Today nothing remains of the original Belfast Barrack which stood in the lower Falls area of West Belfast. What does remain is the name, Barrack Street, and needless to say this is built on one of the most historical spots of the modern city of Belfast. In the very earliest records of the town this place had been noted as a military post, and continued as such up until the early 1800’s, when it was converted to other uses. The burgesses, in 1642, during the wars between the English and the Irish, were ‘sesed’ for the building of a rampart of sods and stone around the town. This ride defence was entered by several gates, one of them being on what was then the road to Dublin, and known as the Mill Gate, situated on the site to the present Castle Street, near where Chapel Lane joins that thoroughfare.
THREAT TO TOWN
In the earliest map of the town, dated 1660, two short rows of houses are shown outside this gate but no other buildings are shown. About this time the Irish army under Phelim O’Neil and Con Magennis had threatened the small town and put the inhabitants in great straits, but Arthur Tyringham made good the defences and enrolled the inhabitants as soldiers, so Belfast was not attacked, although Lisnagarvey (Lisburn) was burned. For several years the Town Book records different assessments made towards the “mentaineinge of Garrisons in Belfast in their several guards within the same with fire and candle light.” The “sese” at this time was levied on about 120 burgesses, and in 1644 was for “400 soulgers for 10 days att 15d a man.” This was followed by a “sess for ye 20 horse and for Colonel Home his use.” Another assessment was for “thirty six shillings which is due unto the Sovraigne and Wid. Patridge for bricks for the Court of Guard, and for iron work for the gates, and for the making of the bridges at the gates, and for work which is now in workinge about the rampier.” It is clearly shown from this that about 1640 any military stationed in Belfast kept inside the Ramparts, and were doubtless billeted through the town amongst the inhabitants. In 1649 Cromwell landed in Ireland, and Colonel Venables captured the town for him after a siege of four days, and we are told he camped near the site of the old Barracks in view of the Mill Gate during this siege. But after the capture of the town he billeted his horses and men in the old Parish Church in High Street.
The first detailed map of the town was made by Thomas Phillips in 1685, and it shows the Mill Gate, and the road to Dublin, outside the ramparts, with houses on either side, and the site of the Barracks, entrenched on the south and west by two apparently circular bastions, and a dyke in the rear, along what was the old Lettuce Lane. The western bastion would occupy a corner of barrack Street and Durham Street and a large building is shown on this map, with a small range beside it. The site was a commanding one, guarding the principal gate to the town and on the main road to Dublin and the Falls. On the opposite side of the road stood a little mill with a wheel turned by the stream that supplied with water the large lake that then occupied the ground above Millfield. The outlet from this lake was then an open stream, and flowed down the middle of High Street. The site of the little mill opposite the Barracks was subsequently used as the Pound, and had the stream flowing through it.
THREE FOOT SLATES
In Mackey’s History, we are told that the Barracks were built in Barrack Street in 1737. They were set back from the street about 75 feet, were two stories high, and built of brick. The slates were very thick and of great size, some of them being over three feet long, whilst the beams were heavy and rude. In the east corner of the yard stood a small, square two storied house, about 25 feet by 20 feet, which was evidently a guard house, whilst along Barrack Street, for about 65 feet, stood the officers’ quarters, two stories high, of considerable length, and about 25 feet wide. The ground floor was a large room, with a great open fire place, that may have been used by the guard, and from it were were stairs leading to what was the officers mess room and sleeping quarters. In the north corner next the street, built into the walls, was one of the old Ordnance Stones. The rest of the frontage to Barrack Street was occupied by a high wall pierced by a double gate, adjoining the officers quarters, and framed in iron, heavily bolted and barred from side to side, and sheeted with iron. Close beside this in the square stood a water pump and small shed. The next map in which the Barracks are shown is dated 1757, and it gives the buildings their shape, thus proving that the structure erected in 1737 was the same as when it was demolished, but the guard room and officers quarters are not depicted. This map shows the Mill Gate as existing and the North Gate as removed.
In 1771 Thomas Greg, a merchant of Belfast, had taken some farms near Ballyclare, from the Marquis of Donegall, over the heads of the tenants, but could not get anyone to save his harvest. Greg, who lived in Castle Street, near the present Bank Buildings, was acquainted with the officers of a Highland Regiment then lying in the Barracks, and he persuaded them to allow their men to go out and reap his crops, which they did; but during the night the dispossessed farmers scattered them to the four winds. The military were going to renew their operations next day, but the people assembled in such numbers and appeared so threatening that the officers thought it better to desist. David Douglas, a young Templepatrick farmer, was pointed out by one of Greg’s people as a ringleader and a captain of the Hearts of Steel, and organisation called into existence by the treatment of Lord Templetown’s, and had made some spirited remarks to the agent, Hercules Heyland, with respect to the rents he was exacting on the fall of his lease. He was arrested on a Friday and lodged in the Barracks.
On the following Sunday his friends and neighbours, rudely armed, assembled in a body and marched from Templepatrick to Belfast, laying siege to the Barracks. During this attempt the Barrack gates were thrown open and the soldiers fired on the people, killing three of their number – viz., William Russell, Andrew Christy and Robert Walker, all strong farmers – and wounding many others. The besiegers then set fire to the house of Waddell Cunningham (that stood where the Tesco Metro store now stands) and burned it to the ground, and threatened to burn the houses of Thomas Greg, William Wallace, the Sovereign’s Stewart Banks, and those of any other of the merchant middlemen in the town. The prisoner, Douglas, was released from the Barracks, it is said, on the intercession of Dr Halliday, and was subsequently tried at Carrickfergus and acquitted.
In a map made by Hugh Smith, in 1790, the main buildings of the Barracks are shown, also the officers’ quarters and the guard house, and Mill Street is first shown as being continued straight up to the Falls, thus obviating the curved road past the Barracks which had up until then to be taken by travellers to the Falls.
There are now definite facts about the occupation of the Barracks during the Insurrection of 1798, but it is certain that they were kept fully occupied and well guarded, for in 1797, as if anticipating events the Earl of Carhampton, James Cuffe, Ponsonby Moore, Harry Pomeroy, Frederick French, William Cochayne Brigadier General Francis John Cradock, John Townsend and William Crosbie “on behalf of His Most Sacred Majesty King George the Third” took out a new lease from the Marquis of Donegall “for the lives of their Royal Highnesses George, Prince of Wales; Frederick, Duke of York, and William Henry, Duke of Clarence, sons of his said Majesty, and for the lives of such other persons as should for ever thereafter be added thereto” at the yearly rent of £12 sterling. This lease refers to the premises as the Old Barracks, and recites that they had “been held for many years by the Commissioners for Barracks in Ireland,” and that it had been “found expedient and necessary to support the said Barracks and to make further additions thereto for the accommodation of His Majesty’s land forces.”
This lease was enrolled in the Chief Remembrancer’s Office of His Majesty’s Court of Exchequer in Ireland, the 20th day of November, 1797. It is probable that the old Barracks would have fallen into disuse at this time only for the anticipated rising of 1798, as the new Infantry Barracks were built in this year at Carrickfergus Street (now North Queen Street).
THE NEW BARRACK
Very little is known about the early history of the new Infantry Barracks. What is known is that they were built between the Belfast Poor House and the Artillery Barracks both of which stood on what is now North Queen Street. Over the years there were various reports concerning military movements printed in the local press and at times other, more sinister, records appeared. Behind the Barrack stood the Poor House Graveyard which was a regular target for bodysnatchers. Because of this the Poor House employed armed guards to patrol the cemetery at nights. But judging by the following report contained in the Poor House minute books the guards soon got bored with their new posting.
Poor-house 27th February, 1833
At a special meeting of the committee held for the purpose of enquiring into the circumstances connected with firing shots in the graveyard on the night of Monday last, one of which struck the barrack, and entered through one of the windows of the room in which the soldiers were sleeping.
Two soldiers of the 80th regiment deposed that at about half past twelve on Monday night, the 25th inst., a shot was fired from the rear of the barracks , which entered through the centre pane of one of the windows, and that about two o’clock, four o’clock and six o’clock the shots were repeated but they do not think that any of them struck the barracks. On the whole they are sure that about six shots were fired.
After having heard the statement of the men who were on watch on Monday night, the 25th inst. -viz, John McIlwain and James McFarlane fired several shots on Monday evening unnecessarily, thereby causing both alarm and danger, there by acting contrary to their orders, and in consequence thereof the
committee be summoned for Saturday to take into consideration the propriety of not allowing firearms to the watchmen in future.
(SD) A. C. Macartney. Chairman
The two watchmen were ‘sacked’ for firing shots to pass the time. Before the new watchmen had started, a decision was taken that they should have only blank ammunition for their guns, and that a report was to be made each morning.
The Barrack was to remain very much the same when it was built but in the early 1880’s all this changed. In the Spring of 1883 the original Barrack accommodation was greatly increased by the addition of two large blocks of buildings and the purchase of Trainfield House which was converted into an Officers Mess. The old Artillery Barracks was absorbed into the new Infantry Barracks as was the land between it and the old York Street Mill dam which stood on Churchill Street. A number of new entrances were created with plans to have the main entrance on Glenravel Street. This was objected too by the Eye Hospital and Skin Hospital which stood on that street whose main objection was that the noise of marching soldiers would disturb the patients. A compromise was reached and the new main entrance was situated on Henry Place which was the street leading to the old Cemetery. The work was done in accordance with Lord Cardwell’s ‘centralisation’ scheme. Now the Barracks could afford accommodation for ten officers and 182 soldiers, and there were quarters thirty two married soldiers and their families. The Barracks, cavalry and infantry, were sufficiently large to accommodate upward of one thousand men but during times of disturbance they could accommodate up to three thousand men by placing the extra forces under canvas. The military gymnasium was actually erected before all this work commenced and both it and the Garrison Church were built in 1879 with the first mention of it appearing in the Belfast Street Directory the following year.
Over the next few decades more and more buildings were added until it became one of the largest military bases in Ireland. There are literally thousands of newspaper reports relating to the Barracks in the local press from the 1880’s onwards. As would be expected these involved troop movements and appointments as well as balls and various forms of sport which took place in the complex. However there were also more unique coverage and one of the most interesting tells us that the first hot air balloon flight in this part of Ireland actually took place in the Barrack square directly facing what is now the Recy. There were also more sinister reports appearing. Over the years there have been quite a few unsolved murders in the Infantry Barracks, some of them being quite horrific. One of the few solved cases involved a teenage soldier who shot his corporal and was the first person to be hanged in Crumlin Road Prison.
The complex remained the Infantry Barracks up until 1901 when the queen died. It was then remained Victoria Barracks in her honour. The next major change to take place in the Barrack occurred over thirty years later but this was neither planned or expected.
On the night of April 15th, 1941, an event took place in Belfast which, up until then, many people in the city had thought impossible. The German Luftwaffe began an air raid. Although this was to have been one of two main raids it was not the first. A smaller one had occurred which picked out selected targets in the docks area. Most people thought nothing of this small raid and were glad to accept the view of the Northern Ireland Cabinet that Hitler’s bombers could never reach Belfast.
Due to this ignorance Belfast became the most undefended city. It had no fighter planes, no barrage balloons and only a few anti aircraft guns, a fact which is extremely hard to believe when the war had been running for three years.
On the above date one of the largest squadrons of Luftwaffe bombers, consisting of over 200 planes, left Brittany in the north of France. Their target – Belfast.
The planes that took part were mainly Heinkel HE III medium bombers and when the arrived in the city air raid sirens sounded to warn the local population. This caused a lot of confusion as an event which many people thought impossible was taking place. The Civil Defence took up positions with the army manning the few anti aircraft guns in Victoria Barracks. In the docks smoke screens were set alight and these were belching out thick black smoke. When the sirens died down the noise of the approaching bombers could be heard coming over Carlingford Lough. A few minutes later the bombing began.
BEGINNING OF THE END
The Luftwaffe Blitz signalled the beginning of the end for Victoria Barracks. For a start it was almost destroyed and was now longer a safe area for troops. The buildings which were destroyed were never rebuilt and where required only temporary nissan style huts were erected. After the war the base was mainly vacated by the regular army units and Victoria Barracks was mainly used by the T.A. and various Civil Defence Units. At this time the army gym was used to train auxiliary fire fighters and therefore never saw the use it was accustomed to before the war. In the 1950’s it was decided that Victoria Barracks would go and a new housing scheme constructed on its site. Work began on this in the early part of the 1960’s and included the seven high rise tower blocks which are a major feature of the area today.
The old army gym was not demolished. It remained as did a row of officers houses which were built in the 1930’s. The gym remained derelict for a number of years but at the start of the Troubles local residents opened it up and began to use it as a Recreation Centre (hence the name Recy). Because the housing scheme was under the Belfast Corporation The Recy was there property and when this Became the Belfast City Council they decided to convert it into a Community Centre. A new extension was added on and the building was opened as North Queen Street Community Centre in 1979.
Today this building, along with a few sections of wall, is all that remains of the old Infantry Barracks.
A local history project compiled by the Recy Young Women’s Group
and the Glenravel Local History Project