North Belfast Old to New

In this week’s blog Katy Allen, Community Archive Coordinator of Great Place North Belfast, discusses how this National Lottery Heritage Fund project will deliver heritage-led regeneration and allow communities to explore their own heritage:

Discussion of North Belfast typically focuses around issues of division. Today the area remains dominated by the boundaries between ‘orange and green’ and exploration of local history tends to concentrate on the violence of more recent decades, with its connotations of flashpoints and interfaces.

However, as is often the case in Northern Ireland, the violence of the Troubles is just one part of North Belfast’s long, intricate history. The Great Place Project aims to challenge modern associations by uncovering and promoting the area’s history and heritage offerings. Great Place North Belfast is just one element of a broader Heritage Lottery funded project that aims to use the social opportunities of heritage to facilitate and support regeneration across Northern Ireland.[1]

Distribution Map
‘Map of the distribution of Catholic population in Belfast from 2001 census’, CAIN. The black lines roughly denote the areas covered by the Great Place Project. (accessed November 20, 2019).

The Belfast Charitable Society has identified and brought together fifteen key local heritage sites to create the North Belfast Heritage Cluster. It is the Great Place Project’s role to support these organisations and increase public access to the sites, their archives, and their stories. As an example of increasing public access, from now until the end of March 2020 the Belfast Orange Hall will be running free public tours. For more information and how to book see our Facebook page.

To have any chance of delivering heritage-led regeneration we need to first uncover the history of each Cluster member. This means sorting through any items that are held on-site, identifying the connections between the members, and discovering whether additional sources are available elsewhere. Whilst the initial archive scoping exercise is estimated to be completed in six months, developing the archives, creating exhibition material, and increasing local engagement will be a much longer-term project.

Map showing the location of the fifteen members of the North Belfast Heritage Cluster. (Accessed November 20, 2019)

The North Belfast Heritage Cluster comprises of fifteen religious, cultural, community, and educational organisations. Here are just a selection:

Belfast Cathedral: St. Ann’s, Donegall Street. Now the resting place of Edward Carson, the Cathedral was built around the old parish church (over a period of 80 years) and is home to the ‘Spire of Hope’.

Patrick’s School, Donegall Street. Built in 1832, it was the first Catholic school in Belfast.

Patrick’s Church & Parochial House, Donegall Street. The Parochial house is the oldest inhabited building in the city.

Frederick Street Quaker Meeting House, Frederick Street. The meeting house has housed the Quakers since 1839 and charts their contribution to Belfast from 1799 to the present day.

Clifton House, Clifton Street. Home to Belfast’s oldest charity (Belfast Charitable Society was founded in 1752) and is the city’s oldest working building.

Clifton Street Cemetery, Clifton Street. The final resting place of many United Irishmen – including Henry Joy McCracken – as well as prominent local families, and victims of the Irish famine, Blitz, and Troubles.

Belfast Orange Hall, Clifton Street. It is the largest purpose-built Orange Hall worldwide and the starting point for the city’s annual 12th July parade.

Indian Community Centre, Clifton Street Established in 1981 for the growing Indian community in North Belfast.

UniTorah: Annesley Street Synagogue, Somerton Road. Former synagogue and Mikvah (ritual bath).

Malachy’s College & The O’Laverty Library, Antrim Road. Oldest Catholic grammar school in Northern Ireland (1833) – notable alumni include Eoin Mac Neill and Major John MacBride – and has strong links to Gaelic revival.

Carnegie Oldpark Library, Oldpark Road. Opened in 1906, it was one of three libraries gifted by Andrew Carnegie to the city of Belfast.

North Belfast Working Men’s Club, Danube Street. The Club was founded in 1894 as a recreational space for mill workers by the linen merchants of the day and is still operating today.

Duncairn Complex: 174 Trust, Duncairn Avenue. Incorporating the old Duncairn Presbyterian church, halls, and manse into the Duncairn Centre for Arts and Culture.

Despite the diverse range of organisations involved, our initial archive scoping has revealed that there is an abundance of shared – and often uncharted – history, demonstrating that North Belfast’s past is more intricate than residential divisions suggest.

As one example, just by looking at the members of the cluster we are able to chart patterns of immigration into the area. Starting with the Quakers in the late eighteenth century; the growing Catholic community during the nineteenth century; the Jewish community in the early twentieth century, and the Indian community in more recent years.

Images of cluster members (clockwise). The view inside St. Patrick’s Church, the Belfast Orange Hall, and Clifton Street Cemetery.

For this project, the precision of archival practice comes somewhat secondary to understanding the local history, building relationships, and ensuring each member has the practical tools they need to progress.

Whilst they operate together as a Heritage Cluster, the members have vastly different aims, priorities, and visions for the future. Some members want to create a comprehensive, catalogued archive that will be stored on-site while others simply want to understand more about the history of their building and how it has been used over the years. The challenge – and it’s no small feat – will be creating a cohesive plan of action for all fifteen Cluster members and ensuring that each organisation is satisfied with the eventual outcome.

For more information and updates on the Great Place Project in North Belfast visit our website.

[1] Elizabeth Crooke discusses the pros and cons of this approach in ‘The Politics of Community Heritage: Motivations, Authority and Control’ International Journal of Heritage Studies 16:1-2 (2010): pp.16-29.


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