Joe Baker and the Glenravel Local History Project

The aim of the project is to ’reclaim history for ordinary people.’

Joe Baker, a founding member of north Belfast’s Glenravel Local History Project, is a prolific writer who has spent much of the last 20 years in dusty archives, searching out the history of Belfast and its people. The project, whose aim is to ‘reclaim history for ordinary people’, issues about 35 magazines, pamphlets and books a year, including Belfast Magazine, Belfast Murders, Snapshots of Belfast and Belfast Ghost Stories. The latest publication by Baker is North Belfast: A Scattered History.

From the New Lodge area of north Belfast, when Baker was expelled from school at 15 he could barely read or write. He later taught himself to read using children’s books. He was also what many people would have called a ‘wee hood’, frequently on the wrong side of the law. Baker believes he may have set a record for being ‘wanted’ by the most organisations—at one stage or other he was being sought by the police, the British army, the Provisional and Official IRA, and the Irish National Liberation Army.

So what got Joe Baker interested in local history?  He mentions two influences: ‘I used to steal books from libraries, and one day I nicked a copy of As I Roved Out [Cathal O’Byrne’s historical sketches of Belfast], which I found fascinating. Also, when I was growing up we used to drink cider in Clifton Street cemetery, so I started to take an interest in the inscriptions on the gravestones and the cemetery generally.’

In 1991 Joe Baker and others of like mind set up the Glenravel Local History Project to tell the story of the Clifton Street cemetery and the nearby Clifton Street Poorhouse. The project took its name from the street facing the cemetery, where seven listed buildings, all of significant historical interest, had been demolished to make room for the Westlink road development.

Baker sums up the Glenravel History Project’s approach to history: ‘History has always been taught and written from the point of view of those at the top of society. We don’t do that. When we write about the rich merchants and the mill owners, it is to expose myths and to show what they were really like: how they tried introduce the slave trade into Belfast and how they profited out of child labour. They didn’t build Belfast, it was built on the backs of those who worked in the mills and factories and whose blood, sweat, suffering and quite often death led to the modern Belfast we know today.’

This view of history can be seen by Baker’s approach to the story of the Titanic. For him the Titanic’s first victims were those Belfast shipyard workers who died while building the vessel, such as New Lodge men Robert Murphy and his son. Baker is not afraid to apportion blame: the men died ‘due to lack of safety regulations’ in the shipyard.

Rebellion at Belfast Royal Academy
Last year the project conducted a historical tour of the ‘Half Bap’, the area of Belfast now known as the ‘ Cathedral Quarter’, a name Joe Baker dislikes and refuses to use. ‘For me it will always remain the ‘Half Bap’.

Baker relates an incident that took place in the Half Bap in 1792. Probably one of the first student rebellions in history occurred at Belfast Royal Academy, then located at Academy Street, behind today’s Art College. The immediate cause of the rebellion was the decision by the school headmaster to abolish the Easter holidays. A number of pupils responded by seizing arms and ammunition and barricading themselves into one of the classrooms.

There followed several attempts to break into the classroom by the school authorities and the city sovereign. The students drove each attempt back with gunfire, at one point even opening fire on the headmaster’s wife. Eventually they agreed to surrender if the headmaster promised no reprisals or beatings. He agreed—and then promptly broke his word. When the boys surrendered they were whipped until they bled, in front of the entire school.

Belfast Ghosts
The Glenravel Local History Project is unashamedly populist in its approach to explaining the past. One regular publication is Belfast Ghosts, collecting stories about hauntings at various parts of Belfast.

These ghost stories function as local history in two ways. No matter how fanciful these stories, they are part of the history of the city, and represent what some people believed (and what some still do). Secondly, in the retelling of the stories today, we learn a lot about how people lived.

Take the example of the appearance of the ghost of John McKeown at the Belfast workhouse on the Lisburn Road. McKeown had been a pauper at the workhouse before his suspicious death in 1894. He had committed a minor offence in the workhouse and was locked away in the ‘lunatic section’, chained to his cell floor by the notorious housemaster Hamilton Douglas. In a short period of time McKeown was dead. The cause of death was recorded as ‘exhaustion’.

During the inquest there was no reasonable explanation as to why his body was covered in bruises. The jury at the inquest knew that something was not right: they recommended that the rules for locking up paupers in the ‘lunatic section’ should be changed. The chaplain of the workhouse noted that ‘a strange figure was seen in ragged clothes and it disappeared without leaving the room’. Soon stories began to be told in Belfast that John McKeown had come back from the dead to take his revenge on Hamilton Douglas.

Fascists in the City Hall
A fascinating pictorial record of Belfast’s past is provided by Snapshots of Belfast, volumes of old Belfast photographs published by Glenravel. Most of these photographs have not been seen since they were originally published in the local press. Two volumes from the 1920s and 1930s brilliantly capture the atmosphere of Belfast during the depression. In one photograph we see hundreds of cloth-capped men lining up to apply for just one job after a single vacancy for a bus driver had been advertised. Another shows the ‘Belfast Rat Catcher’ at work in the docks area.

An important series of photographs recalls the dangers of fascism in the period. One shows the opening ceremony of the new Belfast offices of the British Union of Fascists in Skipper Street, 1928. In another, during a Remembrance Day ceremony at the Belfast City Hall in 1932, about 20 uniformed members of the Belfast branch of the Italian Fascist Party give the fascist salute as they march up to the cenotaph. In yet another, a Catholic priest blesses fascist flags during the opening of the Belfast offices of the Italian Fascist Party in 1925.

This is why Joe Baker and the Glenravel Local history Project have been so successful; they show us the history of Belfast in aspects that are both strange and familiar. Reading their work is an exercise in both recognition and discovery. Long may they continue.

By Sean McVeigh © 2004