Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Old Belfast - The Spirits Of York Street

Belfast, Northern Ireland, York Street, Buck Alec

The Devil he came up from hell, he had a look around,
Hoping he could find some toughs, to take back underground,
He got them from the Shankill, the Falls and Sandy Row,
But down along old York Street, he was afraid to go.

Last week here in London I was looking through a copy of Kenneth Branagh's 1989 autobiography Beginning. The first chapter covered the first nine years of his life when he was growing up in the Tiger's Bay area of North Belfast. In the past month too I have got back in touch with an old schoolfriend from the very same part of the city who now lives in Queensland Australia.

Off the back of this I watched a community video last week that had been uploaded onto youtube and as regarding the nearby area of Grove Park. I knew this district from childhood and visiting the local swimming baths there every Tuesday night with my family - that was around four decades ago. In the clip some long-term local residents bewailed the scale of urban decay and in particular that afflicting the two main thoroughfares - one of which was an attractive tree-lined avenue which contained mixed communities in terms of class background through to the late Sixties and early Seventies.

The local theatre, swimming baths, cinema and greyhound stadium are now long gone - the nearby park, as mentioned in turn in Beirut hostage Brian Keenan's childhood autobiography I'll Tell Me Ma, was physically divided by steel barriers up until very recent times because of sectarian disorder between rival local youth gangs. Local businesses are literally dieing on their feet because of competition from major national superstores, community morale is terribly low and there has also been significant demolition of residential property which is conspicuously not being replaced.

Tiger's Bay and Grove Park essentially form part of the greater York Street community - a once major street that ran north east from Belfast city centre out towards South Antrim by way of its continuation on York Road and Shore Road. It lay  in parallel to the Docks area which included parts of Belfast now long extinct such as Little Italy, Sailortown and the Half Bap. Without qualification it was once one of the busiest thoroughfares in Old Belfast and contained thriving working class communities and industrial concerns.

Sinclair Seamen's church still stands however in what was once the religiously-mixed Sailortown with its unique pulpit resembling the prow of a ship and as flanked by nautical navigation lights. It was in this area in 1907 that the famous dockers  and carters' strike commenced under the leadership of Liverpool-born trade unionist James Larkin and which lead to fleeting communal unity across the city. Conversely, in 1935, the York Street area was the epicentre for much of the July rioting which left eight Protestants and five Catholics dead alongside many injured and over 2,000 mainly Catholic homes destroyed. The disturbances were catalysed by the less than ecumenical decision of Glasgow's Billy Boys loyalist band to bring their party music to the attention of the last communities on earth who wanted to hear them.

Dock Ward itself was the electoral home to two particularly well recalled populist politicians of the last century too in Harry Midgeley and Gerry Fitt. Both in turn travelled extremely unique political pathways - the Protestant Midgely and the Catholic Fitt emerging from socialist politics alike. Midgely eventually lead the pro-Union Commonwealth Labour Party before joining the Ulster Unionist Party in 1947 and held cabinet office in Stormont through to the end of his life. Fitt's career, after leaving the Social Democratic and Labour Party in the late Seventies, ended in the House of Lords and permanent residence in England.

Local industry in the area was mostly associated with Gallahers tobacco factory- where the mother of George Best worked for a period - and the York Street Spinning Mill which was destroyed during the Luftwaffe triple blitz of April and May 1941 which took so much life in North Belfast. The factory wall collapsed on the adjacent Vere Street and Sussex Street killing around 30 civilians instantaneously.

John Campbell's often very moving Saturday Night In York Street poetry collection from 1982 references other famous places and characters in the district such as Twenties loyalist paramilitary, prohibition-era American gangster associate and street fighter "Buck Alec" Robinson who would walk the streets of the area with Joy the pet lion he kept at home and with whom he wrestled in public. Robinson had returned from America to Ulster in the late Thirties as his parents wished to see him again before they died - according to one newspaper overview of his life "My Mammy and Daddy meant more to me than America".

Campbell also namechecks some of the other famous local residents such as world champion boxer from the late Forties Rinty Monaghan and the flautist James Galway - all first class York Street men with talent, strength and grit. Branagh incorporates the title poem at the start of his autobiography as mentioned earlier.

The late comedian Frank Carson was born in Little Italy while Ulster's famous comic actor James Young died in his car on the Shore Road in 1974 of a fatal heart attack. Laurel and Hardy also stayed in the long-vacant yet once prestigious Midland Hotel in York Street during a visit to the city in 1952 to play at the Grand Opera House.

In terms of local businesses the most fondly recalled by many people of middle age today would be the Belfast Co-operative Store where thousands of Belfast children would have visited Santa Claus at Christmas. Some years ago the local art college projected images of such visits from the Sixties and Seventies onto the side of the building during the holiday season.

The same store was attacked several times during the Troubles and indeed much of the animation and life of the general area would be destroyed during the same period alongside blanket demolition and redevelopment linked to motorway creation.

The Reverend Joseph Parker - whose son Stephen was killed on Bloody Friday and who was discussed in an earlier post - was the chaplain of the local Seaman's Mission in Sailortown while one of the most infamous terrorist attacks of the Troubles took place in the same area on Halloween Night in 1972 with the loyalist bombing  of Benny's Bar at Ship Street when two young Catholic girls were murdered. The poet James Simmons wrote of the atrocity:

On Hallowe'en in Ship Street
Quite close to Benny's Bar.
The children lit a bonfire
and the adults parked a car.

Sick minds sing sentimental songs
and speak in dreary prose.
And make ingenious home-made bombs
and this was one of those.

Some say it was the UVF
and some the IRA.
Blew up that pub on principle
and killed the kids at play.

They didn't mean the children
it only was the blast.
in bitter old Belfast.

The current extension of a university campus in York Street and the ongoing revitalisation of the Cathedral Quarter does provide a genuinely positive epilogue of sorts to the long dramatic history of the area and indeed there are few cities in Britain or even Europe that cannot produce a similar example of a fondly remembered city district now lost in time - from Dublin to London and from Berlin to Stockholm .

Perhaps though York Street more than most embodies the full historical spectrum of dynamics that underpin urban geographic structural change - from depopulation to suburbanisation, from world war to civil war and from deindustrialisation to globalisation. Its history spanning the days when the streets of Belfast were black with people at the crack of dawn, on the way to hard industrial labour at the docks and in the factories, and through to our current times where a national manufacturing base is seen as a mere irrelevance in the brave new world of creative industries and technological creep.

I yet suspect that the legend of Buck Alec and his transplantation of the spirit of the Serengeti to Sailortown will long outlast the current world of digital spam, teenage jargon and data mining.

In Sailortown a motorway sprawls where once tough men held sway...
where happy children used to play...
in Sailortown.


  1. Thank you for your kind words about my writing and reproducing the cover of my first collection of verse. I have continued to write about York Street and its people. The output includes two novels and some books of verse most of which can be found in any public library. Two new publications are due out towards the end of the year. Once again many thanks for your comments... Best wishes..

  2. Thank you so much for commenting John. Its been interesting with the digital revolution that a lot of themes you covered in your 1982 book are discussed more and more now on Northern Irish and Belfast internet forums - the shared social history of the working people and the sense of loss in fractured communities. "Saturday Night In York Street" was written during such dark days in Belfast and long before people from across the religious divide could look objectively at the political dynamics of industrial Belfast without rancour and in a time of peace. I was so glad to see it used in Kenneth Branagh's autobiography and also remember a quote being used too in Jonathan Bardon's Belfast history. It was a wonderful book about an incredible city and a common sense of place - SB