By the Banks of the Lagan

Ben Simon's collection of oral histories of the Lagan conjures up rural idylls and model asylums

Appropriately, the launch of Ben Simon's latest exploration of the Belfast hinterland, By the Banks of the Lagan, takes place at the Lock Keeper’s Cottage in Newforge. Simon is nothing if not prolific: the new publication follows hard on the heels of a pioneering history of woodlands around Belfast (2009), and an oral history of the Cave Hill (2010).

Today, the lock keeper’s cottage is most often mentioned in relation to certain political scandals. Simon's book reveals that there is so much more to the site.

It was the third lock on the Lagan Navigation which between 1754 and 1794 was pushed through all the way to Lough Neagh. Simon's interview with Dorothy McBride, daughter of the last lock keeper and one of ten children, reveals what it was like living in the cottage.

McBride and her siblings were brought up in the simplest of circumstances. There was no electricity or running water (except when the river flooded). All cooking was on a range fuelled by coal donated by passing barges, and they grew their own vegetables, and kept poultry, cattle and pigs to make ends meet.

Even after the First World War twenty or more barges passed the Lock Keepers Cottage daily. Most were horse drawn, with the bargees living aboard in minimal accommodation. It wasn't until the early 1950s that traffic fell to one or two barges a day, leading to the closure of the canal.

Before that, however, a simple rural world upriver from Belfast co-existed with the industrial corridor. The mills and other workplaces have now vanished, but Simon was still able to find witnesses who worked in almost all of them.

People who remember when Belfast had many markets, not just St George’s market, which were supplied by the immediate Lagan hinterland. Lighters brought coal upriver to the gasworks where hundreds worked in the midst of heat and fumes. They can recall when Stranmillis was a hive of industrial activity.

The account of Vulcanite is a particularly alarming one. It still operated during the Troubles, although its hazardous machinery would sporadically explode of its own accord. Further up river major brick works were still in operation up to the Second World War.

Newforge is remembered as home to a food processing factory where Clement Wilson was a progressive employer. He assuaged the elite of the neighbouring Malone ridge by the extensive planting of gardens which survive to this day.

Sadly the archetypal mill village at Edenderry, home from 1866 of John Shaw Brown’s St Ellen Works which specialised in high quality damask weaving, lost both mill and mill pond in recent years before a new tide of developers.

Simon is still able to reconstruct life in the mill: hot, dirty, and noisy. He also charts the various categories of mill housing. The road to Edenderry is still narrow and a dead end, but it is hard to believe that the gates on it were locked at 9.00 pm effectively trapping the inhabitants.

There were even stranger communities. Purdysburn, originally the home of the Batt family, was converted into a model asylum in 1894, which operated on a largely self-sufficient basis with patients growing much of their own food.

The biggest of the mansions along the river, Belvoir, was already semi-derelict by the 1920’s though one witness recalls antlers, elephant’s feet and other animal trophies lying about. Bizarre that a gamekeeper was kept on, and made life difficult for locals wishing to feed off pheasants and the plentiful hares in the neighbourhood.

One tends to assume that the river was heavily polluted by the mills, not to mention the nauseous Corporation dump at Annadale where, amidst fires and stinking leachate, deformed cats roamed. Yet Simon finds a witness who attests to good fishing and the sighting of salmon in the middle of the last century. Here too are accounts of swimming contests, though accidental drownings and suicides were all too frequent.

By the Banks of the Lagan follows the model of Simon’s oral history of the Cave Hill. It seems even more revealing because the Lagan has seen dramatic change. Simon backs up his oral accounts with useful introductory essays to each stage on his journey, and with extensive endnotes. When features on the river lie beyond the scope of memory, as in the case of Molly Ward’s celebrated inn above Annadale, he fills the gap from documentary sources. Where other witnesses offer additional information, as with long-forgotten popular place names, their testimony is added in.

This is how to do oral history. It certainly adds to the interest of a visit to the lock keeper’s cottage which has been restored along with its neighbouring lock. In addition to that famous, or infamous, cafe, this is now the base of the Lagan Valley Regional Park where a new future for the river beckons.

Certainly as Christmas advances upon us the appeal of this large format and beautifully illustrated book and all for £6.00 should be obvious.

By the Banks of the Lagan is available from the Lagan Valley Regional Park Office.