The cemetery of the Protestant Cathedral at Belfast – Chesterton’s ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’

You can read ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’, with the original 1911 illustrations, here.

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR A DETECTIVE STORY PUBLISHED IN 1911

I have been a fan of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories since I was a child, but one point in ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’, a short story first published in 1911, has niggled at me for almost half a century. I was reminded of this last month when I was staying in a hotel on one side of St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, and giving two lectures at the new Ulster University campus on the other side of it, so that I walked past it four times in the space of a few hours. The passage in question comes just after the halfway point in the story when Father Brown reveals to Flambeau, his French ex-criminal friend, the current location of the broken-off part of the titular weapon.

  “I cannot prove it, even after hunting through the tombs. But I am sure of it. Let me add just one more tiny fact that tops the whole thing over. The colonel, by a strange chance, was one of the first struck by a bullet. He was struck long before the troops came to close quarters. But he saw St. Clare’s sword broken. Why was it broken? How was it broken? My friend, it was broken before the battle.”
“Oh!” said his friend with a sort of forlorn jocularity. “And pray where is the other piece?”
“I can tell you,” said the priest promptly. “In the cemetery of the Protestant Cathedral at Belfast.”
“Indeed?” inquired the other. “Did you look for it?”
“I couldn’t,” said the priest with regret. “There’s a great marble monument on top of it; a monument to the heroic Major Murray who fell fighting gloriously at the battle of the Black River.”

The reason this passage has always niggled at me is very simple. There is no cemetery at St Anne’s Cathedral, the Protestant (ie Church of Ireland) Cathedral in Belfast. In fact, only one person is buried on the cathedral’s premises at all: Edward Carson, the Unionist leader and founder of Northern Ireland. In 1911, when the story was published, he was alive and sinnin’ (he lived to 1935). St Anne’s Cathedral was devoid of tombs, inside and out, at the time when Chesterton was writing.

This is very unusual for cathedrals in Britain or Ireland, either Protestant or Catholic. Most Church of Ireland cathedrals are in ancient ecclesiastical centres which have seen better days. I did a quick check and all of the other Protestant cathedrals in Northern Ireland do have graveyards. Many big cathedrals also have many interments inside the building – St Paul’s in London has Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington; St Patrick’s in Dublin has Jonathan Swift. St Anne’s, as noted, has just the one.

But St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast is very new as cathedrals go. It serves two dioceses, Connor (which is roughly equivalent to County Antrim) and Down (which is not equivalent to County Down), each of which also has a cathedral of its own (in Lisburn and Downpatrick respectively). The foundation stone for St Anne’s was laid in 1899 and the cathedral was consecrated in 1904; this is long after the fictional battle of the Black River, which we are told was at least twenty years before 1911. It is located in a city centre site with commercial and residential buildings pressing around it. The south transept was not completed until 1974 and the north transept was not completed until 1981, when I was already a teenager.

St Anne’s Cathedral in the early 20th century. The block immediately north was cleared for the Art College in the 1960s, and the area to the southwest for Writer’s Square more recently.

Chesterton’s Major Murray, if buried in Belfast, would have been interred at the Clifton Street Cemetery if his family had a concession there, or up the Falls Road in the Belfast City Cemetery if not. Though thinking about it, it would be really unusual for even a very senior officer who had been killed in action abroad at that period to be brought back home. Looking at the 1899-1902 Boer War, the two British generals who lost their lives in the conflict, Penn Symons and Andrew Wauchope, are both still buried in South Africa.

We are told that Murray was a Presbyterian, which is unusual but not impossible. In the 1901 census, according to Barry Griffin’s data, although 88.65% of people in Ireland with the surname Murray were Catholics (like my great-grandfather), 5.24% were Anglicans (as the fictional Murray must have been to be buried in the fictional cathedral graveyard), concentrated especially around the shores of Lough Neagh with outposts that seem to be around what is now Newtownbreda and also Carrickfergus.

G.K. Chesterton had never been to any part of Ireland in 1911; he wrote a book called Irish Impressions after his first visit in 1918. (You can read it here.) He was instinctively sympathetic to Home Rule and unsympathetic to colonial wars such as the Boer War, which is clearly the basis for the fictional Brazilian war in the story – the popularity of Chesterton’s Brazilian leader Olivier with the British, years after the war had ended, must be a reference to the shift in the British attitude to the South African leader Jan Smuts at the same time.

I don’t really blame Chesterton for getting Belfast’s ecclesiastical geography wrong. The fictional British Invasion of Brazil is a much bigger invention than a graveyard in Belfast. (There was historically a dispute between Brazil and the UK about the border with what was then British Guyana, but there does not seem to have been any armed conflict and the issue was resolved by Italian arbitration in 1904.) Anyway, neither the graveyard nor the war is what the story is really about.

SPOILER FOR A STORY PUBLISHED IN 1911

The bodies of both General Sir Arthur St. Clare and the Ulsterman Major Murray were retrieved after the battle of Black River – Murray found on the field, and St. Clare hanged from a tree. But the punchline is that St. Clare was a traitor, he killed Murray (who had found out his secret) with his own sword which broke in the process, and attacked the Brazilians, despite it being certain that he would lose with many casualties, so that Murray’s body would be unnoticed in the carnage. He was then strung up by his own men after the battle when they realised what he had done. The secret was kept by the British soldiers, who allowed it to be assumed that St. Clare was lynched by the Brazilians, and the fallen general was honoured as a tragic hero.

The narrative thrust of the story is that Father Brown works out what really happened from scraps of information and his knowledge of human nature. But the point of the story is that we should be wary of spoonfed narratives by the authorities about war heroes, or indeed about anything at all. One wonders if Chesterton had any particular person in mind – Baden-Powell? But he lived. Gordon? But his body was never recovered. In any case, the point is well made.

In the 2015 TV adaptation starring Mark Williams as Father Brown, the main action takes place in the 1950s with flashbacks to Dunkirk. The tableau is shrunk from national delusion to internal (and deadly) barracks politics. It’s nicely done, but it’s longer and less interesting than the original story.

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