On the morning of my visit, Easter Monday, Belfast’s City Cemetery was pleasantly warm. Rats scurried through the forget-me-nots and a police helicopter hovered above the trees. A woman sat with her back against the headstone of her mother and sister, taking in the sun. She used to play in the cemetery as a child, she explained, back in the sixties and seventies, and now here she was, visiting the grave of her playmate and the woman who called them in for tea.
I was finding this a lot in Ireland, this casual way with the dead. As a Scot, it was alien to me. That someone might pop into a graveyard, as if for a cuppa, and spend time nattering with a parent or sibling or poor lost child – I hadn’t grown up with that sort of thing, but I liked it a lot.
I had been reading an English translation of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s novel, Cré na Cille, a book told entirely through the voices of the dead – a coffin cacophony – as they gab and gob, blether and curse, beneath the sod of a Connemara churchyard. At first, I had found the book strange and difficult, but now, in Ireland for Easter, it made sense that the departed would talk to each other and to us. My own book, the one I was writing, began to shift and settle in my head; it would be, I realised, a sort of conversation between the living and dead.
A Tomb With A View, my book about churchyards, cemeteries and other burial grounds, emerged from a lifelong fascination with such places. “I grew up in graveyards,” are the first words in the book. As a child, I loved to play in the Old Town Cemetery in Stirling. I would wander among the headstones, black with smoke and time, carved with hourglasses and scythes, poking soft fingers into the sockets of stone skulls. I learned to read, in part, by sounding unfamiliar words: Unto, Remembrance, Evermore. Later, I wondered about the lives behind the names: Stirling’s merchants and craftsmen of the 18th and 19th century. Who were they? How did they live and die? What was forming, back then, was the notion that graveyards are a kind of library, stories written in stone.
I have now, from my home in Glasgow, a view of the tombs. Cathcart Cemetery is on the hill behind my house. It is a large Victorian graveyard, rather tumbledown and overgrown, with lots of once-grand monuments in poor repair. When we first moved here, I took to walking in the place, treading familiarity into every step. One day I found the grave from which the book grew. It was small, made from pink granite, half hidden within a bush, and carved with these words: “Mark Sheridan, Comedian.” He had died, it said, in 1918. I had to know more.
Sheridan, it turned out, had been a music-hall star. His real name was Frederick Shaw and he came from Co Durham. A faded photograph shows a man in heavy make-up wearing bell-bottoms and an oversized bowler hat. That we all know I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside is because of the popularity of his 1909 recording. Nine years later he was dead, having taken his own life in Kelvingrove Park while on tour. “There was a bullet wound in his forehead and a Browning revolver was lying beside the body,” according to a report in the Glasgow Herald. Received wisdom has it that he was driven to suicide by bad notices for his show, but the Herald’s review on the day of his death was a good one.
I find it queer – and more than a little sad – to think of Mark Sheridan buried so far from home, beyond the sound of the silvery sea. He made me realise that there must be countless stories of that sort which one could tell. I was keen, though, that A Tomb With A View should not be a history book. It is about the life of graveyards, about how the dead live, about what these places mean to those who visit, volunteer and work in them.
This approach took me all over England and Scotland, on to the old battlefields of Belgium and France, and often brought me to Ireland, north and south. I attended the Easter parades to the republican plots in Milltown cemetery, Belfast; sought out the cilliní graves of unbaptised infants in Co Antrim; visited the mummies in the crypt of St Michan’s, Dublin.
A walk in a cemetery is a lesson in humility: we are here now to read the memorials and stroll on, but one day it may be our names with moss growing in the letters
Glasnevin Cemetery, though: I couldn’t get over the sheer swaggering drama of the place. It felt like walking on to the set of some early Hollywood epic. That made sense as I was there to learn about a star. Shane Mac Thomáis, the well-known historian and guide at Glasnevin, had died in the cemetery in 2014 and was buried there, alongside his late father Éamonn, the writer and broadcaster. I wanted to understand Shane in all his complexity, his light and darkness. I wanted to understand how the cemetery had shaped him, how he had shaped it, and how the story of each – the man and the place – had become bound and wound together the way ivy grips old stone. It was one of the privileges of my life that his family and friends agreed to speak with me.
"Faithful departed," writes James Joyce in Ulysses, in the chapter set at a funeral in Glasnevin. "As you are now so once were we." Those words were in my head throughout the writing of A Tomb With A View. A walk in a cemetery is a lesson in humility: we are here now to read the memorials and stroll on, but one day it may be our names with moss growing in the letters. Will anyone, descendant or stranger, sit on our graves in the sun and think with fondness or curiosity about who we were?
A Tomb With A View: The Stories & Glories of Graveyards is published by Headline