Where now sprawl the huge estates of Ballymurphy, Springhill, Dermot Hill, and Turf Lodge, the map shows field after field, blank after blank. Dated 1931, it reveals that the only homes on the Whiterock Road in those days were a few streets around Whiterock Parade, near Corrigan Park. Above them are clay pits and brick works — the Ballymurphy brick works and the Clowney brick works, the latter with its own tramways for transporting its product, all marked out precisely on the map. Farther west, on the other side of the Whiterock stretches the Belfast Cemetery, as it does today. The fountains, war memorials, urinals, and lavatories are all marked, as are the pathways between the stately headstones that made the place such a treat for a working-class boy to visit, marveling at the riches they represented. On one side by the Whiterock Road is marked, ?Jewish Burial Ground.? These days it is a mere ruin, where glue-sniffers gather.
When I was young, the Clowney Brick Works was still functioning but hemmed in by the expanding area of Beechmount. But in 1931, Beechmount consisted only of five streets: Beechmount Street, Locan Strreet, Amcomri Street, Clowney Street, and Beechmount Parade. Through it winds Clowney Water, which joins the Blackstaff River on its journey to Belfast Lough. I don?t know what Clowney Water was like in 1931, whether it was still a gurgling brook, but by the 1960s, when I started visiting the area, it had turned into a sewer. That did not stop my best friend from jumping into it one winter?s night to serenade a girl past whose back door its dark waters flowed. She was not impressed.
Following the Falls Road with my finger past Beechmount down toward the city center, I pass St. Mary?s Training College and the Belfast Children?s Hospital. When we first moved to live in the area, my uncle escorted me to the hospital — I was about 6 at the time — to see a speech therapist. She occupied an office across the road from the hospital in a block of nice houses that still stands. She was the first middle-class person I ever met, a former actress with a beautiful voice and exquisite articulation who fruitlessly, but devotedly, would spend years trying to get me to speak without my tongue acting at times as if it were glued to the roof of my mouth.
On past the hospital and St. Mary?s Dominican Convent which later became St. Dominic?s Girls Grammar School — where the better-off girls went that were a little bit to far above us for us to even think of dating them — to St. Paul?s ?R.C.? church, as it is marked on the map. St. Paul?s, with its crucifixion scene in the little garden that fronts the Falls Road, cast its shadow over my childhood like no other institution except school. Dreary winter evenings added much to its gloom, but the brightest of summer days never seem to lift it. It was one of those late 19th century or early 20th century churches that are expressions of piety rather than robust faith, so it lacked beauty. On Sundays, it usually reeked of wet raincoats and incense. The congregation was a joyless one, who knelt, prayed, genuflected, shuffled toward communion, and sang half-heartedly through the Mass. We knew we were there to be chastised, warned, threatened. The great mysteries of the faith had been replaced by a series of moral lectures based on the premise that we were wretched creatures.
A few steps on from St. Paul?s is the junction of the Falls Road with the Springfield and Grosvenor Roads. By 1931, the corner had assumed the character it had when some 23 years later I got to know it. In 1931, it had tram tracks running down the roads. By the 1950s the tram tracks had been uprooted, replaced by buses and on the Falls, a trolleybus, powered through trolley poles linked to overhead cables. With my finger I can trace my route to school, down the Falls, left up Clonard Street, past the Redemptorist Monastery, then right down Waterville Street. At the corner of Waterville Street and Bombay Street stands St. Gaul?s, marked simply ?school? on the map. It was there that I began the first five years of my education, under the watchful eyes of the black-robed Christian Brothers. The names of the streets around the school, Lucknow Street, Benares Street, Bombay Street, Cawnpore Street, and Kashmir Road, date their construction to that period when India was still a jewel in the British imperial crown. Though the inhabitants of the rows of redbrick two-up-two-down houses would have been amazed to learn of such an imperial connection — it was one in name only.
Years later, long after I had left St. Gaul?s, Bombay Street would enter into history not as a forgotten link to empire, but as living reminder of the consequences of colonialism. It was around there, in August 1969, that the Troubles erupted, as loyalist mobs burned most of the street to the ground.
Now, all the other little streets have vanished too, bulldozed away by redevelopers.
My finger retraces its way back down Clonard Street on to the Falls Road and across, through the Dunville Park to the Grosvenor Road, the route I took on my way home from school. Passing the Royal Victoria Hospital, I come finally to Drew Street. A short street, of 20 houses on either side, each shaded gray on the map, each a tiny narrow rectangle. With the tip of my pen I can mark the mid-street rectangle that was home — No. 20. I can even make out the entry (or alleyway) at the back, which we shared with Mulhouse Street, where we left out the bins, and conducted our romantic lives (often using those same bins as a props) as best we could. It is hard to imagine that those narrow gray rectangles teemed with life. Beyond them, stretch the fields behind the hospital. On the map they are dotted with trees, down to the banks of the Blackstaff River that we called the Blackie. It was not exactly the pastoral paradise that it appears on the map, but we were glad to have it — our little bit of greenery in the smoky heart of Belfast.