The feisty community driving to keep the history and life of Sailortown going for the diaspora and the thriving community on the ground
Sailortown was Belfast’s first waterfront village with over 5,000 people packed into the small, cobblestoned streets of terraced houses between the docks and York Street.
The men worked on the docks or went to sea. The women looked after large families and found work in the mills.
In the late 1960s, the community was dispersed to new Housing around the City to enable the building of the M2 motorway. They were enticed with offers of new houses and were promised that they’d be able to return. This never happened.
They were abandoned in soulless estates having lost their generational connections to friends and family. Their houses were gradually demolished with only 4 originals remaining today.
Then in 2000, a decision was taken to close and deconsecrate St. Joseph’s Church citing the small attendance at masses. This was the final straw.
The people of Sailortown came together to fight the closure.
They formed a Cultural and Historical Committee, campaigned widely and had a 3-day lock-in in protest. In 2006 the Church handed them over the keys and a 150-year lease.
However, the Church had not been maintained for years and with no resources and damage caused by building high rise buildings next door, the Church gradually fell into near dereliction and needed essential repair work to ensure its survival.
In the intervening years, they have succeeded in keeping the memory of Sailortown alive for the diaspora at home and around the world. They have collected photographs and oral history from their community brought social housing into the area and maintain a vigil at St. Joseph’s Church every Sunday.
They have resurrected old traditions from the past such as the May Procession which honors the people whose livelihood depended on the sea and the docksides.
The community is now getting older and their enduring dream is to see the Church preserved as the last remnant of Sailortown.
St Joseph’s has been a landmark on Belfast’s docks for many years. Its spire was the last and first sight of home for its seamen as they saw it come into view on their approach to shore.
Hemmed in now by high rise apartments and car parks it was almost derelict. However, in the last two years, emergency repair funding has been sourced to save ‘The Chapel on the Quays.’ Deconsecrated, it cannot hold religious services, but it still holds the memories of the generations who passed through its doors.
Since we started repairs, we’ve had a number of offers to ‘develop’ it as investors see its potential. However, it was built for and by the people of Sailortown and we hold it in trust for them and the people of Belfast.
We want to open its doors as a community hub where the community can meet again on a daily basis.
Although we have the holes in the roof fixed, evicted the pigeons and electric light, there are still leaks due to damaged rainwater goods. It’s too damp and cold for regular use we’re told by Health and Safety.
Once we get this fixed, we can open for ‘meanwhile use’, run activities for all and raise running costs by staging events.
We have had some events and a list of prospective users but the way it is now we have to hire portaloos and noisy industrial heaters
Sailortown has a new community now and many children living in the area. They call themselves the ‘Snailortown Kids’ and we have started a weekly club for them. These are held in a cramped office space in Winter and an underground carpark in better weather. There is no green space or play area. They and their parents have to cross 7 sets of pedestrian lights to get to the nearest shop or school. Heavy docks traffic roll through the area as ferries offload cargo.
However, they are imaginative and creative, and our artists have enabled them to make a short Horror film in the ‘haunted church’, as well as a Halloween Maze where they ‘scared a kid so bad, he farted’. They charged a fiver entry to raise money for repairs so they can use the space all the time. They also raised money by selling their games, home-made tattoos and hair spray at our Barrow Market.
For more information see our website www.SailortownRegeneration.com and thank you for listening
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