Shankill Road was always tough, and it's getting tougher

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The Shankill Road, scene of the present deadly loyalist feud, was always a tough district. For two centuries it has seen recurring riots, the 1886 bout being described as "closely akin to actual warfare", giving it "the appearance of a bombarded town".

The Shankill Road, scene of the present deadly loyalist feud, was always a tough district. For two centuries it has seen recurring riots, the 1886 bout being described as "closely akin to actual warfare", giving it "the appearance of a bombarded town".

I was 11 when my family moved from the Shankill to suburban respectability, well before the Troubles broke out, but even by that early stage it was obvious this was a rough, hard place.

After the pubs closed, the police would put on helmets and patrol in pairs or in fours, wary of the district's legendary hard men and the macho local tradition of settling differences by street brawls.

It was a heavy-drinking district with an extraordinary number of small pubs, which served the men with three types of Guinness. The women, who sat segregated in small snugs at the back of the bar, drank Carlsberg Special or vodka.

Friday and Saturday nights were always exciting, the streets littered with noisy and unpredictable drinkers and the sounds of occasional rows, inside or outside the houses. There was no concept of home-ownership; all houses were rented.

Everyone lived in small damp Victorian terraced houses, most of them with two rooms downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. The lavatories were outside in the back yard; there were no bathrooms; there were no phones, no fridges, hardly any televisions and hardly any cars.

It was a society where daughters who married tended to find a house within 100 yards or so of their mothers. Families were larger in those days: the Thompson family in Lorton Street, who had a house the same size as everyone else, had 15 children.

In the streets, children played during the week, but it was strongly Sabbatarian and there were no ball games on Sunday.

The strict Sunday observance was part of the area's strong puritanical streak which co-existed uneasily with the drinking and the fighting. In addition to the major denominations such as the Presbyterians and Church of Ireland, the Shankill abounded in tiny sects.

There seemed to be as many small mission halls as pubs, many of them built of tin and tucked away in small streets. Much of the preaching was of the hellfire variety and was very strongly marked by prohibitions. Those who took these seriously were referred to as Christians.

The stern message was that getting to Heaven was dependent on good behaviour: no drinking, no smoking, no swearing, no untoward sex.

Catholics were regarded as different but not as a threat. They lived near by on the Falls Road, with an overspill of a few Catholic families living in the district. Many Catholics went each Saturday to the Shankill Road, which was famous for its ribbon shopping.

I recall a drunk man shaking his fist at a boarding house where Catholics lived, a few yards from the Shankill Road itself: he was pacified and led away by his companions, who assured him the Catholics were doing nobody any harm.

Jobs were plentiful in those days and work was available for just about all. The only unemployed were the corner boys, so-called because they spent their time standing chatting on street corners.

Catholics certainly posed no economic threat in that nearly all the jobs in the big engineering and shipbuilding firms were in practice reserved for Protestants from the Shankill and elsewhere.

This point was daily emphasised in the example of Mackies engineering works. It was in the Falls but recruited in the Shankill, so each morning, crowds of Shankill men would walk into the Falls area, passing homes where the Catholic unemployed were still asleep.

In the Shankill, it was commonly said that Catholics "don't want to work", being shiftless and lazy and preferring to have large families so they could live off benefits. (Mr Thompson provided a baffling exception to this rule.)

Partly because of the abundance of both skilled and unskilled employment, education had a much lower priority in the Shankill than in the Falls. My primary school in Malvern Street simply did not enter pupils for the 11-plus exam, which meant no one ever went to grammar school.

When four of us were eventually put in for the exam, the fact that we all failed did little to dent our exalted status as academic pioneers. We four were known as the gold row, while at the other end of the spectrum was the blue row.

The school clearly officially regarded the blue row as too stupid or too tough to be educated: they were simply required not to disturb the rest of the class. The rest of us greatly envied the fact that, as we did class tests, the teacher gave them comics to look at.

There were sometimes scuffles in class. Women teachers would send for the headmaster, who would thump the more disruptive blue row members into submission. The blue row must have been illiterate, for they were taught very little.

Many of the boys probably ended up in jail, because in the years since we left, a high proportion of youths and men joined paramilitary organisations such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Freedom Fighters.

In the early 1970s, thousands flocked to them, joining in response to calls that it was their duty to defend their Protestant heritage against republican attack.

Republicans bombed the Shankill several times, but the Shankill groups inflicted much more damage in return, killing large numbers of Catholics in the nearby Falls, Ardoyne and New Lodge districts.

They provided the fiercest units of the UFF and UVF, with groups such as the Shankill Butchers taking life on a large scale, and making the Shankill a byword for sectarian slaughter.

Over the years, extensive re-development has entirely changed the district's appearance: in recent years, the new houses have been excellent, but many mistakes were made in the 1960s. Most of the jobs dried up as shipbuilding and engineering all but collapsed, so unemployment became a problem.

Education has improved only slightly, with even today only a handful of kids going on to grammar school. Over the years most of the more ambitious families have done as we did and gone to live in less troubled communities.

The loss of potential leaders and useful role models has left a district in which paramilitary groups hold great sway.

For an under-educated youth in a district where learning is scorned and jobs are few, joining a paramilitary organisation confers instant status, together with a sense of belonging and the possibility of material gain from activities such as selling drugs.

The scourges of drugs, unemployment and above all paramilitarism mean the Shankill's deterioration is likely to continue.

Lacking in leadership, beset with problems and still wracked by violence while most other places are peaceful, the Troubles have rendered this tough district tougher than ever.

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