By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
Belfast’s Ballymacarrett-Short Strand area, and its people, is different in so many ways to the area and the people I grew up with as a boy in the sixties.
Then the primary feature of the district was its row upon row of terraced houses. Now the people live in modern, quality houses, built as a result of campaigning when the area was undergoing huge redevelopment. Although some of the old houses remain, they too are modernised and Impressive.
Then the district had an impoverished look, though we did not know it. Today it looks prosperous and pleasing on the eye and we know it. Then the district was dominated by factories like Sirocco, the galvanised works, the Bone Yard and a number of small light engineering firms. Its streets were through-ways for thousands of Protestant workers teeming to the shipyard and aircraft factories every day. Few if any locals, men or women, worked in any of these factories.
No Catholic need apply in these flagship industries of the Orange six-county state.
Today all that industry is gone and with it the understandable resentment the Strand people felt at being denied well-paid jobs simply because they were Catholics.
Then the state’s forces bore down arrogantly on the people who, when the opportunity presented itself, rebelled at injustice. Today that rebellion, which cost so much in human terms over the last four decades, is part of the backdrop against which the community shapes its existence in these new times of peace.
Then the community relied on its own, less obvious, strengths and talents which were reflected in the area’s GAA, soccer and boxing clubs and the reliance on the church for its faith and guidance.
Today the people rely on a vibrant, republican mix of community and Sinn Fein politics in a secular, less religious setting.
There was never any lack of self-confidence, self-assurance or pride among the people.
They had a very strong sense of their Ballymacarrett-Short Strand identity and for me this was very obvious in the years of the armed conflict. The community lost grievously during those years. Many residents died as active IRA volunteers or because they were Catholics, killed by loyalists and the crown forces.
Some civilians died accidentally in IRA operations, others were killed by the IRA. Dozens were injured,scores were imprisoned and others lived their lives in political exile.
The people of the area have made a valuable contribution to the struggle for a united Ireland.
The qualities needed to survive forty years of armed and political conflict were very much on public display last week as the community commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the Battle of St Matthew’s. June 27 1970 is seared into the minds of those people old enough to remember and for those too young it is part of their folk memory.
For many nationalists it was Derry’s Bloody Sunday which was a turning point in their lives; which led to them joining or supporting the IRA and later Sinn Fein. For me and many others it was the experience of June 27 1970. The story of that frightening night - a night when the combined forces of loyalism end the state - were deprived of their objective of driving the people out of the district and razing it to the ground by local defence volunteers in the Catholic Defence League and the IRA was retold via different media.
A professionally produced DVD, The Battle of St Matthew’s, told the story of that night through the eye-witness testimony of those who were there and experienced it while a group of teenagers re-enacted the events in a specially written play with the same name.
A group of historians recorded the events of that night in an excellent booklet, St Matthew’s Church, A Day in June, A Place in History A Story of Pogroms and Conflict Fifty Years Apart.
A plaque was unveiled and a memorial garden, ‘An Tine Bee”, opened in tribute to those from the area who lost their lives in the conflict.
And the spirit of all of these events was captured in a new wall mural with its theme of remembering the past while building a better future.