There’s a corner of Belfast that holds my gaze even though its streets have had the charm, stir and hubbub squeezed out of them.
Regeneration and attempts on his life – but Billy Dickson tells Natalie Gorman community spirit is far from dead
The majority of its Victorian red-brick terraced houses now have breeze blocks for window panes, whilst front gardens stockpile rubble, weeds and the odd bundle of breeze blocks .
I probably know more about this patch of the city, the Village, Lower Broadway and Donegall Pass, than any other, and it’s all down to one pensioner — Billy Dickson.
Without fail, Billy contacts me every week with news of the community events taking place in his beloved heartland, so I can spread the word through our grapevine “and keep the community alive”.
A trail of media reports together with the murals splashed around the Frenchpark Street area will tell you this is UVF heartland too.
But spend time with Billy and you will see beyond what many perceive as ‘a hostile environment’ to a place where neighbours look out for each other, older residents are looked after, kids play on the streets and those staying on at school are recognised and rewarded by their community.
This community is now in the midst of extensive redevelopment and without exaggeration, resembles a no-man’s land. The new houses may be warmer but will the community’s demographics, heritage and history be ripped out along with its heart and guts?
Billy who has lived around here all his life, campaigns relentlessly for common sense to prevail in a redevelopment he does undoubtedly welcome. But today, when I meet him at a cafe on the Boucher Road (there are none left in his community), I want to enquire about the man behind ‘the mission’.
Billy was born on Utility Street, to a father he describes as a “quiet Sandy Row man” and a mother from Coleraine. Billy’s older brother Jim (eight years his senior), a keen footballer and passionate supporter of Linfield FC, remains to this day, Billy’s inspiration.
Billy said: “He taught me what it was to be a gentleman. Growing up he would bring me to see Linfield FC and he would always look out for me. When he left school to start at Linfield Mill he fell ill with tuberculosis. Well, he couldn’t work the way he did after that and so he educated himself — he loved reading was very intelligent. He would always have pens in his top pocket and tell me ‘people will always see your character by the way you write’.
“He left for England to work for Marconi and married over there. We were always very close.”
Jim sadly passed away just over a decade ago, and the last memory Billy has, is Jim telling him: “I just want to say, I appreciate your friendship.”
Billy was a pupil of Kelvin High School, studied hard and perhaps because of his older brother’s sporting influence, enjoyed athletics.
He excelled in running and was crowned school champion. Billy laughed: “I remember competing against a running team from Stranraer, Scotland. We couldn’t believe they had spikes — we were running in our slippers! One of the girls from our school even refused to take her cardigan off to run.”
Though ill-fitted for the competition, Billy and his ‘cardiganed’ team mate left their Highland competitors in the furrows, Billy winning the 220m, 440m and 880m, all he says by the help of his PE teacher who gave him some of the trade secrets. To Billy’s delight, the Belfast Telegraph covered the story of ‘the back-street boy done good’. His beloved school was forced to close in the ‘80s. Billy, a DUP councillor at the time, broke with the party’s line in his efforts to save the school for the people he loved.
Billy explained: “The school was closing at a time when members of the DUP were told not to speak to any British government minister because of the political situation. But I just couldn’t let this school close down — it was a lifeline to the community and it had to stay open. I went against the party view and arranged a meeting with the Education Minister — and was called a traitor for it.
“Ian Paisley told me not to do this, that under no circumstances were we to speak to a government official, it was for ‘the good of Ulster’. He told me he was prepared to sacrifice this school for the good of Ulster.
“Years later, as we all know, he held power with many who were once terrorists, he says now, for the same reason — ‘for the good of Ulster.’ Whilst I know this is part of the peace process, all I was doing was talking to a British minister to save a school for children living in a working class Protestant estate — yet it was me who was branded the traitor. To this day, I will never understand that and I’m glad I did what I did, I’m not sorry.”
Billy, like many others, did not escape ‘the Troubles’ unscathed. An RUC reserve and local unionist councillor, in 1982 he was targeted by the INLA. They forced their way into his hall, while Billy held back the vestibule door — the gunmen on one side, his wife and children on the other. Billy said: “I shouted to my wife Ann to get out through the backyard with the children. My hands came through the glass that I was pushing against and the next thing I know, I had been shot. Thankfully, the gunmen made off after they fired that shot.”
The bullet punctured Billy’s front left lower torso and came out of his back on the lower right — having travelled across his body, miraculously missing his vital organs
The terrorists dropped a bomb disguised as a transistor radio in his front garden as they fled. Billy still has a hole from the explosion in his front garden. He has also had to replace his beloved historic red brickwork with, to his disappointment, cladding.
Billy’s passion for local history stems from a life-long career in the Ulster Museum — a place where he became quite the expert in art and object handling.
In charge of selected working teams for over 30 years, Billy was a founding member of the Art and Object Handling Association and was involved in setting up some of the most precious cargo in the world — Egyptian mummies, busts of Louix XV, and many a treasured painting. Billy also worked at the museum during the time they carried out taxidermy for ‘items’ that were to appear in the Zoology department.
One such day, Billy recalls, things didn’t work out quite as planned.
“When Belfast Zoo contacted us to take a dead Polar bear off their hands some of the museum staff went over with a van to collect Peter the bear — that had been his name at the zoo. One of our workers, Thompson, used to joke about an awful lot. Well, he had to sit in the back with the dead bear — there was no room in the front of the van.
“When his colleagues in the front heard him banging against the van and yelling ‘this bear isn’t dead!’ they honestly thought he was having a laugh with them and they continued to drive on. When they arrived at the museum and opened the back doors Thomspon was white as a sheet, so they checked the bear, but to their minds he was dead, there was no response from the creature.
“Later that night, a security guard passed the cold room where the bear had been placed — and heard growling. Quite frightened he called another security guard, and to their horror, the bear wasn’t dead but looking up at them. A vet was quickly called in to put the poor animal out of his misery. But working in the museum was never dull!”
Billy runs a children’s good news mission club not far from Tate’s bridge and for decades now has been bringing children on trips around their local area, driving past points of local history and geography and encouraging the children to shout out what they see. He said: “When we were young we would play football in the back of Botanic gardens, nip in to see the Mummy then go and get a drink of water from the Jaffe Fountain. Yet, parks and places aren’t built like this anymore, everything seems to be designed that you cart your children off in a car and bring them home, communal spaces where children play and get up to their little adventures are dying out.
“I remember very well, walking up to Cave Hill with my childhood friends, quite some distance for us being so young — we could never afford to go to the zoo mind. We would hunt for empty lemonade bottles until we could trade enough in to afford the bus fare home. We never ever took that walk thinking we wouldn’t find enough bottles to pay for our bus fare home. I don’t think children have the opportunity to think like that now.”
Billy, now in his mid-sixties, still walks the streets, but this time as a tour guide bringing visitors through his neighbourhood to hear the stories most of society have forgotten.
He also walks in another capacity — as Worshipful Master of the 36th Ulster Division Orange Lodge. “It’s a military lodge, set up to remember those that had fallen in the Great War, the Battle of the Somme. To me, to not remember is hurtful,” he says.
However, this is one Orange man who won’t be pigeonholed. Among his passions is Irish history, particularly the kings of Ireland — and he believes St Patrick’s Confession is a document “the whole country needs to read.”