4. Belfast

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

– W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming.

At about the end of 1920 Joe, for business reasons, moved home from Sligo to Cregagh, a residential area just outside the city boundary on the south side of Belfast. Joe set up his drapery business in several places, in Belfast and Larne, while disposing of the business in Sligo. He was by now an expert in his line and would later be acclaimed as a pioneer in the revival of the Donegal tweed business. It turned out, after all the riots and shootings had died down in 1923, that Larne was the best place to continue his business. This meant some travelling for him but for a number of years he put up with this and stayed at Cregagh. Jim recalled it as a pleasant place, being really in the country (at that time Cregagh was about a mile outside the built up area of Belfast), yet it would have been quite different from Sligo and Tullaghcullion.

In some respects the move to Cregagh would have suited Jessie, for she was nearer to her own family. Not long after the death of Essie, some time around 1928, Grandparents Mackay left Castlereagh Street and moved in to Jim’s parents’ house. There was room enough in the house and they had more company. The district of Cregagh was more pleasant than east Belfast and no doubt the move helped financially also. From there Jim’s grandparents could still easily meet their friends in Belfast.

Prior to Grandpa Mackay’s retirement, in 1926, Jim had on occasion accompanied William on a weekend afternoon to Crawford’s when he had to go in to check up on some fish being cured. Jim later recalled his surprise as a young boy at the great size of some of the pieces of cod which were hanging up. After retirement, William did occasional work. For several years he supervised the herring packing at Irish harbours. Jim’s parents would sometimes take Janet and Jim to meet William at various places. Jim remembered going to Buncara (Co. Donegal) and Howth (Co. Dublin) on such visits. There were usually large numbers of ‘drifter’ fishing boats and gangs of women cleaning the fish and salting them before packing them in barrels.

During the years following 1928 Jessie would often accompany Joe to Larne, leaving Jim under the supervision of Grandparents Mackay. Jim got to know his grandparents quite well. They were fairly quiet, Jim later put it that Grandma Mackay was by then rather beaten down by fate and by the emigration of three out of the four surviving children. She was fit enough until her last few years, but hardly cheerful. William and Janet would periodically visit friends or relatives in Scotland – Jim recalled sea crossings to Stranraer in the company of Grandma Mackay. At these times she was happy, particularly if the crossing was rough. From Stranraer they would catch a train to Glasgow, and from there take another train, or two more trains, to the North of Scotland. Jim would later recount his excitement at seeing many large steam locomotives on these journeys and his bemusement by the Glaswegian accent. One of the stations between Stranraer and Glasgow was at Motherwell, a town about 10 miles southeast of Glasgow. He recalled his puzzlement at the repeated shouting of “Mo’well, Mo’well.”

The culture of Northern Scotland remained with Grandparents Mackay all their lives, which would be natural. Until well after William’s death, in 1932, the weekly paper ‘John O’Groats Journal’ arrived from Caithness. It announced that it was the journal for Caithness, Sutherland, Orkney and Zetland. This newspaper provided them with a means of keeping in touch with the people and events of the far north. In Scotland, there had been a high standard of education for some time now, and it was not unusual for people of any background to spend a large amount of their leisure time reading.

William Mackay stayed “his usual somewhat detached but basically cheerful self”. Jim found him a pleasant man. He would talk to Jim about ships, how they were made, about carpentry or about seamen’s stories of difficult journeys, whaling and the like. There was a fair amount of general knowledge in all this. Jim recalled William telling how in midsummer at Lerwick one could read a newspaper at midnight with no lamp and that he had done it. William was urged not to tell Jim nonsense, but this was not nonsense : around the solstice, the half-light from the north is sufficient on a clear night.

William liked to read the ‘Edinburgh Review’ and ‘Chamber’s Journal’ which were to some extent literary magazines at that time. The range of William’s reading was, in a manner, censored. Both William and Janet had remained Baptists in religion. The main church in Scotland in the 19th century was the Church of Scotland : this was Presbyterian. The landlords, who were disliked, were mainly Church of Scotland, so numerous people found some way of not going to the Church of Scotland, for example by joining the newly formed Free Presbyterian Church. It is not clear why Keiss had a Baptist Chapel but the Mackays in Keiss had gone to it in a very routine and regular fashion as if it was the only thing any sensible family would do on a Sunday. Grandparents Mackay did not behave like ‘strict’ Baptists and there was never any tendency to argue about their religion. In Belfast they attended the largish Baptist Church in nearby Templemore Avenue. Jim later put it that “a good thrower could hurl a stone into the church from their house in Castlereagh Street.”

The Baptist background did mean that Grandparents Mackay were quite non-political. Of course, coming from the far north of Scotland they had no interest whatever in Orangemen, beyond now and then complaining about the awful noise made by the various parades. And Joe was definitely not an Orange supporter. Joe’s local church at Killybegs (St. Johns), had been Church of Ireland, that is Anglican, and Joe did not express any strong religious bias. Joe’s religious leaning changed markedly in about 1928, possibly a year or two later, and this was to have some bearing on Jim’s own view of religion.

In the decades prior to World War I, Belfast had been in a “hyper-religious state”, as Jim later described it. There was a very large number of active churches, especially of the Protestant variety. These were spread across a wide range of distinct sects and a high proportion were of evangelical type. In addition there were many mission halls and the like. As if that were not enough, on weekend evenings at many street corners, preachers would stand and shout loudly at the passers-by that they must repent. It didn’t seem to matter that most of the people who heard this would have already been church-goers and would already have been repenting at leisure. A considerable minority of the clergy and preachers were hell-fire experts, these people were apt to give children nightmares (the Catholics also had their share of hell-fire preachers).

Whether it was in Belfast or in Dublin is not clear, but Joe one day joined up with the Plymouth Brethren, a sect founded in Dublin in about 1825. The ‘Brethren’ were fed up with High Church principles and were opposed to the formalism of non-evangelical doctrine. This did not mean that Joe suddenly started shouting a lot about religion, but he did adopt the Brethren view on abstinence from various activities, including playing sports, watching films and other entertainments. From the age of about 10 or 11, Jim was obliged to comply with this. His teenage years lived under such conditions and with also his own increasingly acute observation of how religious differences had torn Belfast apart (“the religions were much more similar than either side believed, or believe”), he was profoundly influenced to the extent that he would never affiliate with any church. In later years he would talk of other dimensions of his distrust for religion : his aversion to closed systems of thought, and the mental susceptibility of man to wreak enormous damage whilst passionately believing that he is doing good.

Into the 1930s and the onset of the depression, Jim witnessed some terrible scenes in Belfast. He would later describe the slum areas a little : “I could hardly believe my eyes; it was absolute poverty.” He summoned images of Victorian slums, unwashed people in rags, without footwear, all emaciated. Such conditions might nowadays be likened to third-world poverty and cannot be compared with any European conditions today, where ‘poor’ people have fashion footwear and mobile phones. It seems probable that during this period Jim had also contracted TB. At a later date, possibly during the war, he was obliged to take a medical test and was subsequently referred for chest X-rays. The results showed much lung scarring, consistent with that of a TB survivor.

The slums in Belfast were principally, but not exclusively, in Catholic areas. For much of the 1930s this continued. Though there was work at the shipyards – large ships (notably the Titanic) had been built here – the labour force was mainly drawn from the Protestant working-class.

Jim had not particularly enjoyed his schooling up to this time. He said later that he didn’t think the teachers could have been so good and that he had failed to see the point of the whole thing. He did recall a boy named Jones from this school. When agitated, Jones would furiously shake one arm, as if over and over trying to hurl an imaginary object as hard as possible to the ground. This strange mannerism clearly made an impression on Jim, who later said that he was afraid the boy’s arm might fall off. Academically, it appears that at this time he was more receptive to the information gleaned in conversation with his grandparents and through his own reading. It was decided to try to get Jim into ‘Inst.’, the school his uncle had attended little more than twenty years previously. Jim recalled, with gratitude, that Grandma Mackay had taken some role in the suggestion of this. In due course, he was enrolled at Inst., in the summer of 1930.

One day in 1932, at the house in Cregagh, Grandpa Mackay sat around somewhat unhappily. He was a man who had never seemed to be ill. In the following night he had a heart attack and died. He was 76 but still looked fresh : all the upheavals and troubles of the Mackays had left little mark on him.

In 1934, as a result of the widespread depression, trade became difficult for Joe. He determined to concentrate his efforts into the business in Larne, some 20 miles north of Belfast. There Joe would later diversify into millinery and shoes. The family moved to a quiet place in Larne, Marina Avenue, close by the harbour. Grandma Mackay was happier in this house, being near to the sea. From her bedroom in the new house, on a clear night she could see a lighthouse (Corswall point) on the Scottish coast. She liked that, and she still enjoyed the occasional trip to Stanraer.

It is only fair to mention that the conditions in Belfast improved noticeably from 1938 or 1939, with the armament industries that grew up there. Warships, aircraft and other weapons and military supplies were manufactured and this brought widespread comparative prosperity. At the same time, young men who wanted a real fight only had to join up : the problem of their behaviour was now somebody else’s. In addition, substantial parts of the slums were destroyed in two heavy raids by the Luftwaffe (with considerable loss of life). After some fairly bad riots in 1935, terrorism became unpopular for a time : there were some murders in 1942 but otherwise there were no serious disturbances in Belfast until 1956.