Legal acts dating back to the 1860s and the 1870s mean that Fermanagh and Omagh District Council has been compelled to take full responsibility for the safety and maintenance of 42 ancient graveyards in the district area.

The matter was discussed at a recent meeting of the Environmental Services Committee of the Council, held at the Grange Omagh where it was revealed that many of these ancient sites are located on the private property of individuals.

During a lively debate it also emerged that the Council may have legal responsibility for other ancient graveyards, including a famine graveyard in Enniskillen while there were also claims made that another ancient graveyard had been “bulldozed” in the recent works undertaken at the site of the old Erne Hospital.

In a paper produced by the Council on the issue it stated: “Legal opinion has confirmed that the Council is responsible for Ancient Cemeteries as listed in the ‘Schedule of burial grounds vested by commissioners of Church of Ireland (C of I)’ Irish Church Act 1869 and The Public Health (Ireland) Act 1878 within the schedule of vested burial grounds.”

Head of Parks and Open Spaces, Stephen Forrest, explained to the meeting that “historically” the Council had carried out “minor works” and that this had a budget of £50,000 per year. He said that there were challenges that the Council now faced, specifically to the health and safety of visitors and council staff who visit the site. He also said that there was a historical value to the sites and that the Council would have to work with the Historical Environment Department to ensure that any work carried out complied with regulations and safeguarded the sites and their unique heritage for the future.

UUP Councillor Howard Thornton raised the issue of the scope of power that the HED had in terms of compelling the Council to carry out works to the ancient graveyards. Referring to the paper compiled by the Council he said: “What it actually says is that they (HED) will carry out inspections and advise the owner, what my concern is that they will advise us to do the work rather than the owner. And is it advice or is it a necessity? Because normally it is a necessity when coming from this outfit.”

It was agreed by the Council that an invite be made to the HED to come and make a presentation to Councillors on the finer detail.

Sinn Fein Councillor Anthony Feeley asked a question regarding liability in the event of an accident at one of these sites with Mr. Forrest replying: “I can’t really answer. I would not like to be in a position if an accident did happen. All the legal advice does suggest that they would come after us.”

Independent Labour Councillor for Enniskillen, Donal O’Cofaigh, raised the issue of graveyards that were not on the list of 42: “I don’t see the famine graveyard in Enniskillen on the list. There are concerns around that, it has had people riding around in quads on it recently and it has had a dog buried on it recently too. It is in a state of disrepair and is a massive insult to the people who are buried there,” he said.

Councillor O’Cofaigh went on to claim at the meeting that another ancient graveyard in Enniskillen had been “bulldozed” during recent works.

“There is also a large body of evidence of a graveyard at the site of the old Enniskillen hospital which appears to have been bulldozed in the last few years and I’m wondering why we did not look after that as there is clear evidence of people being buried there from 1847 to 1943.”

Mr. Forrest said he was unaware of a graveyard on the old Erne Hospital site and that in relation to the famine graveyard that this issue would have to be dealt with separately as it may come under the ownership of the Housing Executive. Chairman of the Committee, Sinn Fein’s Barry McElduff, rounded up the debate by saying: “I know we will be returning to talk a lot more about this.”