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Belfast had harmonious beginnings but its history has been blighted by sectarian strife.

Michael Wolsey

Mary Anne Tynan had a fondness for gooseberries and it nearly cost the 16-year-old girl her life. On a fine Saturday morning she popped down to McIlhone’s shop in the Pound to buy a half-penny worth of the fruit and was eating them in the street when she saw a man creeping along some waste ground on the opposite side of the road.

She would later describe him to police: moleskin trousers, blue vest, black cap and a long black coat from which he suddenly pulled a gun and fired at her. The bullet ripped across her cheekbone and tore out her right eye. Screaming in agony, the girl staggered down the Cullingtree Road where she collapsed. The gunman headed back across the wasteland in the direction of Sandy Row.

The shooting, on Saturday August 1, 1857, would reignite disturbances which had split the city of Belfast since July 12 when Thomas Drew, the Limerick-born rector of Christ Church and chaplain to the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, preached an inflammatory sermon accusing the Roman Catholic Church of “endangering the lives of Protestants and setting at nought the laws of England’’. In an extraordinary trawl through Irish and international history, he spoke of Protestants falling “prey to despoiling priests’’ and warned that “the cells of the Pope’s prisons were paved with the calcined bones of men and cemented with human gore and human hair’’.

Christ Church was on the dividing line between the Catholic Pound and Protestant Sandy Row. When word of the sermon got out Catholics gathered in the area preparing to defend their homes against an expected attack. Two young Protestant post office workers walked innocently into the crowd. They were attacked and badly beaten.

The next day two Catholic curates were attacked in Sandy Row and on the following day two Methodist ministers were set upon by a mob at Millfield which had just wrecked a spirit-grocer’s shop owned by a Protestant named Watts.

And so it went on, with disturbances, turning into riots and pitched battles; shots fired, stones hurled and clubs wielded. The trouble lasted through September. By then, hundreds of people had been evicted from their homes. More than 1,000 injuries were recorded but, amazingly, no deaths.

Such rioting was all too typical of Belfast towards the end of the 19th century. It is a compliment in the city to say of someone that they “wouldn’t throw stones at you’’. Sadly, its citizens often did. The erection of a monument to Daniel O’Connell, champion of Catholic Emancipation, provoked a particularly violent outpouring. And the statue wasn’t even in Belfast but in Dublin where it still adorns O’Connell Street.

The statue’s unveiling, in August 1864, was accompanied by huge celebration in Dublin and used as an opportunity to advance the cause of Home Rule, which had surfaced as a political option since the ravages of the Famine. Among the thousands who attended were some 200 O’Connell admirers from Belfast.

As their train pulled back into Belfast they were greeted with a huge burning effigy of O’Connell, a straw man made by Protestants from Sandy Row. The loyalists also made a song about it:

Och sure over Ireland we were in a blaze

About the big stature

we’re going to raise.

We walked up to Dublin and

made such a show

To frighten the government,

Kitty, you know!

And what do you think

they do in Belfast?

Just as, in the train, Sandy Row

we came past,

They burned Dan O’Connell,

I saw him aglow.

But ‘twas only his effigy, Kitty,

you know!

Next day and the day after, large crowds gathered in Sandy Row. Led by a man dressed as a Catholic priest, they made their way in a ‘funeral procession’ to Friar’s Bush, an ancient walled graveyard at Stanmillis where they attempted to bury the remains of the straw liberator. Thwarted, they returned to Sandy Row, held a mock Mass, and threw what was left of the effigy into the Blackstaff river.

The next night the Protestant crowd headed for the Pound where they were met by hundreds of Catholics. A pitched battle was fought with cobblestones, sticks, clubs and iron bars.

A Methodist chapel was wrecked, a home run by the Sisters of Mercy was destroyed. Catholic mill girls were attacked in Sandy Row, a Catholic mob rampaged through shops in Arthur Square. And so on. A sorry tale of sectarian tit for tat that lasted for weeks and left a trail of broken skulls and ruined homes. You may say it was ever thus. But it wasn’t. Protestants raised funds to help build Belfast’s first Catholic church, St Mary’s, which opened in Chapel Lane in 1784. Protestants attended, some in uniform of the Irish Volunteers, and the atmosphere could not have been more cordial.

The defeat of the United Irishmen’s rebellion in 1798 destroyed this alliance and the growth of the Catholic population — from 1,300 in 1784 to 40,000 in 1861 — stoked sectarian fires in a city where the working class competed for scarce jobs and poor wages to support a grim existence in notorious housing conditions.

There were riots and ructions in 1872, 1886, 1893, 1898 and 1920. In 1964, 100 years after the O’Connell riots, it was the sight of a green, white and orange Irish flag that started the trouble. A republican, Liam McMillan, had placed it in the window of his Divis Street office during a general election campaign.

The Tricolour was banned under the Flags and Emblems Act and Rev Ian Paisley warned that loyalists would remove it if the police wouldn’t do so.

The RUC duly obliged, smashing down the office door with a pickaxe. McMillan put another Irish flag in its place and attempts to remove that resulted in rioting that went on for days.

* Sources: Holy War in Belfast by Andrew Boyd; Civil War in Ulster by Joseph Johnston; archives of the Belfast Telegraph, News Letter, Irish News and Northern Whig

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