Belfast Telegraph

Why shops like McMaster's take the raw material of life and, as if by alchemy, turn it into living history

Independent traders like the landmark Belfast retailer are about more than just making money, writes Gail Walker

Alan McMaster before he retired from the tool shop
Alan McMaster before he retired from the tool shop
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

Tomorrow Gavin McMaster will lock the door of the famous W M McMaster's store, just as four generations of the family have done every workday evening for the past 122 years. But tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow McMaster's - "The house for quality tools" as its distinctive black-and-gold signage proclaims - will close, never to re-open. And a little part of this city's history will be lost forever.

I don't know a hawk from a handsaw, but like thousands of others who pass through this city it somehow gladdened my heart to know that it was there in Church Lane, its distinctive windows crammed with all sorts of wonderful implements, just a few paces away from Miss Moran's tobacco shop ("Smokers Welcome").

Just think about it - 122 years ago. 1896. Ireland was still one. Queen Victoria was on the throne. Oscar Wilde was just beginning his prison sentence. Events in Southern Africa were cranking up to the outbreak of the Boer War.

Like a film unspooling in your head, you can see the generations entering the shop, the whiskers and moustaches of our Victorian grandfathers, the more jaunty Edwardians, the men of the depressed 1930s with their flat caps and precious little hope, the Brylcreemed swagger of the "you've never had it so good" Fifties.

Sometimes, too, you'd wish you could freeze-frame the movie. If only you could, you'd stop it before that moment on July 18, 1991, when two IPLO gunmen walked into the premises and gunned down John McMaster, the grandson of the shop's founder.

The 47-year-old was murdered because he was in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve with HMS Caroline, targeted because of the Navy's involvement with the Gulf War.

John's brother, Alan, who was in the back office, heard what he thought was a light bulb exploding, but when he rushed into the shop he saw a gunman firing at an unknown target behind the counter. It was over in seconds. The smell of cordite hung in the air. As the killer rushed to leave, Alan ran after him - until a second gunman smashed him in the face with his weapon, breaking his jaw and shattering his teeth.

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And yet still the McMaster's family carried on - at one and the same time defiant and just providing a service to the people of this city.

Like so many others that cleaned up and rebuilt after bombings. One of dozens of small businesses standing witnesses to - and in their own small way shaping - our shared experience, our memories and local lore.

In our headlong rush to be just like every other city, we forget just how much we owe to small independent traders, how their businesses are hopelessly entwined with the history of our city, how they have always told us something about ourselves. Most have perished, victims of time and chance and changing economic realities. Some somehow hold on, keeping a kind of vigil on our collective memory, a reminder on how things used to be.

Historians naturally seize upon our great industries and engineering feats - Harland & Wolff, Sirocco, the linen mills, the brick and rope works - but tend to overlook the places that made life a tiny bit more tolerable, a smidgin more sweet - the cafes like Campbell's and Marshalls, the chippies like Fuscos and Longs (both still flying the flag, thankfully). It is those places that tell the story of Friday pay nights, of a night air brimming with temporary escape from drudgery and romantic possibility.

Those booths where the fumes of malted vinegar gently stung the eyes. Treats like a Maine or C&C mineral (never a lemonade, or, heaven forbid, a soda). Dramas played out of working-class struggle and new immigrant communities finding their place on our streets.

Think of Caffolas and Morrellis - could McDonald's, or Harry Ramsden's, claim such romance? Could they ever say they had the weight of history behind them? Daft even to think about it.

Or the legends of old Smithfield. Forget about today's tawdry sex shops, those streets saw the trade of legends: Greer's second-hand books, later to find a worthy successor in Harry Hall's of Gresham Street.

Or Joseph "I buy anything" Kavanagh. Now, there was a man. When James Magennis put his Victoria Cross up for sale in 1952, after hitting hard times, Joe bought the medal and immediately returned it to the former submariner. He imposed only one condition on the war hero, requesting that the medal should not be sold again during his lifetime.

Then, there's McBurney's record shop, which is still going. All of these stores, in their various fashions, drawing a picture of perhaps a harsher city, but also one where the written word and the local way of doing things had their place. A city of business, dreamers and autodidacts. Of characters.

Or, if you want more tangible expressions of local pride, just look at the buildings left to us by our department stores Robinson & Cleaver, Anderson & McAuley, Brands and Normans ... They were nothing less than monumental expressions of confidence in Belfast's future as one of the great cities of industry and a hub of empire. And surely such a city deserved the best?

Of course, we all have our own personal memories. Take that most formative of retail experiences - records. Like geological strata, independent record shops served generations of Belfast youth. Smyth's for Records, Caroline Music, Dougie Knight's on Botanic Avenue and, most famously, Terri Hooley's Good Vibrations (the Great Victoria Street incarnation, please, just above the health food shop).

For vast numbers of teenagers, it was at these places where they began their individual journeys towards maturity and adulthood, the Saturday morning 45 single from the charts eventually giving way to the more sophisticated concept LP.

Do you get that fug of memory now from downloads, or multi-floored entertainment chains? No, you don't.

That's why we should remember our smaller traders. They are - and were - the places where real life happened. Places where the everyday turned, by some kind of alchemy, into living history, showing us that a shop was more than a money-making enterprise.

In the right hands it could be about duty, tradition, respect, a streak of stubborn insanity and, in the last analysis, giving rather than just taking. All of this was certainly the case at McMaster's, when men from the Yard, Mackie's, Shorts and the mills saw that business boomed. Or on a Saturday morning, when a man from an office job pushed open the door in Church Lane for advice on buying a wrench, or chisel, or screwdriver, for a modest project he was doing at home.

It was also where a brother set off, on foot and by pure instinct, adrenalin pumping, to chase down the man who had just murdered his brother.

In the last analysis, it is about love.

And how do you put a price on that?

Belfast Telegraph


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