Scores of children in one of Belfast’s Protestant heartlands have been learning about their neighbourhood’s history as part of a summer scheme.
The pre-teens had been taking part in a week-long string of activities on the Shankill Road to keep them busy during the holidays, and help stimulate them before they enter “big school”.
Last Thursday comedienne Nuala McKeever gave a talk to the children, and the week’s activities culminated in a gathering featuring fire-jugglers, BMX stunt bikes and stilt walkers at the Spectrum Centre on Friday.
But at the start of the week they had been reading a small, newly-produced workbook called ‘Exploring Shankill History’, as well as going on a tour of the area.
Even for some of the adults, it has been a learning experience, said one, and a knock-on effect would hopefully be to steer children away from the kind of fruitless violence seen in the north Belfast area earlier this month.
Nicola Verner, 37 and from the Shankill area herself, said that the book asked questions such as what the area’s memorials commemorate, or about the history of its buildings.
For instance, it teaches that the Shankill library had formally housed artefacts including an ancient Egyptian mummy, and that St Matthew’s Church – when viewed from the air – has actually been constructed in the shape of a giant shamrock.
“There are adults that don’t know that, who have walked past St Matthew’s every day of their lives,” she said.
“I went to Shankill Road library when I was a kid, and I didn’t realise it had an Egyptian mummy in it or that it housed an exhibition gallery.”
Eighty 12-year-olds involved in the scheme have also been doing IT, maths and English workshops at the Spectrum Centre since Monday to keep them sharp before going to secondary school.
The edge of the lower Shankill was the scene of serious rioting a fortnight ago, with vehicles left burnt out and smouldering in the middle of the road.
Mrs Verner said: “If children are left to their own devices, not engaged all summer... it’s very easy to get pulled into any kind of street violence or interface violence going on.”
She added: “If, first and foremost, they value themselves and the opportunities put in front of them, hopefully they think twice about putting that at risk – in whatever shape or form.”
The Integrated Services for Children and Young People Project, run by the Greater Shankill Partnership, has been funded by the Department of Education to the tune of roughly £20,000.