Belfast, once the home town of Francis Biggar, Irish Nationalist of Protestant persuasion, historian, antiquarian, archaeologist and writer, has interested me ever since I first visited that city 42 years ago. I well remember the cultural shock of walking around the deserted streets of the North’s capital on a Sunday morning when sabbatical observance meant that all activities, cultural, social or commercial, were barred on the Lord’s day. The drabness and dreariness of that Sunday has never left me and until recently had always marked my memories of Belfast city.
Biggar interested me after I came across a report of his presenting an Irish poplin flag bearing the ancient arms of the Borough of Athy to Athy’s Pipers band in 1917. A Presbyterian who did not follow his co-religious in matters of political allegiances, Biggar actively supported, and indeed initiated, Irish Feiseanna in his native city, as well as encouraging the development of the Irish language. The legacy of those days was to be found on my recent visit to the Falls Road in Belfast where Cultúrlann McAdam O’Fiaich is a visible reminder of the Gaeltacht quarter which embraces part of the Falls Road area. This Irish cultural oasis is not far from the city centre and adjoins the peace wall which separates the divided communities of the Shankill and the Falls Road. Located in what was once a Presbyterian Church Cultúrlann is named after Roibeard McAdam, a Presbyterian who in 19th century Belfast led an Irish language revival. It also recalls the late Cardinal Thomas O’Fiaich. Gael Scoils are very much an important part of education for children in this part of the Falls Road and the result of that was very evident in the bilingual abilities of the Centre staff. The Centre had a limited range of books on Irish history and a somewhat more comprehensive holding of Irish language books. A restaurant staffed by bilingual waitresses, all from the local area, provide welcoming sustenance while the hall in the centre caters for cultural events which on the evening I was there featured a choir from Donegal.
Further down the Falls Road as I retraced my steps heading towards the centre of Belfast I found the Sinn Fein office. Throughout the Falls Road area murals decorate gable ends of houses and walls in a display of Nationalist fervour to match the Loyalists of the Shankill area. The Sinn Fein office screens visitors before admission, no doubt a necessary precaution giving the killing of three local men on these very premises in 1992. The material on sale in the Sinn Fein shops includes an array of presumably locally produced pamphlets which in terms of content and production are not always of the best quality. However, insofar as they give accounts of local events and individuals from a Nationalist perspective which might not otherwise be recorded, they are a useful addition to the literature of the Northern Ireland troubles.
From there I went to the Irish Republican Museum. This is located behind a disused mill in a building which once served as the Mill Workers Social Club. It provides a unique insight, understandably from a Republican perspective, into the Nationalist struggle in Belfast. An interesting exhibit for me was a religious picture which was damaged by gunfire during the atrocious attack on the McMahon family pub in Belfast in April 1922. Even in the history of the vicious Belfast troubles of 1920-22 the shooting of the McMahons and their colleague stood out as the most brutal assassination of that time. The attack on a Catholic family home ended in the killing of Owen McMahon, four of his sons and his bar manager.
The Museum which opens for a few hours each day is curated by a most helpful man whose name unfortunately I did not note. I learned later that he was the husband of the late Eileen Hickey who was responsible for starting the Museum before she died three years ago. She had been the leader of the Republican women imprisoned in Armagh Jail between 1973 and 1977 and the Republican Museum has replicated an Armagh jail cell using a cell door from the now demolished jail. The Museum curator took particular pride in showing me the cell which contained many items used by female prisoners 30 years ago. I was not to know until long afterwards that he was showing me a cell similar to that in which his late wife had spent some years incarcerated and that the items he showed me probably once belonged to her. The Museum is an impressive place to visit and includes a library with computer facilities for anyone wishing to undergo research.
The Falls Road visit was followed by an early morning visit on the following day to the Shankill Road. Getting off the bus at the Co-op I walked up the Shankill which was festooned with Union Jacks and Red Hand of Ulster flags, while wall murals were again a very visible indication of the politics of the area. King Billy, the Battle of the Boyne and Loyalist victims of the more recent period of Northern Ireland violence were recorded on gable walls in a colourful display of Loyalist pride.
I sought out a Loyalist Centre where one might expect to find books and emphera highlighting the Loyalist version of events in Northern Ireland. Again as in the earlier mentioned Sinn Fein Centre the printed material was not of the highest quality but nevertheless of some interest. What surprised me was the vast array of compact disc and DVD’s devoted to Loyalists and Apprentice Boys parades, orange ballads and such like. My southern accent elicited some surprise, while at the same time prompted a virtual torrent of information on the history of events in Northern Ireland as observed from a Loyalist viewpoint. I was reminded of the importance of the marching tradition to the Shankill folk and how they regard the so called peace wall (which must be at least 25 ft. high steel and wire fencing) as a necessary safeguard for the preservation of peace.
Following my morning walkabout on the Shankill Road I travelled across the city to the Newtonards Road. Another Loyalist area, its Loyalist profile was obvious in a display of Union Jacks, wall murals and memorial gardens where Loyalists killed during the troubles are remembered. The Union Jack shop is well known throughout Belfast and I visited it in my continuing quest to see and hear both sides of a centuries old problem. Flags, compact discs, DVDs, Loyalist emphera and pamphlets were the mainstay of the Union Jack shop where conversation involving this Southern did not seem to be a wise option given the burly tattooed individuals who seemed to use the place as a drop-in centre.
Strangely in the confined space of this Union Jack shop I felt an unease which at no time I experienced in either the Shankill or the Falls Roads. Maybe the bold statement inherent in the shop title ‘The Union Jack’ made me uneasy but more likely it was the tattooed muscles, so reminiscent of Johnny Adair types, which made me realise that the sedentary lifestyle I enjoyed for so long is not sufficient preparation for a test of self preservation. I withdrew, but not before purchasing a few Loyalists pamphlets.
West Belfast tourism has produced an extremely interesting map of Republican wall murals. These murals are part of the political and cultural history of Belfast and provide visitors and locals alike with an open air art gallery which enhances and certainly brightens up the streetscape. I did not come across a map of the Loyalist wall murals. On the Falls Road there were several excellent examples of this unique Belfast public art, with Irish fiddler Sean Maguire figuring in a splendid tribute, while not far from the Sinn Fein offices is a very extensive mural documenting the Belfast Dockers and Carters strike of 1907. The Labour leader Jim Larkin, who organised the local carters and dockers, led them in that strike. Troops were brought onto the Falls Road and in the resulting conflict two people were killed and several more injured. The Falls Road community never forgot the events of that time which are now captured in quite a unique wall mural.
Belfast is a welcoming city. On occasions in the past I have used the facilities at the Linen Hall Library in the centre of the city and the Public Record Office on its outskirts and found the officials and staff in these repositories extremely helpful. Everywhere one goes in the heart of Belfast, and until last week’s visit the city centre was generally my base, I found nothing but courtesy and assistance readily available. It’s a city worth visiting, not least to see for oneself the Republican and Loyalist areas of a city whose history Francis Biggar for so long tried to document as a romanticised version of Ireland’s past.