Posts Tagged Belfast

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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Nine Below Zero – Live At The Marquee 


Nine Below Zero in action.  From left to right: Peter ‘Pete’ Clark (Bass), Kenny Bradley (Drums), Dennis Greaves (lead vocals & guitar) and Mark Feltham (vocals & harmonica).

IN THE PAST I’ve provided a few random reviews for Counter Culture.  However, it’s always been my intention (and ambition) to review as many of my own books, CDs & DVDs as is possible.  Now that I’ve got a bit of time on my hands – and I’m still looking down at the daisies as opposed to looking up at them! – I thought that now’s a good as time as any to start.  So, in the words of the Ramones, Hey Ho, Let’s Go!

With the above in mind, I thought that I’d kick off with Nine Below Zero’s brilliant CD Live At The Marquee.   

I first heard about Nine Below Zero from a friend from East London many, many years ago, probably in the early to mid 80s.  He highly recommended both the band and their live CD.  I’ve listened to it lots of times over the years and have always thought that it was probably one of the best live albums I’ve ever heard; not only does it convey the music but also seems to capture the shear energy of a live gig.  

I must admit that (at the time) I’d never heard of the band.  However, my friend had been over to South London a couple of times to see them.  He’d described how frenetic they were – effectively a Blues band that performed with the speed & energy of a Punk band.  Therefore, I’d a rough idea of what to expect on the live album.  But having an idea of what to expect & listening to the real deal are two different things.  Suffice to say that I was blown away by the CD itself.

I’ll leave the actual review of Live At The Marquee until another time.  However, I thought that it might be helpful to provide a little background information about the band themselves.   

Nine Below Zero started off life as Stan’s Blues Band in 1977 and consisted of four South London lads who found inspiration in the Rhythm and Blues.  Led by Dennis Greaves (lead vocals & guitar) the band included his schoolmates Mark Feltham (vocals & harmonica), Peter ‘Pete’ Clark (Bass) and Kenny Bradley (Drums).

Graves was obsessed by the Blues.  But to form a R&B band in the late 70s was a bold, almost reckless, move.  This was the time when Punk was exploding, and had literally blown other music genres – like R&B and Progessive Rock – out of the water.  (I think I’m right in saying that Dr. Feelgood were probably the only well-known British R&B band at the time. They’d formed in 1971 and hailed from Canvey Island in Essex and were known for their driving R&B which had made them one of the most popular bands on the growing London pub rock circuit.)

Despite the seemingly unstoppable rise of Punk, the sharply dressed Stan’s Blues Band played in local South London pubs like the Apples and Pears, the Clockhouse, the Green Man and the Thomas ‘A’ Becket.  Playing six to seven nights a week they built up a loyal following.  Like Dr. Feelgood they went hell for leather and played at a frenetic pace.  Mixing original songs with covers at their gigs, they were soon playing all over London.

Stan’s Blues Band changed their name to Nine Below Zero (they were named after a song by Sonny Boy Williamson II) on the advice of former musician Mickey Modern.  He’d seen them play at the Thomas ‘A’ Becket (in the Old Kent Road, Southwark, South London) in 1979 and was so impressed that he offered to manage them.

In a bold – but completely justifiable – move, Modern decided that Nine Below Zero’s first album would be a live one.  And so with just one change of personal (Micky Burkey for Kenny Bradley on Drums) Live At The Marquee was released in 1980.  

The album was recorded at the well-known music venue, the Marquee Club (in Wardour Street, West London) on Wednesday 16th & Thursday 17th July and was billed as a live recording.  The admission fee was £2 with a reduced rate available for students & Marquee Club members.

Apparently, it’d been an ambition of Dennis Greaves and the rest of the band to play at the Marquee – even in the capacity of a support band  Therefore, to appear as the headline act & record your first (live) album must have been out of this world.  Prior to this gig, Nine Below Zero were well known as an brilliant high energy act.  However, I’m wondering if their desire to play at the Marquee spurred them on to go the extra mile and produce such an electric album?

I feel that the CDs sleeve notes excellently conveys something of gig itself:

‘Fourteen high octane R&B monsters – including three Greaves originals Straighten Her Out, Stop Your Nagging and Watch Yourself – merged Chicago chops and cockney charm in a ferocious homebrew of adrenalin which never once seemed out of step alongside the ten regular live favourites: the aforementioned Freddie King’s Tore Down, Otis Rush’s Home Work and J Geil’s version of Pack Fair and Square line up with the John Mayall and Paul Butterfield collaboration, Ridin’ On The L&N, Lloyd Price’s Hootchie Cootchie Coo, Sam the Sham’s Wooly Bully, Muddy Waters’ Mojo Working, and Rush’s I Can’t Quit You Baby, plus Motown stalwart’s The Four Tops’, Can’t Help Myself and Marvin Gaye’s Can I Get A Witness, are all nailed down before the band signs off with their instrumental wig-out, Swing Job.’

(With the sleeve notes in mind, they were printed on thick glossy card which served as part CD sleeve cover, part poster & part information sheet about the band.)

To celebrate their 40th anniversary, Nine Below Zero released a new album in October 2019.  Unlike a lot of anniversary releases which tend to be ‘The Best Of’ albums, Avalanche refreshingly featured 12 brand new original songs.

In addition to their anniversary CD, they’d kicked off a new tour in Belfast, with many further dates set.  However, as we all now know, the world effectively stopped spinning when Covid-19 reared its ugly head.  Therefore, they had to cancel all of their gigs from mid-March onwards.  According to the band’s web-site – – their next scheduled gig is early September in Fleet, Hampshire. Here’s hoping!

Hopefully this brief potted history of Nine Below Zero has provided readers with some insight into the band.  Now the only thing to do is to review the album itself. However, as mentioned earlier (and to absolutely cement my Counter Culture reputation as the slowest reviewer in the world!) this’ll appear in the next thrilling instalment.

Reviewed by John Field 

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Thompson Brings Noir To Belfast

Take Care Gorgeous by Alan Drew Thompson 

TAKE CARE GORGEOUS is the début novelette of Carrickfergus (Co. Antrim) based author Alan Drew Thompson. A fast paced often violent but sometimes sentimental affair that finally brings the noir genre to Belfast.

Set against the tough backdrop of 1950’s Belfast, the book introduces a new kind of local hero Inspector James Forsyth of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. A man who will bend the rules of authority in order to do what is morally right.

In the first instalment of a promised trilogy Forsyth finds himself tangled in a complicated web of murder, blackmail and shifting identities.

The story is set around a prominent member of Belfast society who finds himself at the centre of a blackmail plot involving an attempt to get a highly dangerous renegade Irish Republican released from the Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast.

The exciting and unique feature of the story is that for the first time the writing styles of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are set against the violent Belfast backdrop. The customary femme fatale is also on hand, this time a beautiful woman from West Belfast who bears a striking resemblance to 1940’s film noir legend Veronica Lake.

Fast paced, enjoyable with a twist in the tail Take Care Gorgeous left me desperate for more.

Thompson has promised that the sequel entitled Farewell Handsome will be released in the near future.

Reviewed by Lisa Thomas


Click on image to buy Paperback!

by Alan Drew Thompson
ISBN-13: 978-1500285371 is available from priced at £2.75
Also available on KINDLE price £1.53

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’71 (2014)

Gary Hook is a soldier from Derbyshire who instead of being deployed to Germany is sent to Belfast, Northern Ireland at the start of the ‘troubles’. There his orientation consists of a quick look at a map with ‘Green’ (unsafe/Republican) and ‘Orange’ (safe/Loyalist) markings with advice to stay out of the Divis flats.

Hook (played by the impressive Jack O’Connell) is thrown quickly into a chaotic, disorientating environment when he supports RUC police searching for guns in a Republican neighbourhood near the Falls. The soldiers are ill-equipped in every way to deal with the hostility and violence that greets them from a civilian population. Hook is separated from his troop, wounded and a tense cat and mouse game involving the newly formed Provisionals, the Official IRA and military intelligence begins. Who will find him first and who is he safest with?

Gregory Burke who wrote the screenplay says of his film ’71:

“It’s like an apocalyptic world, and it’s on our back doorstep. We think we’re immune to these things when we watch them on the news,We have this veneer of civilisation, but these young lads had no idea where they were, and it was brutal.”

’71 shows us a violent time where you can never be sure who is on which side – let alone who the ‘good’ guys are. Perhaps there weren’t any, though Sean Bannon, a young Provo (pleayed by Barry Keoghan) comes closest.

This is a nail-biting film with real suspense and a writer who understands the political nuances and recreates an authentic cultural and geographic setting. This isn’t just one for the politicos as it works on many levels not least as a human drama. Go see it!

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

Director: Yann Demange
Writer: Gregory Burke (screenplay)
Stars: Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Sean Harris
Certificate: 15
Release date: 10 Ocotober 2014 (UK)
Runtime: 99min

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Harry Ferguson

By Bill Martin.

Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, Cultra, Ulster.  1984.

THIS is a remarkable booklet.  Although it’s only the size of a large postcard, its 30 pages are crammed full of information, photographs and diagrams.  I really liked the way it was written – everything was direct and straight to the point.  Bill Martin is not a man who uses two words when one will do!  For instance, his introduction tells the story of Harry Ferguson in a single paragraph:

“HHarryFerguson 2 jpgarry Ferguson was born into an age of rapid change.  He contributed to the way in which change was applied.  He was born into a way of life which the industrial revolution had largely bypassed, where the horse reigned supreme, where brawn was more useful than brain and where a farmer could feed himself, his horse and four other people in that order of priority.  When he retired he was able to look at an industry in Britain in which one farmer could produce sufficient food for himself and forty others.  The other measure of his success is that some 80 per cent of tractors produced today the principles which he established.”

Henry George “Harry” Ferguson was born in 1884 at Growell, near Dromore, County Down.  The son of Mary and James was the 4th child of 11 in the family.  In 1902 he became an apprentice in his elder brother Joe’s engineering business, Hamilton and Ferguson – later to become J.B. Ferguson and Co. Automobile Engineers based in Little Donegall Street in Belfast.  The brothers were known for their discipline, efficiency, accuracy and quality.  Great innovators, they used the most up-to-date equipment.  Harry also took part in sporting events to publicise the company.

He was very quick to spot trends.  He first saw aircraft in summer 1909 and by December he had a plane built and undergoing trials in Hillsborough, Co. Down.  This was no mean feat as he was “trying to design an aircraft and learning to fly it at the same time.  There were no reference books to work from only indistinct pictures in magazines.”

After several attempts, he won a prize of £100 for the first official flight in Ireland over a three mile course.  Despite his flying success he split from his brother JB, who could not see how it would benefit the garage business.  They decided to go their separate ways.  The May Street Motor Company (later Harry Ferguson Ltd.) opened for business in 1911 and became agents for Vauxhall, Maxwell and Ford.  He also started to sell Overtime tractors imported from America in 1914 – something that would later ‘make his name.’

Tractors had been introduced in 1894 but there were only 300 in the whole of Ireland by 1917.  The situation was to rapidly change:

“1916-17 was a period of national crisis and the need to increase home food production became paramount if starvation was to be averted.  There was neither spare manpower nor industrial capacity and large numbers of women were already employed in agriculture yet the problem had to be solved and the area under the plough increased immediately and substantially.  The tillage order of 1917 gives some indication of the desperation since it required holders of 10 acres or more to plough 15% more than the previous year and large landowners with 200 acres or more to plough an extra 20 percent.  The Government made two important decisions which were to have far reaching effects on Ferguson.  It arranged to have 6,000 Ford tractors imported from America, which helped to get Ford firmly established in the U.K. tractor market, and it also made arrangements to ensure that farmers were taught how to use them properly.”  

This proved to be a turning point in Ferguson’s life – he was regarded as a ploughing expert because of his previous association with US Overtime tractors.  In March 1919 he (and his employee William Sands) were appointed by the “Irish Board of Agriculture to travel throughout Ireland and by demonstration, instruction and example to improve the quality and efficiency of tractor ploughing.”

It was during these trials that he began to think about faults and problems associated with ploughing and started to construct his own ploughs.  According to Martin: “The plough was built in the May Street premises in Belfast and compared to its contemporaries was about as revolutionary as a plough could be.”  Mounted directly on a Ford Eros tractor it was four times more efficient than other tractors and “set the pace and style for development for the next 20 years.” 

In 1933 Ferguson designed the revolutionary ‘Black Tractor,’ which was both light and powerful.  It was built in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, by David Brown Tractors Limited.  The Ferguson Brown Type A was introduced in 1936.  Sales were slow – but some success was to be found in the Channel Islands and Scandinavia.  Later on (in 1938) Ferguson met Henry Ford and – famously sealing the deal with a handshake – agreed to go into business together.  The equally famous Ford Ferguson Tractor was born and thousands were built (in the Ford factory in Detroit, Michigan) up until 1947.

Relations between Ferguson and Ford were soured when Ford’s grandson took over the company and set up the Dearborn Motor Corporation.  Here he produced tractors based on Ferguson’s designs – but neglected to obtain use of the patent rights.  As Martin notes, this led to one of the most famous industrial law suits ever: “It took four years to settle and eventually Ferguson was awarded over £3m as compensation for patent infringement and loss of business.”      

Ferguson switched production to Coventry in the East Midlands and in 1946 the TE 20 made an appearance.  He later became involved with the Canadian-based Massey Harris (later known as Massey Ferguson) until 1954 when he resigned as chairman of the group.

Whilst his name is – rightly – most commonly associated with tractors, Ferguson had always retained his interest in motor cars.

He was successful in helping to launch the Ulster Grand Prix in 1922 and the Tourist Trophy Races in Ards between 1928 and 1936.  He also became interested in the idea of cars obtaining more power safely using a four-wheel-drive system.  Prototypes were built but there were no takers.  To try to encourage public acceptance of the system, the P99 racing car was built.  (Stirling Moss gave the car its first win, the Oulton Park Gold Cup in 1962.)  The system was later used in the Jensen Interceptor FF, a luxury car, but sadly never in a ‘people’s car’ as he wished.  Ferguson sadly died in October 1960.

Reviewed by John Field

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Good Vibrations

Good Vibrations PosterAnyone in Belfast who plays in a band, appreciates music or even who buys records regularly will probably have come across Terri Hooley. Terri would admit that he is an unlikely businessman. He certainly can’t claim to be the most successful record shop owner in history, but then again, the Virgin Megastores, Zavvi, Tower Records and Our Price have passed into history and HMV is in deep trouble but Good Vibrations manages to hang on in there, despite it all.

The crazy thing is that Terri Hooley opened his shop in Belfast in the mid-seventies in the city’s most-bombed street above a dusty whole food shop run by the Guru Maharaj Ji’s Divine Light Mission. The city in the 1970s was a bleak place. Belfast city centre emptied at 6 o’clock of all but the brave or the foolhardy. The conflict – which Ulsterfolk euphemistically call ‘The Troubles’ – was at the height of its random tit-for-tat viciousness. People retreated in the evenings to the ghettos where they lived in search of some security. They socialised where they could; in local clubs, pubs, parish halls, Orange halls or illegal sheebeens. They rarely – if ever – met with people from ‘the other side’.

The novelist Glenn Patterson and Colin Carberry have conjured up a film script that really captures the nature of this anarchic mould -breaking larger-than-life character. Their script buzzes with dark Belfast humour and a soundtrack that brings everything to the mix from Hank Williams’ I Saw the Light, Phil Spector’s girl bands, through to Rudi’s Big Time and of course, the Undertones’ Teenage Kicks. The action was intercut with contemporary footage of background events. This gave an immediate reminder of the very real dangers stalking the city then. Many folk of a certain age would have been delighted to see one-time Scene-Around-Six news anchor Barry Cowan, (sadly no longer with us), on-screen again.

Terri’s mum was a devout Methodist and his dad was a revolutionary socialist. He never quite fitted in to Ulster’s divided society. In the Sixties, he protested against the Vietnam war and in favour of nuclear disarmament, but as the Troubles took hold many of his contemporaries forsook protesting for peace in favour of violence.

His first love was music, especially reggae, but he became enthused by the energy of the growing punk movement which drew young folk from both communities to the rundown Pound Club on the edge of the city centre to hear bands like Rudi and the Outcasts. This led him into launching a record label to introduce Rudi to a wider public. Other bands followed. The ‘big one’ was The Undertones from Derry whose single, Teenage Kicks went stratospheric after it was taken up by the influential Radio One presenter, John Peel.

Despite its bleak environment of bombs everywhere, soldiers on the streets, officious cops and random, casual violence, this is a real fun, feel good movie. Dormer’s Hooley often messes things up, not least his life and his relationship with his wife, Ruth. He’s more interested in the music than making money from it.

Some scenes will haunt the viewer for life. I was struck by the scene where Terri hears ‘that’ Undertones song for the first time and fell about laughing at a scene where a bemused British soldiers stops Hooley and the band in the van only to discover that they are both Protestants and Catholics from north, east and west Belfast. Terri had never asked them what they were.

Coming out at a time when old divisions threaten to open up again in Belfast, this movie reminds us that we can do better. In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king. Roll on the DVD release. One Love!

PS.  The DVD is now available,

By David Kerr

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The Boat Factory

The Boat Factory

Happenstance Theatre Company

Hill Street Theatre, Venue 41

0131 226 0000

For more than a century, East Belfast has been dominated by what writer Dan Gordon calls ‘the Boat Factory’ – the Harland and Wolff shipyard.  In this centenary year of the sinking of one particular product of the Boat Factory, Happenstance Theatre Company have given the writer and actor Dan Gordon the opportunity to tell the world how the heritage and history of the shipyard and how it made him what he is.

After Davy Gordon’s (Dan Gordon) da ‘spoke for him’ he met a whole range of characters on his first day as an indentured apprentice in the Boat Factory, most notably that ‘cheeky wee shite’ Geordie Kilpatrick (Michael Condron).  Wee Geordie had been partly crippled by polio, so he had a bit of a limp.  He was inspired to sail the world once his apprenticeship finished by reading Moby Dick. In the Boat Factory everyone seemed to be either ‘big this’ or ‘wee that’.  There were no in-betweens.

As well as their portrayals of Davy and Geordie, Gordon and Condron carry a outstanding array of complex characters to this impressive production. Dan Gordon brings such an expressive face and eyes to the stage that he often doesn’t even have to speak.

This is a warm, witty, evocative, and often laugh-out-loud hilarious story of the men who built the Titanic and the Canberra. It’s not afraid, though, to look at the darker side of the Yard in the 1920s when Catholic workers were expelled for ‘disloyalty’. Nor does the script avoid the dubious tradition of ‘homers’.

Some of the best lines come from the repartee between the two main characters as they climb scaffolding and look out over the whole yard during their lunch break. The Boat Factory is a remarkable, vivid look back at what has become a forgotten time for most folk in Northern Ireland.

This play is due to go on tour once it finishes its run at the Edinburgh Fringe.  Catch it if you can. It’s superb.

***** Five Stars

David Kerr

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Déjà Vu

Déjà Vu:

The Shankill Players

Dorothy Evans, the Creative Director and Writer of Déjà Vu has created a real monster; a low-life alcoholic hate-the-world cynical bully called Charles (played with evil relish by Mark McClean). He delights in spreading misery wherever he goes, whether it’s to his longsuffering wife Gail (Nichola Price), his younger brother Winston (Adam Crooks) or his world-weary mum Etta (Lynda Hastings) a woman with a few secrets in her own past.

Artful lighting with two alternating sets side-by side on the same stage area allowed fast-paced scenes to hurtle along without any need for an interval break.


This fusion of personal tragedy, long-hidden family secrets and blackBelfastgallows humour really hit the spot with most members of the audience; who laughed out loud at some parts only to be stunned into shocked silence a few moments later as the plot developed.  It’s a pity that some half dozen members of the audience couldn’t manage to keep quiet and did their damndest to spoil it for others by gabbling away inanely during the action.

The Shankill Players are best known for lighter stuff than Déjà Vu; usually annual pantomimes, so it’s good to be reminded that they are capable of stretching themselves in order to stage more serious work.  This little company deserve a lot more recognition than they are currently getting. I don’t know if this is Dorothy Evans’ first script or not, but she is well on the way to knocking Martin Lynch off his perch, if she can keep up this kind of pace over the next few years.


***** Five Stars

This play is set to tour several venues in Northern Ireland




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Scene of the Titans

Cheesy dance routines

Karaoke Night

By Tim Foley

Faulty Productions

C Venue 34, Adam House, Chambers Street

TIM FOLEY, a member of the Belfast Titans RFC has penned this improbable account of how the famous rugby team was founded.  If you’re looking for innuendo and jokes about men playing games with odd-shaped balls you’ve come to the right place. There are some priceless one-liners in this sharp, witty script. Pay attention or you’ll miss some.

Loosely based on true events, the story unfolds with Terry – a regular in the Belfast gay bar, the Kremlin – telling a TV crew how he set up the team initially to impress Colin.  The goal of the makeshift team was to contest the Bingham World Cup in Dublin (the Emerald City) and do it all in just eight months.

Presented as a Broadway-style musical, each stage of story unfolds in song with some deliberately cheesy dance routines. Just one caveat, the dance scene of the song, My God is Gay may offend some folk. It didn’t advance the plot in any way to have one of the dancers appearing in cruciform. You have been warned.

Despite the name, Faulty Productions have managed to pull off (sorry it’s infectious) a hit show.  The mix of music, humour and pathos is just right with an upbeat and catchy score whose tunes that will haunt you for hours after the show.  This show should tour and consider releasing a CD of the soundtrack.

**** Four Stars

Reviewed by David Kerr

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Battle of the Bone (2008)

Battle_of_the_Bone_DVD_coverWritten, directed and produced by George Clarke

Certificate:18. Run time: 90 minutes.

Billed as Northern Ireland’s first kung fu/zombie film, George Clarke has achieved nothing short of a miracle with this fast-paced tale of three friends battling against sectarian thugs and drug-crazed zombies. Owing much to the work of George A Romero and Japanese gore-fest movies, Battle of the Bone was shot on a micro-budget of just £10,000. Despite this, Clarke managed to get a cameo role from popular UTV newsreader Pamela Ballentine playing herself. Most of the shooting of this film was done on location, so virtually no money was spent on expensive sets. Action takes place in the open air, a pedestrian subway, a grain silo and a paper warehouse in the docklands, a city centre multi-storey car park and shopping mall, and culminates on the steps of an inner city church.

The story takes place in Belfast on the Twelfth of July as three friends; David, Scott and Jill, try to get back home to East Belfast in the aftermath of a huge inter-communal riot. All the river bridges are blocked by burning cars except for a pedestrian bridge guarded by a bunch of thugs. David falls foul of these guys and finds himself and his two friends running and fighting for his life though the city docklands.

In the meantime, an accidental spillage of a new drug has turned the staff and inmates of the local mental hospital into crazed zombies. These create havoc as they attack loyalist bandsmen in their practice hall, Twelfth revellers waiting at ‘the field’ to see the bands and a courting couple in the Botanic Gardens.

The three friends think they’re safe having eluded the thugs from ‘the other side’ only to run into a greater danger; the zombie hordes pouring into the city centre.

Battle of the Bone is fast-moving with a pulsating soundtrack that really moves the action along. There’s genuine tension at times, but it’s also a lot of fun with plenty of over-the-top fake blood and gore. It’s obvious that the young inexperienced cast had a ball making this frenetic film.

The last couple of minutes are a wee bit lame but not enough to spoil the fun. The best scene is where two doctors in the ‘nuthouse’ lark about singing and playing the piano totally unaware of the frenzied zombies menacing them. It’s great stuff.

George Clarke has come up with what ought to be a genre classic. If he can do such a fine job with this kind of a budget, what will he be able to do in future efforts with a bigger budget? Things look promising for him and his Yellow Fever Productions.

The DVD bundles an interesting documentary showing how the film was made, a number of deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer with the main feature.

Reviewed by David Kerr

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