There is still a bush in the Friar’s Bush graveyard, an old reclining hawthorn Crataegus monogyna at the end of the path into the graveyard.
This ancient burial ground, with its distinctive entrance building now being renovated, is next to the Ulster Museum in Stranmillis Road. Now disused, the graveyard served the Catholic population of Belfast until the opening of the city cemetery off the Falls Road.
The history of the Friar’s Bush goes back to the earliest days of Christianity in Ireland, and possibly before that, since there is a mound in the graveyard believed to be of Neolithic age. It was not unusual for pagan ‘holy’ sites to be adopted for Christian teaching, and there is a tradition of worship at the Friar’s Bush site back to the days of St. Patrick.
The bush gets its name from tale of a friar who used to say mass at this site -then well outside the city boundary – in the days of the Penal Laws when mass had to be celebrated in secret. One Winter Sunday, he died suddenly (perhaps murdered) and was buried on the spot. A stone marked his grave, near the thorn bush where he preached.
The size of the grave yard was increased by a gift of extra land from the Marquis of Donegall who also built the gate lodge and wall. The space was needed – use of the site for burials continued, notably with a mass grave known as the ‘plaguey hill’ for victims of the 1830s cholera epidemic. This was re-opened in 1847 for victims of the famine and associated typhus fever.
Mass was celebrated by the bush or thorn tree until relaxation of the Penal Laws and the opening of Catholic churches in Belfast. The old thorn today may well bow down under the weight of its history.