belfast he was one of many members of the Fenian Brotherhood who were sent into, and used within, the British Army for the purpose of recruiting for the movement.
With the knowledge of weapons and military protocol he possessed, Harbinson became training instructor to the various Fenian circles, instructing them in the use of arms and military tactics.
The hesitant tactics and refusal to give the word for action to thousands of men like Harbinson and his comrades was one of the mysteries connected with the leadership of the movement at that time, and left them open to harsh and prolonged criticism.
It is since recorded that a member of the movement (an Irish-American) is alleged to have passed on information to the British Government of the activities and personnel of the movement and, in a subsequent lightning round-up around Antrim and Down, Harbinson and many of his comrades were arrested and interned in Belfast Prison.
While interned there, illiam Harbinson died suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 44 on the 9th of September, 1867. He was buried in the ancient monastic grounds at Portmore, Ballinderry, Co. Antrim. Thus William Harbinson became Antrim’s and Ulster’s first martyr of the Fenian movement.
Forty five years later in 1912, a plot of ground was secured in Milltown Cemetery and a monument in the form of a Celtic Cross was erected not only to commemorate the sacrifice of William Harbinson, but also to act as a memorial to all who served with him in the ranks of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and to those who suffered with him in Belfast Prison. Included among the seventy two names inscribed on the monument are those of twenty Protestant Republicans who were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and also the names of Colonel Kelleher, Captain John Dwan, Peter Healey, Captain T. H. O’Brien, Lieutenants Patrick Hassen and Mark O’Neill, officers in the United States Army and all of whom were in Belfast Prison with Harbinson. These Irish-Americans had been members of Clan na Gael who had come over from America to take part in the Fenian insurrection.
Those who are buried in the plot are:
SECTION COMMANDER SEAN McCARTNEY. 8th MAY 1921
From Norfolk Street he was killed on active service by British Troops on Lappinduff Mountain, Co. Cavan. A member of D.Coy, 1st Battalion I.R.A., a monument was erected to him on Lappinduff. At the time of his death he was part of a flying column of 12 volunteers made up from the 1st Battalion of the Belfast Brigade.
LT. GENERAL JOE McKELVEY 8th DECEMBER 1922
Executed by firing squad by Free State Troops in Mountjoy Jail in Dublin, alongside Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows and Richard Barrett. Their only guilt was that they opposed the Treaty. Joe McKelvey, although born in Stewartstown, Co. Tyrone, grew up in Cyprus Street, Belfast and was involved from an early age in the Republican movement, rising to command the 3rd Northern Division. A huge turnout lined the Falls Road for the funeral following Mass in St. Mary’s Church, Chapel Lane.
He died during internment on the prison ship Al-Rawdah. Born in Co. Cavan, he came to Belfast to live and work in the early part of the century. A member of the Republican movement he was imprisoned during the 1920-23 conflict period. Prominent in G.A.A. activities in Belfast, he was again arrested in September 1939 and subsequently interred in Crumlin Road and Derry jails. He was transferred along with the other internees to the ‘Al-Rawdah’ in the autumn of 1940, and it was here that Séan died suddenly on the 18th of November, 1940.
His remains were followed by thousands as the funeral proceeded from St John’s Church on the Falls Road to the Republican plot in Milltown. The then Bishop of Down and Connor, Rev. Dr. Mageean walked with the mourners behind the tricoloured covered coffin.
From Ton Street, he died of illness in Parkhurst Prison, England, while imprisoned for possession of explosives. A member of D.Coy, 1st Belfast Battalion I.R.A., his remains were brought home to Belfast and interred in the Republican plot on July 13th, 1942.
Died of gunshot wounds received in a shoot out with the RUC at the corner of Castle Street and Queen Street the previous day, 11th February 1944. Interned in September 1939 at the age of 18, he later took part in the big Derry jail escape of March 20th 1943. Rearrested by Free State Forces he spent a spell interned in the Curragh Camp, before returning to Belfast a wanted man living on the run in ‘safe houses.’ Close beside the Republican Plot (which is now known as the ‘Old Republican Plot’) is the ‘Tom Williams Plot.’ A 17 foot square of ground which contains the County Antrim Memorial listing the names of all those I.R.A. volunteers from all over County Antrim. It became known as the ‘Tom William’s Plot’ because it was bought from money accumulated by the Tom Williams Gaelic Athletic and Camogie Club, Belfast, which was originally founded in ‘A’ Wing of Belfast Prison in 1945 by the Republican sentenced prisoners and mainly because a grave had been reserved to reinter the remains of Tom Williams.
The County Memorial was designed by Séan MacGoill and is built in a cruciform shape rising from a black base in the form of a cross. Made from Irish limestone, it has inscribed on it a roll of honour, listing the names of Antrim’s martyrs starting from the 1798 rising to the present day. The work of Dublin sculptor, Richard Enda King, is to be seen in the form of two bronze sculptors depicting the figure of Roisin Dubh exhorting the men of Antrim to rise and strike for their freedom. The second image on the reverse side shows again the figure of Rosin Dubh rising from bondage; a figure or resurrection leaving behind the bonds of oppression and slavery breaking the bars of imprisonment and rising to freedom. Practical consideration was given to design the monument in such a way that it gave a point of interest to the maximum number of people during a gathering or commemoration service and to allow for a number of burial places on either side of the main arm of the cross. Unfortunately the outbreak of conflict in 1969, just two years after the memorial was unveiled, ensured these burial places were occupied.
Some years later a plaque was added on the right arm of the cruciform in memory of Jimmy Steele and an adjoining railed plot has four tablets laid each listing the names of four I.R.A. members. Sixteen in all are buried here.
While many visitors to Milltown Cemetery wishing to see the Republican Plot are inclined to go to the new plot where the graves of those killed in the recent conflict are to be found, it should also be remembered others are buried in various sections of the cemetery embracing a wealth of history and conflict that stretches beyond the strife torn streets of Belfast. Celtic Crosses and headstones inscribed in Gaelic and adorned with the red hand of Ulster can be seen amid the endless lines of graves within the crowded statuettes and marble stones of Belfast’s Catholic dead
The twenties, Thirties and Forties saw Republicans give their lives to uphold a struggle both in defensive and offensive operations. Twenty one year old Murtagh McAstocker had died of gunshot wounds inflicted on Saturday 24th September, 1921 on the lower Newtownards Road. He was a volunteer in B.Company, 2nd Battalion based in the Short Strand/Ballymacarrett areas. His funeral took place to Milltown on Tuesday 27th September 1921, and was one of the largest funerals to come out of that district during those troubled years. I.R.A. volunteers of his own company and also of C.Company from the neighbouring Market area, marched behind the hearse as a vast throng of people not only from Short Strand but other Nationalist districts followed the funeral. The British military with armoured cars zig zagged to and fro through the ranks trying to break up the formation, but the men always reformed and kept marching on until the armoured cars desisted in their efforts. When passing through the centre of the city and before it reached the cemetery there were two battalions marching. At the graveside, buglers sounded the Last Post and three volleys were fired over the coffin. There is a memorial window in memory of Murtagh McAstocker in St Matthews church, Ballymacarrett, the only memorial window to be found in a Catholic church in Belfast for an I.R.A. member.
Another Ballymacarrett man is to be found buried with a ‘red hand grave’, Sean Martin of Anderson Street, Short Strand. He was killed in April 1940 during a lecture on arms and a Millis hand grenade in a small terrace house in Anderson Street. In the course of the lecture Sean, who was giving the instruction, had dismantled the grenade, and was putting it together again. The detonator which he was using was thought to have been a dud one. In demonstrating how to throw the grenade, he pulled out the pin and released the lever. Hearing the hissing sound of the fuse he realised that the detonator was live and that the grenade was about to explode. He rushed to the window with the intention of throwing it out on to the street, but some children were playing outside. In the few seconds left to him, Sean had to make that terrible choice; shouting to the others to get out of the house - he pulled the grenade into himself with his two hands and leaned over the kitchen table with the grenade covered by his whole body. The device exploded and blew him right across the kitchen, killing him instantly. All the others escaped uninjured. In Milltown he rests with a Celtic Cross adorned with a red hand. The epitaph in Gaelic reads:- “Gradh nios fearr nirabh agduine na a bheo a thabhairt” which translated means:- “Greater love than this hath no man, than that he lay down his life for his friends...”
Close by to the grave of Sean Martin is a large Celtic Cross which as with other Celtic headstones was erected by the National Graves Association, this one being being to the memory of Ardoyne man Sean MacCaughey.. His death came as a result of a hunger and thirst strike in Portlaoise Prison on the 11th of May 1946. Sean had already spent five years ‘on the blanket’ having had a death sentence commuted to one of penal servitude for life by a Free State military court following a country wide protest against what was considered a harsh sentence for a trivial offence. Thousands of people lined the route as his remains were first brought to Dublin, and then to Belfast for the funeral mass in Holy Cross Church, Ardoyne on Monday 13th May, 1946. Thousands lined the route that morning as the cortege travelled from Ardoyne to Milltown for burial. Sean was a keen GaelGeoir, and the inscription on his monument is in Irish. A plaque placed on the grave by his old comrades of the Northern Command in 1963 reads:-
Splendid and Holy causes are served by men who are themselves Splendid and Holy
Erected by his comrades
Belfast Battalion, Northern Command I.R.A.
There are many other Republicans buried throughout the cemetery, well known names in the annals of Republican history who, after a lifetime of struggle, died of old age. Men such as Jimmy Steele, Albert Price, Jo McGurk, Hugh McAteer, Liam Burke, Paddy Nash, Jim Johnstone, Billy Murray, Patsy Hicks, Anthony Lavery, the Matthews brothers, John O’Rawe, Frank Duffy, and many more men and women who dedicated themselves to the cause of Irish freedom.