It's a sign of the times...Catholic cleric Pat Buckley makes donation to Shankill museum
An independent Catholic cleric will meet Shankill Road residents today to return street signs he "liberated" from the area almost 40 years ago.
Bishop Pat Buckley will hand over the nameplates which honour Catholic priests from the Falls who nursed Protestants during a 19th century cholera epidemic.
They will be housed in a small museum on the Shankill which had asked the rebel cleric to donate them.
Bishop Buckley told the Belfast Telegraph how at the height of the Troubles he had ventured across the peace line to remove the signs from four streets named after the heroic priests.
He recalled how he and another cleric had entered the loyalist stronghold with ladders, a hammer and a chisel in 1978 to take down the signs, just before the streets were demolished.
Bishop Buckley said that as a young curate in St Peter's in the lower Falls, he had learned how four priests from the parish had nursed Protestants on the Shankill who were suffering from cholera in 1832.
Belfast was experiencing an increasing number of sectarian clashes at the time. Bishop Buckley said: "The people of the Shankill were deeply moved by the generosity of the four priests and Blaney, Brennan, Loftus, and Meenan streets were named after them.
"In the late 1970s when I heard that the old streets were being demolished to make way for new housing, I asked Belfast City Council to give me the nameplates in memory of the priests but they refused. I was determined the signs wouldn't be destroyed with the streets."
Bishop Buckley recounted how one night in December 1978, he was walking home with the late Father Vincent McKinley after a Christmas party in Bishop William Philbin's north Belfast home.
"I'd had a few drinks and the roads were covered with snow and ice," he said. "We cut through the Shankill.
"As we passed those streets, I said to Fr McKinley we should swipe the nameplates and he agreed.
"So we returned to the parochial house, got his car, ladders, a hammer and a chisel and headed back to the Shankill to liberate them."
Bishop Buckley said a passing RUC patrol stopped at the scene. "I was up the ladder and Fr McKinley was holding it.
"The back door of the Land Rover opened and the police officers inside looked out. They seemed to be in a state of shock at what they saw.
"They glanced at each other and then drove away without saying a word," he recalled.
Bishop Buckley had the four nameplates mounted on wood by the carpentry department of a local secondary school.
The signs for Blaney and Brennan streets have been hanging in his kitchen.
Father McKinley kept the nameplates for Meenan and Loftus Streets but they can't be located.
Stephen Pollock, the co-ordinator of Greater Shankill ACT (Action for Community Transformation), which runs the museum, said: "My dad was researching local history when he came across the story of the street signs.
"He thought it would be great to get them back to the Shankill. We contacted Pat Buckley and he said he'd be happy to return them."
Bishop Buckley said: "They asked me if I wanted anything from them and I said, 'Yes, after the presentation, I want you to take me to the most loyalist pub on the Shankill Road for a pint'.
"They've agreed and I'm very much looking forward to it."