Rich history of the Shankill

The Shankill is one of Belfast's most historic districts'Pic : BrianThompson/Presseye
The Shankill is one of Belfast's most historic districts'Pic : BrianThompson/Presseye

It developed from Belfast’s oldest ecclesiastical site, saw heavy rioting during the Victorian era and became a centre of loyalist paramilitarism. But, as JOANNE SAVAGE discovers, there’s much more to the Shankill

IRONICALLY for a road that is famous for its connections to loyalism, always festooned with Union flags and dotted with loyalist paramilitary murals, the Shankill takes its name from the Gaelic ‘Seanchill’ meaning old church.

“This was the oldest church in the Belfast area and the first record of it dates from 1306 in the papal taxation. It was known as ecclesia alba, the white church, and at this time the Shankill paid its papal taxations to Rome,” says historian Eamon Phoenix.

“This pre-Reformation church was taken over by the Church of Ireland during the plantation and it would eventually become St Matthew’s, the unique trefoil building you see today.”

The burial ground that grew around the medieval parish church was, from the beginning, popular with the herdsmen and farmers of both traditions: Protestants were buried alongside Catholics; the headstones bore English, Irish and Scottish names. The tombstones that remain in Shankill Graveyard are testament to a rich history spanning from the medieval era through the Plantation, the Great Famine and the Industrial Revolution, which transformed Belfast from a small settlement on the banks of the Farset to a booming metropolis of linen mills and shipyards.

Given that much of the old industrial Victorian city has been swept away –the ravages of the Troubles followed by ugly redevelopment projects and economic deprivation – Phoenix sees the old graveyard as the historic heart of the Shankill, a place which signposts key moments of its past.

“Shankill Graveyard was cleared by the council in the 1950s - it had become packed, wild and overgrown. But many interesting tombstones remain today and they tell us much about the history of Shankill and of the city more broadly,” says Eamon.

“A Williamite soldier by the name of Corporal Smith was buried here in 1690 on the day that King Billy arrived in Belfast. You can see the high cost of the fever epidemic that accompanied the Great Famine in 1847. A 17-year-old called John Murdoch was buried here after being shot during bitter rioting between Protestants and Catholics in 1864.

“Then there is the grave of a man called John Brown who fought in the Crimean War at Balaclava and survived the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854. You find the graves of key figures from Victorian Belfast including, for example, the Orangeman and prominent unionist William Baird who founded the Belfast Telegraph in 1870 and Andrew McKenzie, a weaver poet from Ballywalter. The Presbyterian clergyman Isaac Nelson is also buried here - a nationalist MP at Westminster and one of Parnell’s leading supporters.”

Perhaps one of the more unusual pieces of history connected to the graveyard at Shankill is the Baullaun stone or wart stone – a remnant from the medieval site.

Superstition surrounded this stone basin and many came to believe that it provided a cure for warts. The afflicted were encouraged to put a pin in the wart and drop the pin into the basin: two days later the mystic stone allegedly left the skin unblemished.

It was moved to the grounds of St Matthews in 1911 where it remains, an odd relic of folklore.

“You had huge numbers of people dropping pins and needles into the putrid water,” adds Eamon, “the Bullaun stone was undoubtedly the holy water font of the medieval church. In the end the folk tradition became quite an affront to the Christian ethos. It’s an impressive, almost indestructible font dating back to the fourteenth century.”

The other big story in the district’s past involves the activities of the body snatchers.

Shankill Graveyard is the only graveyard in Belfast which has the remains of an old watchtower dating from the 1820s.

At this time doctors trying to advance the boundaries of medical science couldn’t easily acquire cadavers for their research because the law was such that unless you were a hanged criminal, your body could not legally be given over to medical science - affirms Phoenix.

“A breed of criminals emerged known as the Resurrection Men - body snatchers. From the 1700s on they were very active and Shankill was one of their haunts. They watched and waited for fresh graves and did their macabre work.

“So a watchtower was built to allow relatives to keep watch over the grave of their loved ones for about a week after burial. This went on until 1832 when the dissection of cadavers was legalised. Parts of the watchtower are still there today.”

Belfast historian John Gray emphasises that the Shankill was privy to sectarian rioting from the 1820s onwards: Catholics and Protestants clashed in the brickfields between the parallel tributaries of the Falls and the Shankill. The severity of the violence increased with the passing of each decade.

“There was serious rioting in 1857, 1864, 1872 and in 1886, after the defeat of the Home Rule Bill, six people died in one night of rioting,” says Gray. “It was also around this time that the first tribal map of Belfast was drawn up by the army, marking out Protestant and Catholic enclaves. This exacerbated the rioting which was a significant feature of Victorian Belfast.”

“It had been a Presbyterian town, but after the famine in 1847 when Belfast began to rapidly expand, you had a massive influx of Catholics from rural areas and from the Irish countryside,” explains Phoenix.

“This was destabilising –you now had a divided, segregated town. People on both sides were burned out of their homes and the Shankill was central to all this.”

From 1850 onwards the city became a centre of industrial activity thanks to the linen trade and the shipyards; its expansion moved at breakneck velocity: a population of 30, 000 in 1800 had reached 350, 000 in 1901.

The greenery once so abundant at Shankill was now replaced by brickwork, lattices of streets, bleaching factories, beetling mills, shop fronts, women on their way to the linen factories, men walking down Peter’s Hill to the docks. Leopold Street, Cambrai Street, Brussels Street – many of the road’s tributaries were named after places and people connected with Belgium or Flanders, where the flax for linen was grown.

The Shankill’s progress, says Phoenix aptly “was etched in blood and industry”.

Its centrality to loyalism was always clear. Carson’s army, the original UVF, drilled in the grounds of Fernhill House – the mansion home of leader of the then Unionist Council Samuel Cunningham - before going off to serve in the First World War.

The modern incarnation of the UVF also had its genesis on the Shankill, beginning in May 1966, when a group of men led by Gusty Spence petrol bombed a Catholic-owned pub.

The Troubles proper had begun. The Falls and the Shankill were ravaged in parallel - violence and trauma on both sides of the barricades.

The Shankill, like the Falls, would emerge from the conflict in a state of decline, depopulation and fracture.

When loyalist paramilitaries announced their ceasefire in 1994 they did so, symbolically, from Fernhill House, where the UVF had first taken up arms.

“So much of the architectural footprint of the Shankill’s history has been destroyed by the Troubles,” concedes Phoenix, “and people today look at the road and are disappointed by it. But a rich history is hidden here too. You just have to know where to look.”