Bringing dignity back to the graveyard

Just some of the many volunteers who have been helping restore the Dougher Cemetery
Just some of the many volunteers who have been helping restore the Dougher Cemetery
  • The site was the location of the first Catholic Church in Lurgan
  • The site of the first Church, then school became the first Catholic burial ground in Lurgan in 1877
  • Funds are needed to help restore the Dougher graveyard

Overgrown and aching with neglect, the Dougher Cemetery has galvanised a Lurgan community to restore it to its former glory.

It is one of the oldest burial sites in Lurgan though over decades it has been neglected and many historical monuments have been lost to vandalism.

Dougher Cemetery Statue before restoration

Dougher Cemetery Statue before restoration

Over the past few months, a number of volunteers have formed a committee and have begun the task of removing overgrowth and restoring many of the plots at their own expense.

Specialist advice has been sought and the correct materials were then obtained for the project.

Within the past few months the change to the site has been amazing, though so much more work is still required, and the committee feel that funding will be required to see this historical site brought back to its former glory.

The site was the location of the first Catholic Church in Lurgan, it was a disused wood mill. It later became the site of the first Catholic girl’s school in the town. It became a burial site in the mid-19th century.

I have never witnessed such a community spirited venture in over 40 years of involvement in such projects

Jim McIlmurray

Today so many visit the site seeking information on their families interred there.

Local historian and volunteer Jim McIlmurray said: “We are compiling the records as well as making the area accessible. The importance to the community is immeasurable. If this site isn’t restored within the next decade, it will fall into decay and be lost to the community.”

This project not only preserves an area of great historical interest, it provides the community with an area to visit and source genealogy.

“Many of us agree it will become an area listed among our sites of historical interest. The residents living in the immediate area are embracing the project as not only has it become an eyesore, it has encouraged anti-social behaviour, and it poses a health risk as vermin will in time infest it,” Jim said.

Dougher Cemetery statue after restoration

Dougher Cemetery statue after restoration

A visit to the site any afternoon or evening will see numerous small groups restoring plots and memorials. “The social aspect speaks for itself. I have never witnessed such a community spirited venture in over 40 years of involvement in such projects,” said Jim.

“Craigavon is currently attempting to promote the area and its sites of historical interest. Our project will preserve, heritage, culture and provide a site steeped in historical memorials which will be maintained for future generations.

“We have a number of volunteers and this number is growing by the day. Their role will be to work under professional guidance and their role will be to restore headstones, pathways and general maintenance. Those involved come from all walks of life and aged between 20 and 70 plus. Their tasks will involve making pathways accessible, removal of overgrowth, application of specialist materials all under qualified supervision.”

The site is owned by St Peter’s Parish and they have embraced the community’s involvement in restoring the graveyard.

Sheena Spence and Caroline Conway who are helping to restore the Dougher Cemetery

Sheena Spence and Caroline Conway who are helping to restore the Dougher Cemetery

The Dougher Cemetery is of major historical importance to Lurgan. Oddly there is very little documented history of the Dougher Valley, despite being an area steeped in history. Many families in Lurgan have at least one member resting in that graveyard.

It was the site of the Dougher Valley wood mill which produced almost all of the timbers used to construct the earliest buildings in Lurgan.

“It was also an area of dwelling houses, among records I found one such resident, a Thomas Thwayte, who died in the Dougher Valley in 1676 and was buried in Lynastown,” Jim said. It housed a large water wheel which was the power source for the cutting saws and planes.

It became the site of the first Catholic Church in Lurgan around 1800, the old wood mill cutting shed to be precise. A large commemorative stone was erected on the site of the original altar in the 19th century and still stands there today. It reads “This Cross marks the site of the Altar of the old Parish Church of Shankill, and was solemnly blessed and indulgenced at the end of the Mission given by the Passionist Fathers in June 1877.”

In 1829, probably as a response to the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, Charles Brownlow granted an appropriate site in Back Lane (North Street) to the Very Reverend William O’Brien, Parish Priest, for the erection of a parish church. Work on the new St Peter’s Church got underway the following year.

Alex Richmond’s Map of Lurgan, 1832, shows two Catholic Churches close together, one in Dougher, and one in the Back Lane

Two of the volunteers  Ronnie Mooney and Gerard Totton helping to clear the overgrowth at the Dougher Cemetery

Two of the volunteers Ronnie Mooney and Gerard Totton helping to clear the overgrowth at the Dougher Cemetery

(North Street). This new church was opened in 1833, and was dedicated to St Peter on September 1st 1833 by the Most Reverend Dr Blake, Bishop of Dromore. The old church in the Dougher Valley became Lurgan’s first Catholic School. Reverend Michael McConville and the other teachers who started the school would later be buried and remembered in the Dougher as a cemetery some years later. Their stones can be found on the Wall at the side of the old main gates.

A new school was built in the Back Lane beside St, Peter’s church during the time the church was being enlarged in the mid-19th century.

The site of the first Church, then school became the first Catholic burial ground in Lurgan in 1877.

The wealthier Catholic residents of Lurgan erected imposing headstones, the poor, and there was many, erected simple wooden crosses, these perished in time, hence most of the earliest inhabitants of Lurgan lie in unmarked graves.

There is an unofficial grave by grave record of the Dougher Cemetery that was carried out in 1978, and a high number of graves recorded then, have since become unrecognisable and overgrown.

The Dougher closed to burials a few decades ago, but occasionally family plots are opened at request. Some may recall funerals from St,Peter’s church crossing the railway lines at Kilmaine Street on route to the Dougher by means of a railway crossing and gates beside the foot bridge.

There are many buried in the railway bank, children who died before they were baptised, those who took their own lives, and those living on the roads including many deemed insane, suffering from mental illness. These graves were never marked as the Catholic Church did not deem them fit to be interred with ecclesiastical rites in consecrated ground. Hundreds are buried in the railway bank.

The late Frankie Griffin undertook the restoration of the over grown cemetery in the late 1970s. Soon after the concrete paths were laid.

Much of the centuries-old cemetery has fallen into disarray, with thick patches of weeds, and half-toppled headstones. It was vandalised by children about ten years ago during a day of destruction in which a number of headstones were toppled over, damaging them beyond repair. As an area of important historical interest, it is deserving of restoration and known graves, again marked. This is a major undertaking, a project well worth the effort and has certainly calvanised the entire community.

Funds are needed and already some have donated their skills and expertise for free. North Lurgan Community Action group has helped out. Dwyer McKerr, who is part of that group, and who works for Interface revealed the firm told him they wish to donate funding to the Dougher group as part of an interactive community project.

Jim McIlmurray helping to clean a Celtic Cross grave stone at the Dougher Graveyard

Jim McIlmurray helping to clean a Celtic Cross grave stone at the Dougher Graveyard

Dougher Graveyard Celtic Cross before restoration

Dougher Graveyard Celtic Cross before restoration

Dougher Cemetery Celtic Cross after restoration

Dougher Cemetery Celtic Cross after restoration

Alice McCarron and Jim McIlmurray in the Dougher Graveyard at  the Original Altar Stone dedicated in 1877

Alice McCarron and Jim McIlmurray in the Dougher Graveyard at the Original Altar Stone dedicated in 1877