On the steps, or ‘my’ Belfast: the city as I knew it growing up in the 1950s and 1960s…

A short address in the Linen Hall Library last Friday, published with Poems included from my collections Sunday School (1991) and Lake Geneva (2003) with the permission of The Gallery Press.

There are three ‘sets’ of steps that concern me here today – two which belong to libraries, including in particular the Linen Hall. The third set belongs to no illustrious library, or indeed, so far as I know, to any ‘place’ whatsoever other than a doorway.

They all mattered, in their special ways, a great deal to me and my friends when I was a young lad growing up in this city of Belfast. But before I turn to these various sets of steps I want to say a few things about Belfast, or, more correctly, ‘my’ Belfast: the city as I knew it growing up in the 1950s and 1960s.

That city means everything to me because of my family’s connections going back into the early 19th century. Fear not, I’m not going to recount their journeys here and now. But when I was thinking about the Linen Hall Library and its steps, steps which start on the street pavement below and take us ascending into this magical space of democratic learning, I couldn’t help but think of all the ramifying connections that flow around the streetscapes within which the Library resides and has resided for centuries.

Family and friends connect over generations like radio waves circling outwards and embracing what used to be called the city centre so numerous links between the past and the present come tumbling into my mind.

My great- grandfather, William Bailey Chartres worked as a sports journalist for the Ireland’s Saturday Night and the Belfast Telegraph, drank in Mc Glade’s Bar and took the tram, and then the trolley bus, home to his North Belfast house where Duncairn Gardens intersected with the Antrim Road.

His daughter Ethel worked in retail in Goorwiches famous store from the late 1930s and at various times after the war. She got the 64 bus from across the road here to her home, also in North Belfast, followed in the 1960s and 1970s by my own mother, Norma who worked in Robinson & Cleavers and later on, Anderson McAuley, for many years: all their lives lived within a rectangular space with our neighbour here, the City Hall, at its centre. Social, private, recreational, professional lives, all in a criss-crossing, walking distance are now, over generations of memories, ghostly presences; ‘shades’ as the poet Yeats would describe them.

And for me, nearby, literally at my shoulder, the upstairs floor where as a very young man in the Sixties I stepped inside this great intimate place of learning for the first time and marvelled at the silent concentration of readers dotted here and there, as if it were the opening of a play. Back then other things were on our minds. It is surely not a coincidence that by the steps to this library there had once been a record store. For, as I’ve said many times before, music was what we lived by.

Those Linen Hall steps were the steps where we met our girlfriends and boyfriends before heading off to dance in one of the numerous venues within a short hop from here.  They were a focal point, the compass was set from here, converging for a generation on the same wavelength; something that lay behind an early poem of mine ‘Saturday Night’ published in Sunday School, a collection from 1991. The poem is set in north Belfast as we hovered outside our friend’s house as he completed his Jewish sabbath prayers and we could get going and head into town:

 

                              Saturday Night

 

Trees in ragged formation;

Lou chants his last prayer

as we hover outside.

All the houses cling together

in spite of themselves,

parlours coming down with knick-knacks,

starlings in the chimney-breast.

And the light falls …

Or else it is our footsteps

down an entry on Saturday night,

the shop only after closing,

when streets face into TV sets,

the pearly bodies and roaring fires.

Our bus takes the corner; a ship at sea.

I mentioned three sets of steps. Well, if the Linen Hall represents the crucial middle set, the initial set belongs to the Central Library where as a pupil at Orangefield, I would met up with fellow ‘pupils’ from other cross-town schools who travelled by bus to and from home and school.

St Malachy’s, the wondrously-named Berrnageeha (St Patrick’s College), Dominican College, the Little Flower Convent School, the Model, BRA, Methody, Dunlambert, Grosvenor, Streathern, Victoria College… And we began our own original dance of exploration standing in that proscenium of alcoves and swirling staircases in Royal Avenue, before nipping down the steps and catching the bus home.

The third (and final) set has its very own magic unknown to most save for a few, The Few. It was called The Wimpy Bar Steps and is only a matter of a few metres from the corner in which are assembled, next door to a card shop and the eponymously named Wimpy Bar itself. Home of Belfast’s first commercial hamburger – so I’m told!

This is where we foregathered in the mid-sixties; a ‘gang’ of friends drawn from all over the city’s districts and main roads, long before the city became defined into east and west, north and south. Ballygomartin, Crumlin, Downview, Antrim, Glandore, Malone, Falls, Whiterock, Stranmillis, Belmont, Dundonald, Silverstream (such wonderful names). And from there we moved towards the concert halls and other venues like Sammy Huston’s, The Maritime, Betty Staffs and the Plaza, which hosted the superb bands of the time, both homegrown and visiting.

Waiting for the bus to arrive, it was just three or four steps of a doorway in which we sheltered from the rain, or sat out in the sunshine, but it could have been a door into another world. Certainly, it was another time as this poem, also from Sunday Schoolrecounts such a moment in the mid-sixties, with (maybe) a hint of what was barely visible ahead:

                         Blueprints

 

 Outside the Wimpy Bar, a ginger-headed cop:

‘Now move on, the lot of you.’

You’ve the G.I. glasses on;

he’s buttoned to the throat

and can’t stand the sight of us

sprawled all over the place.

The sun is kept in the shade by banks,

great insurance houses, the chichi boutiques,

and in the Garden of Remembrance

transistors blare away to upper floors

where bright young men stand at their drawing boards

and the panoramic windows thrown open wide.

All these steps merge in my mind’s eye, fifty-five years later and after all that has happened in and to this city; a shocking story as we all know and one that has no finale. But I can still recall how special it was to enter into this building and feel, even after the several intervening decades, the same charge of anticipation: fostering with large maps, tables full of old books opened out, boxes of pamphlets, thin volumes of new poetry books; all this made a different kind of sense and excitement to me even way back then (and how weird it feels saying) half-a century ago!

Being here today produces the same kind of feeling, to say nothing about the realisation of just how essential the cultural and educational opportunity a library such as The Linen Hall provides for all the people of Belfast – and throughout the north and further afield – to find out about themselves, their lives in books and the life of the Book.

I know it may sound portentous but for me The Linen Hall is the symbol of Belfast’s great cultural history as much as a custodian of the city’s experience of trauma and damage. I pay homage to all those who have worked to maintain the library service in some of the worst of times and kept the doors open as a refuge but also as a platform for learning and self-discovery, the excitement of meeting others, the time-travel which makes reading, one of the great human freedoms.

It is an honour for me, for my family going back through all those years I mentioned earlier, and (I hope) for that group of young men and women back in the sixties, that the Library has accepted this portrait by Peter Fitzgerald of the present writer, made in 1990 to mark the anniversary of another cultural institution, Kenny’s Bookshops and Gallery in Galway.  And it is a pleasure to think of this portrait nestling within these echoing walls and only a few of steps from the busy, endlessly voluble streets outside.

So, let me conclude with a short poem called ‘The Jazz Club’ from Lake Geneva (2003). The backdrop to the poem is the great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald’s concert in Belfast and the response of my mother, who had attended the concert with our Austrian neighbour, Elsa, a refugee from WW2, to my question how did it ‘go’.

                                   The Jazz Club

It’s 1960 or thereabouts in the terrace

of seven houses, upper northside.

The blackout blinds are still up

but things are steadily improving.

Shops stay open late, the light

spills in rectangles from the windows.

Trolley buses clang and clank,

the mill of people going to movies,

meetings, dances, to the boat,

to the club, to church, and to Ella.

When she comes back in, the only

thing my mother says is, ‘I’m sent’.

Acknowledgements:

  • Poems included are from Gerald Dawe’s collections Sunday School (1991) and Lake Geneva (2003) and published with the permission of The Gallery Press.
  • The portrait featured is by Peter Fitzgerald and was commissioned by Kenny’s Art Gallery & Bookshop ‘Faces in a Bookshop’ exhibition to celebrate their 50th birthday in 1990 and is now on permanent loan in The Linen Hall Library Belfast.

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