Category: Archive

Cobblestone cantata: music of May Street

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

May Street, that wide thoroughfare that runs from Donegall Square South (near the side of the City Hall) to Victoria Street, is not a very famous place. It is merely a street in Belfast that a person might pass every day of his life without realizing its curious old links with history. No doubt many have, not knowing that they shared the street with the ghosts of Daniel O’Connell, the “Liberator”; Catherine Hayes, the 19th century Irish diva; Henry Cooke, the leader of Irish Presbyterianism; John Boyd Dunlop, the inventor of the pneumatic tire, and Charlie Chaplin, the comic genius of the 20th Century.

I spent the first five years of my life there. Its spaciousness, and one or two buildings that have survived from the 19th Century, are the only hints of its former status as the bustling center of the city’s economic, social and musical life.

May Street’s original prosperity came from its proximity to May’s fields, where the town’s fair was held on the first Wednesday of every month, for the sale of “horses, black cattle, sheep, pigs and goats,” according to the chronicler of early Belfast, Cathal O’Byrne. In later years, this was replaced by a fruit and vegetable market, which kept going until a few years ago.

May Street’s first renown derived from its numerous inns and taverns where, according to O’Byrne, “on cold winter mornings great fires blazed invitingly in their cozy snuggeries and clean, crisp straw covered all their floors. Behind the old inns were great yards with long ranges of stables and outhouses for the accommodation of the horses and gaily painted carts of the countrymen who came to market with their great loads of hay and high-piled fresh-smelling green stuffs.”

One of those stable yards was taken over by a carting company called Dougal’s, and it was there, where my grandfather was the caretaker, in an old whitewashed house on the premises, that I was raised.

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My first inkling of the historical figures whose feet had trod May Street’s pavements came when I was about 4. Except that in this case it was not pavements but cobblestones, and not feet but wheels, to which my attention was drawn.

I remember my grandmother pointing to the cobblestones in the yard in front of our house and telling me that this was where John Boyd Dunlop had tested the first successful pneumatic tire. I knew what a pneumatic tire was, since by that stage the carting company was phasing out dray horses in favor of motorized trucks. My grandmother described how the inventor had ridden his bicycle, equipped with the new tires, up and down on the hard cobblestones. It cannot have been a very comfortable experiment, as I knew from my own experience of bumping over those same cobblestones in my pedal car. Perhaps it was from this was born my lifelong admiration for men of science.

Later, as I toddled up the street toward the City Hall, passing a grand red brick edifice, I was told that this was the location of Belfast’s first music hall. Called simply and appropriately (in that famous Belfast manner of not wasting words) the Music Hall, it opened in 1839 (or thereabouts, according to O’Byrne). Here, balls, concerts, and soirees took place. And it was here that, in 1839, Catherine Hayes, the 11-year-old singing sensation who was reportedly discovered by the Protestant Bishop of Limerick, gave one of her first performances. Two years later, the fisherman’s daughter was singing in Paris, Rome and Milan, where she became La Prima Donna at La Scala.

The Music Hall kept going into the early years of the 20th Century. It is now an auction house, cluttered with heavy, dusty Victorian furniture, where, as one wanders around, it is hard indeed to imagine it as the scene of such festivities. At the rear of the building runs Music Hall Lane, a narrow little alleyway, its name the only reminder of those merrier times.

Directly across May Street from the music hall is the May Street Presbyterian Church. It was built in 1829 to provide a pulpit for the Rev. Henry Cooke, who became the leader of Irish Presbyterianism and the spokesman for Ulster Protestants who were opposed to the repeal of the Union. According to A Dictionary of Irish Biography: “His preaching drew immense crowds. . . . His energy was extraordinary: he rose at four, needed little sleep, and poured out a constant flow of pamphlets, sermons and articles.”

In January 1841, Daniel O’Connell came to Belfast as part of his “Repeal The Union” campaign. Cooke organized an immense counterdemonstration, which led to rioting. On the evening of the 20th, O’Connell attended the Music Hall for a benefit in aid of The St. Patrick’s Orphan Society. A mob gathered outside and “kept up an uninterrupted round of hisses and groans”. Later, they attacked the Liberator’s hotel in Donegal Place, shouting, “To hell with the pope” and “Down with the rebellious repeal.”

Cooke can still be seen in the form of a statue — known to generations of Belfast people as The Black Man — outside the Belfast Academical Institution.

And so to Charlie Chaplin.

During Belfast’s heyday as a city of music halls, many of the performers stayed in a street just off May Street called Joy Street. They rented rooms in the tall, elegant houses (among the handsomest in Belfast) which still stand. Among the “artistes” was a little clown called Charles Spencer who played in a circus which came to Belfast at the beginning of the last century.

In April 1972, I was sitting in the station at Whitehead with my girlfriend waiting for the last train back to Belfast. In those days, there was a beautiful Victorian-era waiting room and bar, where one could pass the time over a drink. The only others there were a very old man and his son. We fell into conversation. The older man had known Spencer — later known to the world as Chaplin — and worked with him in the circus. He remembered the little room in Joy Street, but not the exact address, where Chaplin stayed.

The train came. We reached a blacked-out city. Joe McCann the Official IRA leader had been shot dead by British troops near the corner of Joy Street, no doubt a few steps from where Charlie Chaplin walked on his way to work and eventual stardom.

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