Belfast Born Bred And Buttered.
“Oh yes, you can take the person out of Belfast, but you can
not take Belfast out of the person, it is etched in their souls”
I was born, 30th January, 1944 at the City Hospital, Belfast, which was then called “The Union”, reminiscent of the then not so long gone, dark days when this was the site of the “Work House”, which often housed hundreds of poor and destitute people. Many in living memory will recall that during the ‘Hungry 1930’s’ the work house was in full swing. For all that there was certain grandeur, if you were a Catholic child, about being born in the Union. You were born in the then most affluent Belfast Catholic parish, St. Bridget’s, Malone Road, and as was the then norm, every Catholic child, born in the Union, was baptised soon after birth by a visiting priest from St. Bridget’s, and so the child’s birth would be registered at that Chapel. And to this day the first official recording of such a child’s arrival on God’s earth rests in a huge book among the swanks of our native City, but that was about as close as most kids would get to the Malone. I was taken home to our home of that time, a second floor tenement in the old ’Scotch Quarters’ in Carrick Hill, our gable wall window apparently over looked the old Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, in Donegall Street, which was at that time occupied as a Barracks by the American Army, this being during the last world war. A time when streets of houses were levelled to the ground by German air-raids and in one particular raid, May 1941, 1,000 people were killed.
A story my mother liked to relate was, due to me being so swarthy, while I sat in a pram she was pushing, she was asked one day by a passing black American soldier, “is the baby one of ours?”, I can still see the laughter on her face to this day as she told that story. The Carrick Hill tenements, more commonly called ‘rooms’, would have been quite cramped but housing was scarce in Belfast at that time when I had 4 older sisters and three brothers, after me twin brothers and two more sisters were to arrive, 12 children in all and my mother would joke she found us all, one by one, ‘under a gooseberry bush’. Most of us, as was the tradition then, were named after Aunts, Uncles or Grandparents, starting with the eldest, there was, Bridget, Patricia, Elizabeth, Richard, Annie, Patrick. Hughie, Joseph, Myrtle, Brian, Noel, and Geraldine. No doubt the name with the oldest genealogical link was Elizabeth or Betty as we call her. Betty was named after our Grandmother who was named after her great Grandmother, Elizabeth Graham, of Grahamstown, Glenwherry. “Grahamstown”, which came into being in 1637, disappeared in the town land shake up of 1970 when the Post Office decided to drop a lot of the ancient townland names from the postal address system, it just became Glenwherry.
The war ended a year later in 1945, and on the Westcircular Road a military camp there, used to house anti air-raid gunners closed with the return to barracks, or demobbing, of the soldiers. This afforded an opportunity to many families, like my own, to improve their housing conditions, but it meant squatting in the village like army camp. The camp consisted mainly of ’Andersons Shelters’ metal rounded type buildings, but right at the back of those were two brick built, semi detached, bungalow type buildings used to house the officers. These were officially to be later known as 34, 35, 36 and 37 Westcircular Road Huts, we moved into number 37, the Barnes, Trainor and McNulty families moved into the other three brick buildings, thirty three families, of mixed religions, moved into the other Andersons Shelters. This ’squatting’ did not go down well with the City Hall who had earmarked the camp for demolition. The parents organised themselves into a committee and marched on the City Hall and demanding that the ‘Huts’ be modified and utilised as temporary family homes and the families be given rent books. Eventually the City Hall gave in and the ‘camp’ became temporary housing. I haven’t a lot of memories of the ‘Huts’, but one always stays with me, the nights when hundreds of Shankill Road and Woodvale men came and fired catapults and air guns across the Forth River at the people of the ‘huts’ and chanted “Fenian’s Out”, which was more the “in” word than “Taigs” to describe Catholics back then, and yet, about half the Hut people were protestants. Even back then in Belfast the ugly face of sectarianism was never too far away.
In 1949 I began attending St. John’s School, at Colinward Street on the Springfield Road and it was there for the first time I met the legendry schoolmaster Michael McLaverty Insert who was to teach me through all my school years, first at St John’s and later at St. Thomas’s Secondary on the Whiterock Road. Michael McLaverty, or “Mickey”, as we kids called him, behind his back of course, was a great man, great teacher and humanist.
St. John’s School was built in 1910 to help facilitate the ever growing amount of boys and girls in the St. Paul’s Parish and to alleviate over-crowding at St Paul’s and St. Gall’s Schools. At the time it was built a pattern was developing which indicated that the Springfield Road, going country wards, would soon be greatly peopled by Catholics over spilling from the already densely populated Falls area. It became apparent that these new residents would soon envelope the old Village of Springfield and that’s where the problems began. It must have become clear to the Catholic authorities that there would be total opposition to a Catholic Chapel ever being built near St John’s School which would have naturally took place due to the tradition of building a Chapel near a school or vice versa. So this left St. John’s School marooned from St. John’s Chapel which was built further up the Falls Road at St. James, in 1928, instead of close to the school of its name as in the case of St. Patrick’s, St. Paul’s, Holy Cross, etc. To further confuse matters, in 1933 when they built the parish school to St John’s Church they called it St Kevin’s School for another St. John’s School would have been confusing. All this from that message from the Springfield Village unionists, “Thus far and no further.”, so we now had a parish school with no Parish church, and a parish school, St Kevin’s misnamed. Even today the proposal of a Catholic Chapel on the ‘mid Springfield Road would generate, to say the least, very heated debate.
In 1920 the area around the old village, where Workman’s Avenue is today, was almost totally Protestant, perhaps with the exceptions of a few Catholic R.I.C (police) men and their families. St John’s school was built very close to the massive James Mackie’s Foundry , a firm not known for its liberal employment of Catholic men, By the 1950’s many Catholics had moved into the area indeed in the late 1950’s the Rev. Ian Paisley would appear outside Mackie’s factory at Forfar Street and hold gospel sessions during the lunch breaks, even in the 1950’s, a period that some refer to as peaceful times, religious and political differences were very obvious, it was an extra-ordinary ‘peace ’.
It has often been joked that you could always know a Protestant because his eyes were closer together than a Catholic, but believe it or not it was easy to recognise the difference on the Springfield Road of my childhood at ’mid day, for when the Angelus Bells rang out passers-by would make the sign of the cross, men would remove their caps, kids would cease their noisy games for a few minutes, and lips moved in silent prayer, these were Catholics.. and there were people who didn’t seem to hear the bells, no hats removed, no moving lips, and their children carried on whooping and playing, these were Protestants, this was ‘peaceful’’ Belfast.
Images of our differences were never far away, during the month of July, the nearby streets of ‘Poet’s Corner’, Tennyson, Ruskin, Ainsworth, Whitmore street, were all colourfully bedecked with Union Jack flags, whilst in other nearby streets none flew. This was the time of the year Catholics referred to as ‘The Mad Month’, while Protestants breasts swelled with pride and spoke of the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ and relived battles past and victorious. They need not to have harkened back to 1690 but to battles fought on the Springfield Road only thirty years earlier which would have been more vivid in the minds of local Catholic people who had witnessed murderous attacks on their co-religionists. Of course I am writing in hindsight, but without such hindsight how could I ever begin to understand unexplainable images that I witnessed as a child in that complicated ‘peaceful’ Belfast. A coldness from that adult, a warmth from this one, a smile of approval from another adult, a fleeting look of indifference from that one… what did they mean.?
Today those images hold no mystery to me, but I feel a sense of sadness that some adult people back then could not curb their sectarian hatred and bigotry even in the presence of children, they squandered their tomorrows for a cheap ‘dig’ at innocent children, using children’s minds as a blackboard on which to chalk their scribbles of intolerance and hatred.
I was five years old, when I began to attend St. John’s and spent the first year in Mrs McCarthy’s ‘Infant Class’, looking back she seemed an older lady, but she must have been quite a young woman at the time for I understand she was still teaching up to just a few years ago. I have little memories of this class, the fact that I have no bad ones says a lot for Mrs McCarthy.
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