Northern Ireland

Telling the stories of Belfast's lost Sailortown

The last remaining original houses of Sailortown in Garmoyle Street
Image caption The last remaining original houses of Sailortown in Garmoyle Street

Every day, thousands of commuters pass around, above and through what was once Sailortown.

It was a thriving, busy part of Belfast - home to hundreds of families.

Then in the Seventies, the Belfast Urban Project began - the Westlink.

That saw many homes in the docks area demolished and the people scattered far and wide. It had a huge impact on those who used to live there.

Image caption Brian Quinn was born in Sailortown but his family had to move away when he was a teenager to make way for progress

"I was born in Pilot Street and we lived in Ship Street," said Brian Quinn, a former resident.

"And when I was 14, the house was demolished. We had to move.

"As a kid, it was very strange. You were just used to your friends and all of a sudden, your friends were away. They'd moved to different areas."

It could have meant the end for Sailortown, but Brian and some former residents had other ideas. They kept in touch as time passed by.

"We used to meet up from time to time over the years.

"A few of us got together and decided to meet more often. And the focal point was always Sailortown."

Image caption Sailortown in 1974 as the area was demolished to make way for the Belfast Urban Project

That shared passion for their original area's past led them to form the Docksiders Senior Men's Group. With some financial support from the Big Lottery Fund, they set about collecting the stories of Sailortown.

"There've been numerous stories told," Brian said.

"You can't remember them all, so we decided to get them down in writing so it's there for other people to see.

"People can't listen to our stories if they're not with us, but they can read our books."

The books have covered childhood tales and stories of working life. Now on their fourth instalment, they are turning their attention to the past.

"The fourth book is six stories of six of our members who have passed away," Brian said.

"And they're stories told from their friends' perspectives and from their families' perspective. These were people who were born and reared in Sailortown and lived in Sailortown."

Image caption St. Joseph's Church in Sailortown was closed in 2001

There is little left of the original Sailortown - just four houses on Garmoyle Street, a couple of buildings that are now pubs and St. Joseph's Church, which links many of the former residents as well as members of the group.

"Five of our members were baptised here," said Brian.

"The one who wasn't baptised here, he was married here and his son was baptised here."

The church was closed in 2001, but it still holds a place in the hearts of the community.

"At one stage, there was around 5,000 on the parish records, so there was a large community," said Brian.

"We keep it alive. We're down there every Sunday having a short service on Sunday mornings, then we go back round to the offices and hold our meetings."

"The chapel was built in 1879 and the houses on Garmoyle Street were built a few years before that.

Image caption Flowers in the window of one of the last occupied houses in a Sailortown street in 1974

"It's great that there are still at least some of the buildings here in Sailortown, because most of it's unrecognisable."

But the group is determined that Sailortown will live on, on paper at least.

"I would say that the lads look forward to their childhood," said Brian.

"They're always talking about their childhood days. They never talk much about the present day, except if it's to discuss football matches or horse-racing results. But it's all memories that they talk about.

"We enjoy telling stories and we hope to publish more in the years to come."

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