By Jack Holland
Some years ago a survey was carried out in the United Kingdom in an attempt to establish how people identified themselves in geographical terms. It disclosed that Northern Ireland was the region where people identified with the smallest area. Northern English people with a strong regional identity would proudly proclaim themselves as being from Yorkshire or Lancashire. But in Northern Ireland, people would more often identify themselves according to their street or road. When asked, people from Belfast said they came from the Falls or the Shankill or Dee Street or Balaclava Street.
Perhaps this explains the popularity of nostalgic books about Belfast and its neighborhoods such as "Falls Road Memories" penned by Gerry Adams. Local publishers Appletree Press and Blackstaff Press do a line in similar efforts, with an emphasis on grainy black-and-white photographs. Last year, Blackstaff brought out "The Road: Memories of the Falls," by Robin Livingstone, a picture book of life in the heart of what is now called West Belfast from the turn of the century to the 1970s and 1980s. Mainly, the photographs are from the 1950s and 1960s and most are of the Pound Loney, the oldest part of the Falls district and the one where poor Catholics first settled in large numbers in the 19th century. Livingstone, who edits The Andersonstown News, prefaces the collection with a little essay about his own family, and reflects on some aspects of life on the Falls under headings such as "Sports," "Pubs and Clubs," "Cinemas," "Religion" and "Leisure".
The pictures capture the grimy world of Victorian working-class streets, overshadowed by the huge Hughes Dickson flour mill on Divis Street and the twin spires of St. Peter’s Church near Albert Street. The concentration and density of life in the narrow streets was deceptive in that it gave you the impression that the area was a lot larger than it actually was. When the Falls was "redeveloped" in the 1970s, and the streets cleared away, it was a remarkable revelation to see just how small a space they had occupied. When my own street, Drew Street, off the Grosvenor Road, was demolished and cleared, it left just enough room for a small car park.
Yet, it had some 40 houses, most of them with substantial families. But the photographs reveal that in spite of the overcrowding and in spite of the prevailing poverty, the people of the Falls managed to turn themselves out very well indeed. The school photograph of boys taken at the Christian Brothers primary school in Divis Street in 1913 show not one dirty knee. Nearly every boy wears a tie, a neatly pressed shirt and, from what one can see, their boots are polished. It is quite an achievement, when one remembers that these were boys who probably came from families of eight or nine or more, crammed into houses with only two bedrooms.
As the caption notes, none of them dares to crack a smile. Being that clean isn’t fun. But it is a testimony to the enormous labor that women put into protecting their families from the grim and the squalor into which it was all too easy to fall. It took not only labor, however hard, but love, to get those little lads looking that spruce.
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When the photographic chronicle moves into the 1950s and 1960s, the days of dance halls and movie theaters, it is apparent that the people of the Falls had not lost their knack of looking sharp. Some of the pictures brought back memories of the hours spent as a teenager getting the right tie, shirt and matching suit before venturing to the local "hop" on a Saturday night. Working-class people dressed up a lot more than they tend to do today. Indeed, the rock-and-roll revolution was as much one of establishing working-class dress codes as it was of music. (The middle-class played little or no role in setting the actual styles. They ran the record companies and managed the stars.) The codes were stricter, more formal than today’s. Anyone who grew up then must be saddened at the sloppy dress habits now prevailing.
Of course, "The Road" is more than a fashion history. What lay behind the appearances as revealed in the photographs is another matter. The book contains enough illustrations of the piety of the district to remind one of how devoted were the people to Catholicism, from the old women in shawls with boney wrinkled hands clasped in worship to the young girls beaming smiles in their white First Communion dresses. There are pictures of Marian parades, and brass bands meeting visiting cardinals and Children of Mary and confraternity processions with their elaborate banners, bunting and statues. The sense of occasion, and the importance of putting on a good show, comes over strongly. That too seems to have disappeared from working-class life, along with the concern for fastidious dressing. Some might regard these concerns as trivial. But I agree with Oscar Wilde when he said: "Only superficial people think that appearances are not important."
("The Road" costs $22.95 and is distributed in the U.S. by Dufour Editions, Chester Springs, PA 19425-0007;  458-5005.)
A kick in "The Sash"
I was amused to see that a few people objected to the playing of the Protestant marching song "The Sash" in St. Patrick’s Cathedral last on March 14 at the "Both Sides Now" concert given by James Galway and Phil Coulter to celebrate the two traditions in Ulster.
If one could be objective enough, it would easy to appreciate "The Sash" as the stirring composition which it undoubtedly is. But as usual, politics corrupts our ability to appreciate art. "The Sash" is not just a piece of music.
I have certainly mixed feelings about it myself, as must every Catholic raised in Northern Ireland. In early 1967 I was stopped by a UVF gang early one morning on the Shankill Road and asked to give a rendition of "The Sash" to prove my bone fides" as it were. Having been brought up in a mixed Protestant-Catholic household, it should have come easily. But I must have had the equivalent of stage fright. I couldn’t remember a single line. I got a good kicking as a result.
In the early 1970s, my mother went on the mini-bus to Long Kesh to visit her nephew, who was interned. The women in the bus — all Catholics, with sons, boyfriends, or brothers behind the wire — began to sing. And the song they chose was "The Sash."
Nothing is as simple as it seems.