Belfast Telegraph

Churches such as St Patrick's remind us we're people of faith ... and that we must treasure them

Too many old buildings have been flattened in the name of progress; we should cherish what's left, writes Gail Walker

St Patrick's Church in Donegall Street in Belfast requires millions of pounds of restoration work. Father Eugene O'Neill said the time has come to "refresh the fabric" of the distinctive building. "It's a stone building and it has 140 years of Belfast soot and dirt and corrosion eating into it," he explained.

And not just soot, dirt and corrosion. There is living history, and memory. Pure collective memory.

Since 1877 - and built largely by "the pennies of the Catholic poor" - the chapel served as a place of testimony to the evolution of Belfast. Generations of northsiders were baptised in, married and buried from St Patrick's.

Not people normally commemorated, or even remembered by history - millworkers, dockers, unskilled labourers, merchant seamen and soldiers. Indeed, the only record they ever existed resided in the church records of St Patrick's.

Thanks to the church, their names survive, even if those largely illiterate poor could only leave their mark on the documents.

St Patrick's witnessed the even darker side of our city's story, with the streets it served often on the frontline for nearly a century-and-a-half of bitter, ferocious and nakedly brutal sectarian violence.

Carlisle Circus, Crumlin Road, Shankill Road, Peters Hill - the cockpit of our seemingly endless Troubles all nestle around the venerable building.

Apart from its own innate historical interest, St Patrick's - lying as it does in the middle of Belfast's old newspaper quarter - is close to the heart of this and many another hack. (Not as close as some of the local hostelries, of course, but not that far behind.)

Belfast is littered with churches inextricably interwoven into its historical warp and weft. How could you even begin to understand this city without being aware of the majesties of St Anne's Cathedral in the city centre, St Peter's off the Falls Road, St Mary's Church in Chapel Lane, the city's first Catholic church (paid for with substantial subscriptions by Belfast's Protestant citizenry), the intellectual challenge of Rosemary Street's First Non-subscribing Presbyterian church, the romanticism of Clonard Monastery, the 18th-century elegance of St George's, the Gothic splendour of the Presbyterian Assembly Rooms, Donegall Pass Presbyterian Church, the extraordinary interior of Sinclair Seaman's and the evangelical tin tabernacles and meeting rooms, relishing their plainness and functionality.

They - and dozens more - all express different facets of our story. And one blunt, undeniable - if these days slightly uncomfortable - fact: we are people, regardless of denomination or doctrine, defined by faith and creed.

It makes us - just as much as economic, social, or cultural factors - what we, for better or worse, are. Hard, self-assertive, blunt. Not for us the airiness and freedom of uncertainty. We know what we think.

Much of our past has been wiped out, erased and disregarded with too little thought. Mill after mill demolished, the baroque grandeur of North Street allowed to run to seed and fall down and now the subject of some contentious land grabs and speculative development.

The vitality of old Smithfield mocked by a catastrophic ersatz replacement, grand facades like the old Hippodrome on Great Victoria Street knocked down, the famous old Great Victorian Street railway terminal bulldozed and replaced by a soulless device for buses and trains which has worn entirely as badly aesthetically as everyone said it would at the time it was built.

And, yes, Belfast's smallest house torn down with unseemly haste in Great Victoria Street, just as the Dublin Road has been replaced brick by brick by late 20th-century buildings, leaving only a building or two as a reminder of anything prior to 1990.

You can walk around Belfast and see just how many of the buildings along our oldest streets have been utterly supplanted on both sides by chunky brand-new edifices. Not just Belfast, of course. Every city and town in Northern Ireland can point to dramatic losses of heritage buildings, re-modelled town centres, albeit dowdy elegance perhaps replaced by uninspiring modern structures, often with exorbitant rates.

The back-to-back streets and terrace houses - the stereotypical image of Belfast - are giving way to the Closes, Mewses, Places, Downs, Meadows, Heights and Gardens of pretend vintage gentility.

Much of this was inevitable. Cities, by their very definition, change and grow. We can romanticise all those lost working-class communities and cultures; it is another thing, however, to live in a tiny house with no bathroom, or inside toilet.

But neither should we be afraid to suggest that much of secular Belfast was knocked down with no attempt at emotional, cultural, or historical continuity.

Too much of modern Belfast suggests an ever-continuous now, with buildings built and demolished within 20 years, to generate an ever-new sense of prosperity which increasingly rings hollow. That's what happens when the "crane count" becomes a measure for social and economic success.

Couple that with an utter neglect of continuity or community or - it has to be said - architectural quality, and you have a city losing its soul along with its style.

It is as if we are taking out our own malicious psychic obsessions with tradition and the past on the physical fabric built by the past around us.

As if that tearing-down will somehow make up for the deep civic disquiet within.

One thing we can do, as opportunity arises, is preserve our historic churches - a point not lost on Prince Charles, who donated £2,000 to the restoration works at St Patrick's after visiting it two years ago.

In recent months, work has been completed on restoring the top end of the church spire at a cost of £1m. The next phase of work will cost at least £2m.

Whether you are religious or not, places of worship steeped in history like St Patrick's are reminders of where we have come from, our attempt to make sense of our surroundings, the deepest yearnings for belonging and continuity.

They are reminders - not even primarily in theological terms - that we are more than the accumulation of whims, caprices and opinions, the odds and sods of our particular individual life.

We are more than that. As the poet Philip Larkin would say, St Patrick's is "a serious place on serious earth", calling to something profound within us.

Shopping centres and office blocks come and go, unloved, unadmired, unphotographed, answering to immediate but transient needs. But our churches talk to the centuries and the ones who came before us.

That is why we should cherish them.

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