RELIGION, RIOTS AND REBELS the incredible history of Brown’s Square, Belfast

Francis Higgins. Belfast Lad Publications 2020

Reviewed by Sam Halliday

If you shop in the huge CastleCourt mall in Belfast city centre, you are only a few hundred metres away from one of the city’s historic areas,;  Brown’s Square.  Bounded by Millfield, Peter’s Hill and the sunken Westlink dual carriageway, this small area has been a significant player in our city’s history. Francis Higgins – a Brown’s Square resident himself – tells the story of his area in this fascinating book.

A valuable social and oral history book

The author gives a glimpse of the prehistory and the topography of the area from the end of the Ice Age to the first human settlements. He explains how the Norman conquest changed everything; they built a corn mill at what is now Millfield.

Owing to the influence of Arthur Chichester, Belfast received a Royal Charter from King James I as a borough,; a proper town. By the early 1700s the mill dam was a source of clean piped water for the growing town.

John Brown, a descendant of a former supporter of King Charles I during the English Revolution, moved to a house on Peter’s Hill. Brown was a bit of a property speculator who bought leases on land on the Lodge Road and Old Park.

As High Sheriff of Belfast, he laid the foundation stone of the White Linen Hall in 1783. He was a strong supporter of the British Crown, a freeholder of Belfast, a captain in the Belfast Volunteers and a prominent Freemason. Brown’s loyal contribution was recognised by Belfast Corporation which granted him the plot of land that still bears his name today.

Other local masons didn’t share Brown’s loyalty to the Crown.  They used the cover of a couple of Masonic lodges to conceal their membership of another secret society – the United Irishmen. They met in a tavern in Brown Street. One prominent member was Jemmy Hope, a Presbyterian weaver; one of the ‘men of no property’ destined to be betrayed by middle class poseurs.

The Industrial Revolution had begun to transform Brown’s Square. Small weavers’ cottages disappeared and industry moved in:; a bottle glasshouse, two linen mills and a National School.

Growing industrialisation, slum housing, wage cuts and poverty led to civil unrest in the area. People moving into the town for work brought their sectarian attitudes with them. Protestants settled mainly in Brown’s Square, whereas Catholics moved to the other side of the Farset in the Pound. Attitudes to one- another hardened, causing Catholics to leave Brown Street School for a new Catholic one in Donegall Street. From 1813 onwards, sectarian rioting and inter-communal violence became common, fuelled by cheap booze, slum housing and grinding poverty.

Churches began to move into the area:; St Stephen’s in Millfield, Townsend Street Presbyterian Church and a Methodist chapel in Melbourne Street. To keep public order, a Royal Irish Constabulary barracks was built on the site of John Brown’s former home in the mid-1860s.

By the start of the twentieth century, 620 households were spread over 28 streets. Some of the housing stock was the worst in Belfast. The area hosted ten pubs, six local schools, a chippy, a billiard hall and a variety of local shops.

The author gives a potted history of the Ulster Crisis at the start of the twentieth century which was temporarily set aside with the outbreak of the First World War. His meticulous research tells the individual tragic stories of the Brown’s Square men who fought and died in that dreadful conflict.

The interwar years didn’t see peace or prosperity in Belfast. Despite promises, the postwar slump didn’t allow for either jobs or homes ‘fit for heroes’. Brown’s Square was now an overcrowded slum. Working hours were long and conditions were hard for those with jobs. Labour unrest grew. Added to this was the violent overspill from the War of Independence and subsequent civil war in the South of Ireland that led to the emergence of the Irish Free State there and Northern Ireland in the northern six counties. Again, Brown’s Square residents found themselves in the front line.

In these times, your only chance of finding work was often on a ‘who you know rather than what you know’ social network; often through membership of the Orange Order.

Unemployed workers had to be assessed by the demeaning Outdoor Relief system. Local people were so annoyed by this that they elected an independent Unionist candidate, Lieutenant Colonel Phillip J Woods at a local bye-election. The ‘Fighting Colonel’ championed ex-servicemen. Woods was a veteran of the Somme and Messines battles. He had been awarded the DSO for bravery. He brushed aside easily the lies and smears of the Official Unionist establishment. He only lost his seat after Craig’s government abolished Proportional Representation in local elections.

Growing discontent with the contemptuous way in which poor people were treated by the Belfast Board of Guardians, many churchmen and the political establishment – they were called ‘wastrels’ and ‘parasites’ – led to a strike in 1932. One of the strikers was Walter Smith, the author’s uncle. His story shows one of the best things about Higgins’s book; the amount of personal touches and connections he has to his district’s story.

Such was the Unionist Party’s paranoia, anyone demanding better living conditions was regarded as attacking the State and the Protestant religion. Protests were broken up by the RUC who shot two men dead,; one a Protestant and the other a Catholic. However, by 1935, more ‘traditional’ rioting had returned. This pattern has continued, off and on, into the twenty-first century.

During the Second World War, Brown’s Square had become known as ‘the oasis’ as it boasted at least 22 pubs or ‘drinking establishments’ and three dance halls. This reviewer wonders where they managed to put them all! Housing was still squalid and unfit, divided on sectarian and class lines. Catholics lived on the west end of the area by the Farset and the better off lived around Townsend Street.

Higgins sketches out the wartime recollections of some residents. One lady he interviewed lived to 103 and received both a telegram of congratulations from Queen Elizabeth and a letter of congratulations and cash from the President of Ireland.

Belfast had very poor air defences, so much so that the author’s mother witnessed a Junkers Ju88 reconnaissance plane flying unchallenged low over Royal Avenue. Using the recollections of local interviewees, Higgins gives a vivid account of the devastation caused locally during the infamous Easter Tuesday air raid of 1941. His report of the death and destruction caused by the collapse of the air raid shelter in nearby Percy Street is still heartrending to read, over seventy years later.

Many local people served in the armed forces during the war. Once again, drawing on personal reminiscences of his interviewees, Higgins gives brief sketches of the lives of some of these men. One, the author’s uncle Francis Higgins, was one of the first men involved in the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

The author’s assiduous research is one of the great strengths of this book. He unearths some wonderful recollections of the social mores of the time in his chapter on the 1950s; a time of growing postwar affluence, elaborate Orange arches, backstreet abortionists, childish street gangs, but also increasing segregation on sectarian lines. One straw in the wind was the emergence of a local chapter of a group called ‘Ulster Protestant Action’. Some of its members were later to found the Democratic Unionist Party as an alternative to the then dominant ‘Official’ Unionist Party.

The 1960s opened optimistically. That soon changed. As in the best oral history books, Higgins records the experiences of quite a few longtime residents as the area was blighted by the controversial Belfast Urban Area Plan and a renewed outbreak of civil disorder towards the end of the decade.

This plan envisaged wiping out areas like Brown’s Square and relocating the displaced populations to the ‘new city’ of Craigavon and towns like Antrim and Carrickfergus, where new companies, attracted by government grants, had set up factories. Extended family networks where several generations of each family lived close to one-another were casualties of this plan. Brown’s Square and other inner city working-class areas stood in the way of a planned Belfast Urban Ring Road.

The Protestant Unionist councillor Eileen Paisley was one of the only unionist members of the Belfast Corporation to object to the plan, but the vote was lost. Higgins explains the full enormity of a plan that would have driven an elevated six-lane motorway thirty feet above the blighted wasteland it would have left behind. Check out the part of York Street between the Westlink and Yorkgate Station even today for an idea of what that would look like. No wonder that another author, Ron Weiner, called this the ‘rape and plunder of the Shankill’.

The great shame was that loyalists were reluctant to criticise the Official Unionist establishment and run the risk of accusations that they were in league with the only other party to object to the Corporation’s plans; the left-of-centre Republican Labour Party.

While planners plotted the extinction of Brown’s Square and the dispersal of its residents and small businesses, a newer and more vicious strain of violence emerged. The author himself witnessed the RUC using water cannons against Protestant rioters in 1966. By 1969 large-scale violence broke out. The RUC couldn’t cope, so British soldiers were brought on to the streets. They set up a ‘peace line’ on Townsend Street. As Higgins notes, it’s still there today. That peace line as far as Northumberland Street was drawn up at a meeting by an army officer on a map on his family’s coffee table. His great uncle, Johnny McQuade MP, was one of the participants.

Higgins sketches out how the plan blighted the area and how the early phase of the Troubles halted the proposed ring road. Belfast Corporation itself dissolved under Direct Rule from Westminster, but not before large swathes of Brown’s Square, Divis Street and Peter’s Hill were flattened.

Brown’s Square became a focal point for inter-communal violence. To cope, the army set up temporary barracks in local church halls, factories and the RUC station. A massive loyalist protest at the bottom of the Shankill led to the death of an RUC constable at the hands of a loyalist sniper, despite attempts by local clergy to calm the situation. After this, Higgins asserts, quoting Weiner’s seminal study as authority, that military considerations were taken into account in all future town planning. So when the sunken Westlink replaced the proposed elevated ring road, the security forces only had two easily controlled motorway bridges over Peter’s Hill and Divis Street to contend with.

It’s a good reminder to those folk in the loyalist community today who lionise the Parachute Regiment that its members shot dead two innocent Protestant civilians on the Shankill Road, Richie McKinney and Robert Johnston in 1972; – the same year as Bloody Sunday in Derry. The author meticulously documents all the sectarian murders locally, whether committed by the IRA or loyalist groups.

Higgins – rightly so – is scathing in his denunciation of the despicable treatment of Brown’s Square and its settled community, “at the hands of Belfast Corporation, the Ulster Unionist Party, Army HQ at Lisburn and developers who saw Brown’s Square simply as cheap land close to the city centre and therefore ripe for exploitation.” From 1900 to 2006, businesses were reduced by 99% to six, houses by 82% to 111, streets by 65%, all the bars and pubs disappeared as did all youth and social groups and five out of six schools.

Despite all this, the author remains optimistic for the future of Brown’s Square after new residents move into the new apartments currently under construction in Gardiner Square. The area will change, but it will survive and grow.

Francis Higgins deserves credit for the labour of love he has spent in putting this valuable social and oral history book together. It’s well researched and referenced and definitely worth reading. He has put his heart and soul into telling the story of the urban village that his family has called home since at least 1803. It really shows. That said, he could have done with a good proofreader and editor to remove irritating errors and inconsistencies in the text and references. He tells us that the area is “Brown’s Square” not “Brown Square” but often switches between the two, sometimes on the same page.

However, don’t let these minor irritations put anyone off reading this book. If you have any interest in the social history of Belfast at all you should read this book.

Available here.

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