Thursday May 26, 2011
It’s been a big day for Ethan and I. Though we had previously met some of the community members we’ll be interacting with for our project, we hadn’t started “formal” meetings (I say formal, but we dress casually – if you dress up on the Shankill you stick out like a sore thumb – not that we exactly blend in as Americans). We held interviews with several individuals. Among them was Reverend Gregory Dunstan of St. Matthew’s Church (Church of Ireland). Located at the top of the Shankill Rd. St. Matthew’s was constructed in 1872 and is quite a unique church. With a spire at the base and three conjoining circular walls, it rightly earns its nickname of the shamrock church. The building, recently renovated, was not the original. About 10 yards down the road, lies the Shankill Cemetary. Along the back right wall of the cemetery you can see the foundation of the original church built in 1839. Inside St Matthew’s I noticed the shamrock theme was incorporated in the architecture. The light fixtures were adorned with brass shamrocks, and the banner on the pulpit was embroidered with Kelly green shamrocks. Rev. Dunstan noted the church should have been dedicated to St. Patrick. To pay homage to the “Irish” Saint, the congregation dedicated the new glass prayer room in his memory. Ethan and I hadn’t intended to do a full interview with Rev Dunstan today. We simply wanted to meet him and establish a connection and intend to return soon for a more thorough understanding of the church and its interactions with the community. We did learn that St. Matthew’s is trying to reestablish a strong connection with the community, which it lost in recent years. They hold socials for elderly members of the congregation, which totals about 400 families, to meet on a regular basis. It provides a safe environment for them to go out at night, since some do not necessarily feel safe to travel, according to the Reverend. St. Matthew’s also has a young mothers group where women can gather and discuss issues that pertain to them. The organization has its own leadership, but was originally organized through the church, which provides meeting space.
After St. Matthew’s Ethan and I walked down the Shankill to meet with Johnny, the owner of Dolly’s Mixtures. The best way to describe this little shop is Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in about 200 square feet. Stepping through the doorway, I felt as though I had been transported to another time and was immediately greeted by a warm friendly face. Only open for the past eight months, Dolly’s Mixtures, according to Johnny, aims to provide the customer with an amiable experience. He referenced the way things were in the mid-twentieth century. People were more caring and the customer was welcomed and not seen as nuisance. Dolly’s aims to be a place “with a modern twist on an old-time favourite.” The shelves were packed with delicious British treats at extremely reasonable prices. 1 quid for “the world’s best milkshake” (they’re actually AMAZING). Free of charge, Johnny let Ethan and I pick out any candy in the store, which he crushed up and mixed into a shake…fantastic. As we interviewed Johnny, he told us that his mother, Dolly, was the inspiration for the name of the store (Dolly’s Mixtures is also a type of candy – who knew). With her black and white picture plastered on the front of the shop, customers instantly feel a sense of simpler times, which is the projected atmosphere. Trying to be economically competitive and innovative, the store looks to bring new candies and attractions, such as powder candy, which is common in America but not here. Johnny ultimately hopes to expand and open more shops, but the one on the Shankill will remain the flag store for this brilliant (used in the British manner) business. Johnny noted that part of the appeal to a candy shop was that it didn’t hurt other people’s shops. While stores may sell sweets, there is no other business around solely dedicated to the sale of treats, which people of all ages enjoy. Customers range from wee kids to very “experienced” people. As we were interviewing Johnny a few little girls who couldn’t have been older than 6 walked in alone and bought some candy (I guess kids in Belfast are more independent than in the US). They received the same witty banter as any other customer. Regardless of who enters Dolly’s, each person is greeted with a friendly hello and enjoys a lively conversation with Johnny and his staff. They treat customers as valued friends. If you’re ever in Belfast, you NEED to check this place out. They also have a website you can order from: http://www.dollysretrosweets.com/
With milkshake and goodies in hand, Ethan and I made our way out of Dolly’s and down the Shankill. We strolled over to the Diamond Jubilee, at the request of Plum, where we met with the owner to introduce ourselves and set up a date for an interview. Hunger and with a couple of hours to kill before our next interview, we stopped by Beatties to check in with the owner, Alan, who we’ve been trying to reach for a meeting. His wife, Paula, who Ethan and I met a few days ago was beyond welcoming and told us her husband was still trying to wrap up the sale of their other business (they’re keeping Beatties open later and open on Sundays. To do so, they need to consolidate. It’s great for us since we’ll now have somewhere to eat on Sunday….since EVERYTHING else is closed). Paula told us we could get in touch with Alan some time next week. Because we were already there and it was lunchtime, we decided to get some grub (which was extremely affordable). Their burger and chips are great, and Ethan said their fish is excellent. Full, we left and headed off to the Rex Bar to meet up with Mark, the owner.
We were early for our meeting, so Ethan and I stopped at the bar for a cup of tea, which they apparently give free to anyone just strolling through (these people are marvelously generous and kind). Waiting for Mark, we watched the Players’ Championship on the ‘tele.’ Once he was free, Mark pulled us over to a table where we chatted about the Rex’s history and importance. Opened in 1865, the Rex is a historical icon on the Shankill (and a great place to grab a pint – just ask Vince Vaungh). This little pub has seen its fair share of violence from the Troubles. It was the site of multiple shootings. During one, four people were injured but not killed (thankfully), but the shooters came back later that night and shot several more people in front of the pub. It was also the site of a bombing. Luckily there were only 6 people in the pub at the time and no one was injured. Today, however, it is perfectly safe with an overwhelmingly welcoming atmosphere. Many of the patrons struck up random conversations with me and seemed friendly. I plan on spending a lot of time at there.
After we were done with our interviews for the day, I reported back to Plum to give him an update on our progress and went back to Farset to transfer our notes from paper to the computer. It’s been a long week so far and seems as though we have been here for ages (probably because we haven’t had a chance to breath). It’s nice though. We’re meeting loads of great people and seeing the city. I feel like I’m getting into a groove and getting to know Belfast and its post-conflict culture quite well. Not being in an office and interacting with the people all day, affords Ethan and me (more so than the others) to be ingratiated in the community and to best understand the current circumstances. I’m excited to learn more and gain a better understanding of the culture, which may seem similar to our own but upon further inspection is quite distinct. For example, I’m about to go for a run around the area and plan on cutting through the Shankill and Farset. People from the area would NOT do that. Communities tend to keep to themselves and do not enter each other’s territory (the perks of being an outsider).
In other news, Kelly and I made make mac-n-cheese for dinner. Afterwards I just hung out relaxing. Also, AMA is making serious progress with her movie. With any luck she should have a signed contract with the rights to proceed in production. Time to celebrate!!