History of the Shankill

When downtown Belfast was a marshland and thick woods, the area now known as the Shankill was roamed by wolves and wild boar. The first Shankill residents lived at the bottom of what is now known as Glencairn; a small settlement of ancient people inhabiting a ring fort, where the Ballygomartin and Forth rivers meet.

The Shankill Road itself was an ancient track, the main link from County Down to Antrim, known then as the Antrim Road , it was not until 1831 that the Shankill Road was officially named. The word Shankill being derived from the Gaelic ( Sean Cill ) meaning Old Church.

The Shankill Graveyard, which is over 1,500 years old, contains many historically interesting graves as well as several artifacts which have been discovered within the graveyard.

In 1855 the Bullaun Stone was uncovered in the Shankill Graveyard, it is believed this large stone dates back to Druid times, when it would have been used in a ceremony for pagan sacrifices. In early Christian times, it was used as a baptismal font when the original church stood in the grounds. Today, local legend credits the stone with the ability to cure warts.

For centuries the Shankill graveyard was the main graveyard for the Belfast district. The Shankill Parish extended from Greencastle in the North to Malone in the South. Its oldest existing gravestone dates back to 1685 (many were destroyed in the late 1950's in a Belfast corporation clean up). It
lost its status in 1869 when the city cemetery opened. Several graves of interest include, 14 year old William Sterling, an RAF pilot, who's grave is marked by a Commonwealth headstone, the headstone of a pirate marked with a skull and crossbones, Rev. Isaac Nelson, a Presbyterian clergyman who became Home Rule MP for Co. Mayo the Nelson Memorial Church is named after him). Many other graves depict the harshness of life faced by the first residents of the Shankill, when plague and disease wiped out whole families.

As Belfast grew in the late 19th Century, so did the Shankill. Linen production swept through the area between 1850's and 1870's. The original linen mills had been water powered and were based in the hills surrounding Belfast. Technological advance led to the development of steam powered mills for flax spinning, which permitted lowland sites. By 1861, thirty-two linen mills had been built, some were on the Crumlin, but the majority were on the Shankill and the Falls, by the banks of the Farset and Forth rivers. Given this advancement of the linen industry within the area, there was a growing need for more housing to accommodate the influx of mill workers. These people had fled from a countryside which had been ravaged by famine between 1845 and 1849 and which had seen the cottage linen industry disappear. Hours were long, wages were low an early starting time meant workers needed to be close at hand. From the West of the Province, Catholic families poured into Belfast along the Falls Road, the main route out of Belfast to the West, where as the first Shankill inhabitants came from the predominantly Protestant country areas of County Antrim in the North. Well established Linen Lords such as the Ewarts and the Andrews met this demand by building kitchen houses, known as two up and two down. These had two upstairs bedrooms and one downstairs room with a small kitchen area and shared outside toilet facilities.

The mill houses may have been better than the rural hovels, but the conditions for the first Shankill residents were atrocious most houses were condemned within 20 years of being built. However, the rate of building could not keep pace with the influx of people. This, combined with the low wages resulted in as many as three families living in one house six to eight people would be found loving I one room alone. By 1890, much of the Shankill had been built and housing was appearing in the woodvale area. In 1892 the Woodvale park was opened. Its role was to give the tightly packed community of the greater Shankill some open space( most houses had no gardens) and an area in which to engage in sports and other activities. Engineering and shipbuilding were the industrial growth areas over the turn of the century. Most of Shankill's second generation found employment making linen machinery in Mackie's Engineering Works or in the shipyards where many had a role in the construction of the Titanic.

In the second decade of the 20th Century, hundreds of Shankill Road men joined the old Ulster Volunteer Force, determined to resist Home Rule. During 1912, Unionist objection to the 3rd Home Rule Bill translated into the signing of The Covenant, a document stating the people's opposition to this proposal. On 28th September, 471,414 people including 234,046 women, signed the petition some in their own blood in over 500 venues across Ulster. This day became known as Ulster Day and a mural depicting this event can be seen on the Shankill. With the beginning of the First World War, the men of the old Ulster Volunteer Force joined the 36th Ulster Division of the British Army as the West Belfast 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rangers, and at 7.30am on 1st July 1916, they went over the top of the trenches in the Battle of the Somme. Almost an entire generation of Shankill men was killed, and tragedy touched virtually every household. Out of the 760 men who fought in the regiment, only 76 returned.

Unemployment grew dramatically in the Great Depression of the 30's. No welfare benefits existed and to combat this the Government introduced Outdoor Relief. The result of this was degrading work and means testing. In October 1932, for the first and only time, the people of the Shankill and the Falls fought together in opposition to the Stormont Government during the Hunger Riots. The Shankill did not escape loss on World War Two. Many men lost their lives on foreign battlefields and in 1941, over 100 people died in the Woodvale and in Percy Street during the nigh raids of the Luftwaffe.

Industries such as linen and textiles, shipbuilding and engineering were in serious decline by the 1960's and as a result unemployment began to grow. Redevelopment of the area and the start of the Troubles followed. In the ensuing years, the Shankill population dropped from 76,000 to 26,000.Over a thirty-year period the Greater Shankill and its residents were subjected to numerous bomb explosions and shootings, the most horrific being what is now known as the Shankill Bomb. On the 23rd October 1993, the Shankill suddenly became a scene of carnage and despair when a bomb went off in Frizzells Fish Shop. Ten people were killed including one of the bombers.


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