Kenneth Branagh's Oscar-bound film reminds Belfast how life could change in an instant

While peace has come to Northern Ireland, signs of the decades-long conflict remain

The peace wall in west Belfast that divides Falls Road and Shankill Road. Photo: Paul McErlane / The National
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“This is Protestant but back in the day, Catholics would have lived around these areas, like they would have lived in many parts of Belfast,” says Norman Reilly, pointing at Mountcollyer Street in north Belfast on an overcast February morning.

“There was not a lot of mixed neighbourhoods, but some. Now, obviously, there's been a lot of redevelopment.”

The redevelopment followed what historian Marianne Elliot, who grew up on the White City housing estate not far away, has called the “enforced relocation” of as many as 15,000 families in only a few years from mixed to “single-identity” neighbourhoods.

Since the late 1960s and the onset of conflict over Northern Ireland's place in the UK, many families were uprooted and large walls — or “peace lines” — were erected to divide communities, often on sectarian lines.

Mountcollyer Street and its history have been thrust into the limelight amid the success of Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film Belfast, set in 1969 during the early days of The Troubles — a three-decade conflict in Northern Ireland that would claim the lives of more than 3,500.

The protagonist is Buddy, a 9-year-old boy from a Protestant family, who faces the breakdown of his street, community and city as the sectarian conflict erupted between the mainly Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant pro-British “loyalist” paramilitaries as well as local police and the British military.

Belfast has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

I’m not knocking the movie. It gives you a bit of an understanding of how your life can just change like that, in a blink of an eye
Norman Reilly

Buddy's story is inspired by Branagh's own life, and like the character, the famed actor and director spent his early years on Mountcollyer Street before leaving the violence for England at age 9.

Belfast is now at peace, even if some of its wounds remain open.

Mr Reilly, who was born in 1970 and grew up in the largely loyalist Shankill Road area, runs Black Taxi Tours Belfast and shows people around the city he grew up in.

One criticism has been levelled at Branagh’s film by reviewers — and by Mr Reilly — is that it fails to show the true scale of the violence that emerged.

“It wasn't really telling me anything I already didn't know,” said Mr Reilly on the film. “But, again, through Kenneth Branagh’s eyes as a 9-year-old — it’s what he’s seen. And then obviously he left Northern Ireland.

“It didn't really focus a lot on the terrorism after it, it was more to do with the intimidation.

“I’m not knocking the movie, I would recommend people to watch it, definitely would. Because it gives you a bit of an understanding of how your life can just change like that, in a blink of an eye.”

Much of Belfast was filmed in England, in part because of Covid-related disruptions. But also because Mountcollyer Street — what is left of it — no longer resembles what is shown in the film. Decades of violence as well as a wider housing regeneration have changed the area Branagh once knew.

“Everything’s changed here, it’s a lot different now,” said David Long, 57, a resident of the street since the 1970s.

In fact, the top end of Mountcollyer is now empty except for three bollards at its entrance and the odd bit of rubbish and graffiti.

Belfast and Northern Ireland in general became major tourist destinations following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended much of the conflict even as the region’s devolved government continues to bicker with the rest of the UK.

Parts of Game of Thrones were filmed in Northern Ireland and the Titanic museum is testament to Belfast’s maritime background.

But there are many reminders of the city’s turbulent past.

The most visual example of those divisions are some of the peace walls that still run through the city, perhaps the most famous being the ones that separate the largely Protestant Shankill Road and mostly Catholic Falls Road. Those walls are now adorned with messages such as “love wins”.

“[Kenneth Branagh] was brought up in an area that defined itself as Protestant, but where people would have had good relationships, in many cases, with their Catholic neighbours,” said Dr Eamon Phoenix, a historian and author.

“And then suddenly, the barriers come down in '69. Barriers go up to protect people — but those kind of barriers go up and they end those normal relationships.”

Dr Phoenix, who comes from a Catholic background, was a teenager in Belfast at the time, living in a largely Protestant area where community relations were good.

“When school started two weeks later, our school had been taken over by the military and all those experiences. But there’s a phrase here among many people, thoughtful people who lived through that. And it’s simply that '69 changed a lot of people and certainly it changed attitudes. It changed everything forever really, that summer of '69.”

Dr Phoenix recalls that, on the day British troops arrived in Belfast on August 15, cousins from Andersonstown — a largely Catholic area of the city that witnessed a great deal of violence — arrived at his home.

“’Look, you can’t stay here. You’re in grave danger,’” they said to his family.

“We were a bit bemused,” Dr Phoenix said, given that the situation was relatively calm where he was.

“I remember spending a night in Andersonstown where people were building barricades — the trouble was a mile down the road — and there were vigilantes, I’d never heard the word before. Vigilantes with armbands had suddenly emerged — a lot of these people would later become the Provisional [Irish Republican Army],” he added.

On the Falls Road side of modern day Belfast, the road names are written in English and Irish.

The office of Sinn Fein, the republican political party dedicated to Ireland’s reunification, stands next to a mural of Bobby Sands, the Provisional IRA member who died after a 66-day hunger strike in a prison in Northern Ireland.

A series of nearby murals pay tribute to, among others, the nationalist cause and those who died, as well as showing support for Palestine and the detained Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.

On the other side of the peace walls, in an estate off Shankill Road, is a mural to Stephen McKeag, a loyalist paramilitary commander in the Ulster Defence Association who Mr Reilly went to school with.

“As a teenager living around here, the paramilitary organisations — we didn’t see them as terrorists, we saw them as freedom fighters. It’s all about perspectives, obviously,” said Mr Reilly.

He said such groups were seen at as protecting locals from the IRA, perhaps in the same way the latter was viewed by republican communities.

Writing for the Slugger O’Toole news site, which examines events in Ireland and the UK, Ian Clarke says of Belfast: “Buddy clearly doesn’t understand why the Catholic families are being put out of the street and his family are horrified but powerless to do anything about it.

“Kenneth Branagh was under no obligation to provide context or offer judgements on the tragic events that started to unravel that month. He would have been dishonest to offer more than he did.

“Personally, I felt the movie worked brilliantly because it never once stepped outside Branagh’s 9-year-old consciousness and in so doing, it recreated a Belfast we’ve never seen on the screen. I’m glad he did.”

Things have changed — Mr Reilly says there are no longer British soldiers on the streets and a limited police presence.

“What’s needed in Northern Ireland is trust. It takes a long time to build it, but you can lose it just like that.”

On Shankill Road, a memorial garden pays tribute to the nine victims of an October 1993 IRA bombing of a fish shop. It has particular significance for Mr Reilly. His daughter-in-law, who was one at the time, lost her parents and sister in the attack.

“Things like this as are a reminder, but also it makes people realise we're not going back to the way things were.”

Updated: February 11, 2022, 7:33 PM