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
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
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.