Falls & Shankill: I figured it made sense, building me a fence

Recently I was telling a Italian friend about a few of the scrapes in which members of my extended family back in Belfast sometimes get involved. She was delighted and proclaimed them to be proper South Italians. This got me wondering whether one could make a case for the UK as a mirror image of Italy; London would be Milan, the hip metropolis and financial powerhouse. The UKIP-leaning Home Counties stand in for the Lega Nord provinces between the northern cities, grumbling about their taxes subsidising the poor folk at the other end of the country. As a basket case of institutionalised criminality Northern Ireland could only be Sicily, and West Belfast the mafia strongholds of Palermo.

To round off my Ulster trilogy I shall zoom in on the heart of darkness. People say that the West End of a city is usually the affluent bit, because factory smoke would drift eastwards in the industrial era- not so in Belfast. The Shankill and the Falls are two arterial roads which, famously, run parallel and side-by-side, with “peace walls” to discourage the residents from killing each other; one is the most notorious hotbed for partisan loyalism, the other for partisan republicanism. People will be one or the other. I grew up just past the top of the Shankill and prior to this post, had never walked the length of the Falls Road. As you proceed up the Shankill and away from the city, Black Mountain towers over this end of Belfast. Being a keen anthropomorphist, I have always seen it as an utterly malevolent influence, casting a gloom and an evil spell over all it surveys, keeping both Montagues and Capulets suspended in a never-ending winter of deprivation, violence and fear.

I hoped that walking both roads, and comparing them to each other and the places I have been in the wider world might give me some dazzling insight on where I came from, beyond the stock observation about Freud’s vanity of small differences. It didn’t happen, no pearls of wisdom were offered up. They’re just places, and their peculiar circumstances are not as peculiar as we think. Historically, peacetime is the aberration. I’ve been reading a history of Habsburg Europe and trying to keep up with most of its cities having three totally different names; one German, one Hungarian and one Polish/Czech/Slovak/Romanian/Slovene, by which we know them today. History lets Ulster off lightly in comparison.

Starting at the extreme of the Falls Road, I’m facing Black Mountain from a slightly different angle and am now able to decipher the tall white graffiti I’ve seen on the face of the mountain for the past three days: STOP TORY CUTS. The pubs around here are flying Scottish flags.  There’s some fairly blank abstract sculpture before the folk art begins with a memorial to an assassinated IRA lawyer, now poster boy for the lucrative “human rights” industry. 20 metres in, I can already feel my disinterested “man of the world” stance melting away. Leopards have spots.

The Falls Rd proper is a traffic-heavy main road in a poor part of Belfast and architecturally, we’re not exactly on the Ringstrasse. The colour is provided by the murals. As with Protestant murals, they promote their own Cause and pick at the scabs of history. Tellingly, you will very seldom see a Belfast mural celebrating peace or promoting friendship/reconciliation between the two tribes. Some of them seem to cast you back in time; one marking the 30th anniversary of the hunger strikes pleads with Maggie Thatcher (“don’t let our brave men die in vain”) which makes for odd reading.

These, and the uses the shop units are being put to, are the only giveaway that we’re in an idiosyncratic part of the world. There’s a little Sinn Fein shop blasting out rebel songs, a suicide support centre (presumably not of the Swiss variety) and someone offering “conflict resolution services”. I wonder if this is a euphemism for sending the boys round with baseball bats because I can’t see any resolved conflicts around here, not that it has stopped Northern Ireland from exporting conflict resolution.

A highlight is provided by the Beehive pub, which has retained its handsome Victorian facade. As we continue eastwards we’re starting to reach the artefacts of the municipality. A former Presbyterian church now serves as the cultural centre, with the obligatory curved-glass extension housing a painting gallery. If the murals seem like Dave Spart posturing (and they do), the language on official signage comes straight from Chairman Mao.

Look down Broadway and you’ll be met with the unlikely sight of a 40m sculpture so redolent of the atomic age that it could have been put there by Shukhov. I recall this appearing on the skyline a couple of years ago, and my making enquiries; my parents shrugged and said it was “the balls on the Falls” and my uncle insisted it was three golf balls in honour of Messrs McIlroy, Clarke & McDowell. Wikipedia informs me that “RISE” is a rising sun which symbolises optimism and a new Belfast, like everything else fudging the difficult question of what this new Belfast will be like or how exactly we arrive at it.

The other side of the road is a territorial boundary line, and the array of British/Loyalist flags rather undermine all this Bunsen Honeydew idealism. The Village has taken note of your horse, and will not be opening the gates of Troy on this occasion. Turning back to the Falls, we find that even the river Thames requires Gaelification.

There are some good C19th edifices as the Falls continues, such as St Mary’s College and St Dominic’s Grammar, but St Paul’s Church really raises the stakes. I don’t go inside as I can hear wedding vows being spoken, but I get plenty of enjoyment from details like the cod-Orvieto carvings above the front doors. As I child I might have known who the bloke in the garden was -unlike the Lady of Lourdes- but I still remember being puzzled by the dramatic literality of the scene as we drove past it, any church I ever got taken to might as well have been fitted by Ikea.

Across the road is, ironically, my birthplace: the Royal Victoria Hospital (although that West Brit name cannot be very long for this world). It’s a hodge-podge of copper-domed old buildings, shiny new ones and unloved brutalist blocks in between. I have no idea which block does maternity or if the building in which I made my entrance is still standing. Around Springfield Road, tall brick chimneys haunt the skyline as ghosts of Industry Past.

Tourist signs point to Clonard Monastery a few minutes’ north of the Falls and I decide I might as well. The housing is uncannily identical to the streets that run off the Shankill -not that this should surprise me- and emphasises that these areas are mirror images of one another. As we reach the monastery, however, some very out-of-place posh houses crop up. There used to be money here.

Clonard’s church is C20th, but has an imposing facade distinguished by what must be the largest wheel of fortune I’ve ever seen. Its interior is spacious, tall and flooded with light, and does not skimp on the decor. Gothic arches sit on pillars of chocolate-coloured marble, there are lavish chapels where painted angels watch over carved saints, confession boxes fit for an emperor, and golden mosaics; some in a Byzantine style, some angular and modernist.

At first sight I’m hugely impressed, but the closer I look the less I like it. Much of the decoration, as hard as it tries, comes across too soft-focus and greetings-card to pass for the real deal. There’s no mystery, awe, or fear.

Nevertheless, there is much that I like here and viewed from within that rose window is a winner. For all the disgraceful crimes perpetrated by the RC church, I do find that I get on much better with the Christian aspect of Catholicism than with the “revolutionary marxist soldier” posturing.

Back on the Falls we find the Sinn Fein headquarters and a series of large murals to St Bobby, the Bob Marley of republicanism. I’m slightly relieved to note that the poetry of republican paramilitaries is doggerel every bit as clichéd as anything loyalism can come up with.

The excellent public library -a Carnegie- provides another architectural highlight with art nouveau angels nestled above the round arch, absorbing themselves in the arts and sciences.

An old mill has been put to use as a café, cultural centre and republican history museum, with yet more murals shouting about wrongs and vengeance. There’s a garden of remembrance for slain provos; green white and gold wreaths and flags, with large marble slabs showing celtic women carrying their dead and a map of where each shooting took place, which depicts the Lower Falls as hemmed in by army stations.

In this part of Belfast, the twin spires of St Peter’s Cathedral can be seen from far and wide. The twin peaks remind one of those terrible black gothic giants found across Northern Europe, Cologne or Clermont-Ferrand rebuilt on Divis St. It is perhaps the greatest disappointment of my visit to the Falls that the cathedral is locked up for the afternoon.

At the bottom of the Falls is the notorious Divis Tower, high-rise flats whose top floors served as an army lookout post for most of the Troubles (at times only accessible by helicopter). As the Falls Rd ends there is also a street corner given over to a series of colourful and technically proficient murals. Tourists are exhorted to take a black cab tour and “get the real story from local people” (no comment). Current Secretary of State, the charismatic Theresa Villiers, makes a straw man cameo, and there’s plenty of stuff claiming kinship with Gaza, the ETA, &c.

Lonely Planet’s section on West Belfast remarks that the people of the Shankill are “just as friendly” as those on the Falls, but “find it harder to tell their side of the story, compared to the polished public relations of the nationalists”. It’s like the Scottish referendum. People proposing the status quo have it much harder as novelty is not on their side. We know, and are bored by, what already is; what is not yet looks shiny and enticing. Its advocates can sell it as a fix-everything panacea. Another difference seems to be that themmuns have gone out in the world and recruited friends. Republicans, judging by their murals, have plugged into a global network of self-proclaimed radical dissidents, and made their struggle the struggle of Palestine, Catalonia, the Basques, the SNP, Cuba, and all Irish Americans. Protestants have Glasgow Rangers and the odd Bufton-Tufton Spectator reader. The Israeli flag is flown on occasion, but I doubt that the Holy Land reciprocates (in likening their oppression to that of Jews/Palestinians, Belfast should be very careful what they wish for). Protestants are accused of having a siege mentality, which can be explained by their having been under siege all their lives.

Republicans claim to have acted in the tradition of Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King. They quite deliberately killed lots of women and children and the killers are feted for it (a plaque was recently put up celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Shankill bomb), but the simplified, upbeat ‘Great Bunch of Lads’ narrative of Right vs Wrong and a plucky underdog resisting Empire is the one that the world apparently wants to hear. During my visit the Falls was full of hippy backpackers from abroad. Protestant demographics dwindle as people like me go to university in England or Scotland and never come back, because it would be too wearying to live constantly surrounded by the adversarial. The many people willing to die for their nation are welcome to it, I’d rather piss off and live for myself.

Enough. The Westlink, a heavily-used underpass connecting commuters to the motorway, acts as a psychological barrier between the city centre and our next port of call, the Shankill Road.

This is familiar territory, and I don’t see it as Other or through a green/orange prism. I mostly see a neighbourhood that grew out of the Industrial Revolution, thrived for a time, and since deindustrialisation has been not-so-slowly dying, already a shadow of its former self by the time I was born. My parents have a shop on the road; they feel that because of its close proximity to the city centre, the powers that be have marked the Shankill out for gentrification and, in neglecting to support economic growth or the opening up of the road to visitors, are starving out the hollow remains of the citadel of Loyalism. The class-tinged mockery of hipster satirists Ladfleg is unlikely to help here.

Post-ceasefire, the murals around the Lower Shankill estate have taken wider cultural subjects (Luther, so much to answer for, is in there). In my childhood they were entirely paramilitary and sometimes grisly to the point of macabre. One famous survivor is the “Loyalist Mona Lisa”, whose gun appears trained upon you wherever you stand. Those remaining murals which honour fallen combatants make me think only of drug dealing, protection money and bullying. You come away from the Falls thinking of the IRA and the Falls as one and the same, and this is how the Shankill is perceived; but as a Shankill man I think of the UVF and UDA as another of malevolent nature’s blights on the land, like drought or failed crops or plague.

The old housing has been demolished, cleared and replaced by lower-density stock, a practice continuing to this day on the estate. Out on the road is the handsome if weather-beaten facade of the Shankill Mission, established as a philanthropic venture to get people into church and away from the demon drink (yet another lost cause).

Whereas the Falls murals adopt a narrative of oppression and resistance, the Shankill ones use the huge sacrifices of two World Wars to stress their innate Britishness. The Shankill’s gardens of remembrance are chiefly dedicated to the 36th Ulster Division, who lost tens of thousands at battles like Ypres and the Somme (over 5,000 in two days at the latter, as they crossed German lines before anyone else and found themselves surrounded on three sides).

There are churches here, but largely dour ones; as a repository of art Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist will all be found wanting. The important gathering places are the bars, pubs and supporters’ clubs; Diamond, Rex, Royal, Berlin, Mountainview, Rangers, Northern Ireland.

A new feature is a memorial to the recently deceased Hugh Smyth, who as an Independent and PUP founder was voice of the Shankill for decades, defending working class interests and unafraid to clash with mainstream unionism over it. His quote emphasises what can be seen by looking around, that not all Protestants were part of an “ascendancy” (note the fleg).

As the road continues there’s evidence of the local black humour in the ropey pun of the fish-and-chip shop A Salt & Battered, and two rare pieces of notable architecture in another public library and the sandstone Nelson Church; the latter sits back from the main road, only made visible in recent years by the demolition of shop units. The patch of land in front was one of many earmarked for new-builds before the banking crash. In the months before the crash, any time I visited Belfast it seemed to be in the grip of a developers’ gold rush; presumably a lot of dodgy money was flowing up from the enormous ponzi scheme that was the Republic of Ireland. After the money ran out, most of these projects were never built and there are patches of land all over the Shankill which have been boarded off and sitting idle since 2007.

Some of the old Victorian terrace streets running off the Shankill had just been demolished at the time of my visit. This is happening all over Belfast. There goes our history, deemed “unfit” by the current orthodoxy. Some have asked if it would not have been cheaper to renovate the original houses, but unfortunately it’s most likely a reflection of our atomised society. People would rather have a more spacious house out somewhere in Subtopia, because we don’t know our neighbours and “communities” do not exist to anything like their former extent. The folks I sit with at The Den were moved from the Old Kent Road to suburban Kent and come back as much to visit their ancestral homes as to watch football.

Some new houses have gone up, so we can have a before-and-after. Maybe the new houses fit a depopulated area better and I sound like some nutcase nostalgic for smallpox, but the old stuff had a very Belfast look and a characteristic aesthetic which seems to have been lost.

A quick detour away from the Shankill takes us to a stretch of the “peace walls”. At the former site of a checkpoint charlie, there are gates on Lanark Way which can be closed at times of tension. The walls themselves are a popular stop on bus tours, with lots of public art and Dalai Lama quotations. Bewildered tourists from the outside world are encouraged to write their own bland messages about love and peace on sections of the wall. One local wag has retorted with “STICK HAASS UP YOUR ASS”.

There is much more derelict land at the top of the Shankill, where demolished buildings have not been replaced with anything; it’s a long way from London. There is also an oasis of tranquility in the Shankill Graveyard.

Queen Victoria, who knew a thing or two about grieving, takes centre stage here but the most interesting features are the numerous C18th gravestones, some with crude, romanesque illustrations of skulls, angels or monarchial crowns. We think of Belfast as having had barely any existence before the C19th, and the vintage of these graves strikes a highly incongruous note in a place like this.

Just before the Shankill becomes Woodvale Road, we find its architectural star player in St Matthew’s Church. The churchyard features a pre-Christian druidical stone, but in a city of Victorian gothic it’s the building that makes you sit up and notice (not that I ever did when I lived here, when churches were just sour places that demanded your submission, and I hadn’t learned to look at buildings).

Instead of a central nave there are three short domes in the formation of a Shamrock, and a round tower which looks more like something from a Norman Crusader fort or a Rapunzel-style fairytale. The blurb left outside by the council likens it to the churches of “Byzantium and Asia Minor”. I certainly can’t think of anything quite like it in these parts. In a wonderful Shankill touch, graffiti on the opposite wall accuses a resident of “telling the Sunday World that your daughters r meth heads”. I really must try and get into the church one day.

Push on up Woodvale Road and facing the park we pass the more conventional Woodvale Church, which is fine on its own terms but provides quite a contrast to the imagination employed in St Matthews.

The top of Woodvale Road is also the beginning of Ardoyne, a small Catholic enclave jammed between the Upper Shankill and Ballysillan. The Parades Commission, the quango who grant or refuse marching rights to the Orangemen, are currently refusing permission for parades to pass Ardoyne, and in a parody of 1969 our corner of Ardoyne roundabout is home to a Protestant “civil rights camp”. The Republican agitators come from miles around specifically to be offended by parades, I’m told the protest camp is largely people from rural areas, and everyone else fumes at the alleged policing bills of £40,000 a day (is it being policed by Man City’s First XI?). We’re going to ignore this circus and cross back into enemy territory at the Catholic Holy Cross church, literally a few paces away.

The stained glass around the entrance doesn’t make any secret of its youthful vintage, and has all the more of an engaging Roy Liechtenstein charm for it.

Look out the window of the house I grew up in and Holy Cross’ twin green spires are the focal point of the panorama before you, but this is the first time I’ve bothered to go inside. Of course it’s fantastic stuff, like St Matthews because its very Italianate leanings really stand out against this city’s uniform gothic look. In here you could be in Ferrara, or Ravenna, or Rome, and in what is really a very dreary part of the world, just for one moment it lets you dream.

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