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Tombs with a view Cemetery worker brings departed back to life in global first with virtual tours of graveyard

Belfast's Dara Barrett has already got customers on Zoom from the US, Scandinavia, Holland and Spain who have been fascinated by the Troubles and the Titanic

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Dara Barrett has had people from all over the world connect.

Dara Barrett has had people from all over the world connect.

Dara Barrett has had people from all over the world connect.

Dara Barrett is taking people from all over the world to visit the dead and they don't even have to leave home.

The Belfast cemetery worker is bringing the dearly departed back to life in a global first with virtual tours of the City Cemetery.

He's already got customers on Zoom from the US, Scandinavia, Holland and Spain who have been fascinated by the Troubles and the Titanic.

And he says the passion for genealogy sparked by shows like Who Do You Think You Are is fuelling the public's desire to find their roots from as far as Australia.

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Grave of the first Titanic victim.

Grave of the first Titanic victim.

Grave of the first Titanic victim.

 

The Memory Lane Tours guide says it's taken years to build up footage of famous graves to allow virtual tourists to connect, and it all started with his curiosity and the flag protests.

"I was a manager in Milltown Cemetery for five years, which at the time, had a high profile for all the wrong reasons. It was all overgrown, and when I cleared around graves people would ask who was in them, and I'd say I don't know but I'll find out.

"Then I was doing the bus tours of Belfast with all the cruise ship passengers. When the flag protests started in 2012 the tours stopped, so we put a camera on the bus and recorded all the footage."

He took the recordings into nursing homes to show elderly residents and after a move to the City Cemetery nine years ago as an administrator, the ­North's Housing Executive asked him to take his scripts and footage around schools and cross-community groups.

He ­discovered when Covid hit that they had enough material for a virtual tour which could be booked from anywhere in the world.

"In some ways ­Covid has been a ­blessing to us," says Dara, who still works part-time in the cemetery.

"Our tourist season is short, from March to October, and on a walking tour you might have 15 people.

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"With Zoom and Teams, you can talk to people in America, Europe, anywhere.

"It's taken a year or two to get where we are and no one else is doing virtual cemetery tours. You could go to Madrid or Berlin and see the same tour buses, but everything is virtual now and we're the only people doing this," says the 51-year-old.

The virtual visitors have the same fascination with Northern Ireland's history as the tourists who turn up in person, and he can take them to the first victim of the Titanic and explain how the cemetery has the first peace wall.

"Samuel Joseph Scott was the first ­Titanic victim. He was a catch boy for a riveting squad who fell from scaffolding in 1910 and died a few days later. He lay in an unmarked grave for 100 years," says Dara.

"I knew about the underground wall before I started working here and I thought it was the Presbyterians who put it there, but it was the Catholic Church.

"The Bishop in the Down and Connor diocese insisted Catholics and Protestants should be separated by an underground wall the depth of a grave, and there was no way unbaptised children, prostitutes or convicts were going on his side of the wall."

He can tell digital day-trippers about people like Jack Peden, the George Best of the 19th century who played for Newton Heath, which became Manchester United, scored a hat trick for Ireland against Wales, and founded Linfield.

Dara is also well acquainted with the darker history of the graveyard, the poor ground in Bog Meadows where remains were put into mass graves.

"You shudder to think how differently people were treated in burial rites. A poor ground grave was a big hole with a door that was pulled over when it was full."

"This is like an open-air museum and we're doing our best to let the world see it," says Dara.

roisin.gorman@sundayworld.com

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