Emergence from Point Fields
As Belfast grew and became an industrial and mercantile powerhouse the original docks at Town Key were no longer adequate. The rise in the shipping trade meant the docks at High Street, at the mouth of the Farset, could not accommodate the amount of larger ships doing business with this prospering city.
The bog lands to the north of the river, known as Point Fields, were drained and wooden piles driven through the clay to the bedrock to support further development. Mr William Ritchie, a Scotsman, saw the enormous potential and established a shipbuilding industry on the site and so the new docklands were born.
Streets were laid out on a grid pattern to house the workers. Many street names reflect the maritime connection – Dock Street, Pilot Street, Marine Street, Trafalgar Street , Nelson Street , Nile Street and Ship Street.
“Between the river and York Street lay a great stretch of waste ground – it was called ‘The Point Fields’, almost entirely possessed by sea birds in the winter, and in the summer the free grazing ground of promiscuous stock. It was often the scene of man fights, cock fights, dog fights and bull baiting. ….This waste is now occupied by streets of houses, docks, stores, foundries and timber yards, down to the Northern Counties Railway”Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast 50 Years Ago, 1875
Calls for a New Church
As the population of the reclaimed Point Field’s continued to grow, the need for a new Catholic church in the area became apparent. St Patrick’s could no longer contain the expanding congregation.
“For a long time back the demand upon the resources of St Patrick’s Church was such that frequently some of the worshippers had to kneel outside the door exposed to the inclemency of the weather”Daily Examiner 8th April 1872
The Shed Chapel
It was decided a Chapel of Ease was required in the docklands area. This would not only meet the needs of the residents but also provide visiting sailors with the opportunity to attend religious services. However, the building of a new church was beyond the means of this poor parish, so instead a large warehouse was rented on Prince’s Dock for £25 per anum. This shed was originally the stores for Messrs J McNamara & Co.
At 8:00am on Sunday 7th April 1872 the Church, dedicated to Saint Joseph, was opened. The Most Rev Dr Dorrian was the celebrant and during the Mass Rev Fr Walsh was ordained. Crowds attended this service and a second one at 11 o’clock was similarly well attended. Fr Harbison, a Redemptorist, addressed the congregation
“It gave peculiar pleasure to come to a Church specially provided, in many respects, for the poor and giving accommodation to the sailors frequenting the port, who otherwise would not have such a favourable opportunity of attending their religious duties”Fr Harbison, 7th April 1872
The new Church is described “though not of that finished beautiful exterior which we are accustomed to behold in our sacred temples, is very commodious and comfortable”. The altar was the main feature together with a statue of Saint Joseph. The most important consideration was that there was ample seating!
The first Administrator of Saint Joseph’s was Fr James Hamill from Crosskeys in the Country Antrim parish of Duneane. Born in 1841 he studied at St Malachy’s College Belfast and Maynooth and was ordained in 1865. Fr Mark McCashin was the first Curate and subsequently Administrator of the Parish. His family came from Corbally, near Downpatrick. Having studied in Paris, he was ordained in St Peter’s Church in 1867. His brother Dan was also a priest. The parochial house at this time was at 263 York Street.
Rowan Street Chapel
However, by 1879 the warehouse was just too small for the ever-growing population of the docks area. The nearby streets were packed with families of those working at the harbour and on the ships as well as carters and bargemen and those employed in the adjacent railway station.
Temporary premises were rented in Rowan Street, off York Street while a new church was constructed on the ‘shed chapel’ site. It is thought this Rowan Street Chapel was the storehouse of Robert Rowan & Co, who had a flax spinning business. The yearly rent was £100
Saint Joseph’s Church
The new Church was opened on 8th August 1880 with great fanfare. 8 bishops and 54 priests were in attendance.
The Most Rev Dr Dorrian led the ceremony to consecrate the new building and Dr McGettigan gave the sermon. Music, Mozart’s Mass No 2, was provided by the choirs of St Patrick’s and Saint Joseph’s. Mr D J Burns was the organist.
There was an admission charge ranging from 10s to 2s 6d to help alleviate the debt still owing on the Church.
Exterior of Saint Joseph’s
Saint Joseph’s is built in an Italian Romanesque style on designs drawn by Timothy Hevey. He was also the architect for Milltown Cemetery Gates (1869), St Patrick’s (1874) and the Throne Hospital (1874). Unfortunately Timothy Hevey died on 29th December 1878 at his home 4 Alfred Street. He was only 32.
The work was carried on by his partner Mortimer H Thompson. The builder was Henry Fulton of Brougham Street.
The front edifice is composed of Dungannon sandstone with red Dundonald dressings. The tower rises to over 100ft and is surmounted by a spire. On top of this is an 8ft Cross, said to be used as a guide for boats entering the port.
The bell was constructed by Sheridan and Son of Dublin and the statue of Saint Joseph, which stands over the main entrance, was carved by John Loughlin of Clifton Street.
Interior of Saint Joseph’s
The Church itself is 106ft by 40ft with two side aisles and a nave ending in a square chancel. The gable wall has a large rose window, while the clerestory has four pairs of windows separated by polished granite columns. Access to the gallery was by two circular stone staircases. The ceiling was wooden and barrel-shaped.
John Loughlin was also responsible for the six statues on the corbels just below the clerestory window – St Paul, St Nicholas (patron saint of seamen), St Brigid, St Peter, St Patrick and St Malachy. The original Gothic High Altar was designed by James Pearce.
A new red-brick parochial house was built in Pilot Street to the rear of the Church.
The industrial dockside location of Saint Joseph’s Parish meant it was a prime target for German bombers during WW2. Children were evacuated and air-raid shelters quickly assembled. Street lighting ceased and large drums were placed along Garmoyle Street, which when ignited poured dark smoke into the air to obscure the view.
On 8th April 1941, 13 people were killed during bombing in the area. On 15th April an additional 750 Belfast inhabitants died. Sunday 5th May again was a night of heavy bombings, a terrace of houses on Dock Street were flattened resulting in 35 deaths. In addition, buildings in Nelson Street, Garmoyle Street, Earl Place, York Street and Trafalgar Street were destroyed.
“…densely populated and poorly constructed working-class houses in the docks suffered severely during the raid, despite the fact that many of the bombs in this area fell on commercial property or open spaces. One elderly woman, who ‘stayed put’ throughout, told reporters next morning that it had been a ‘night of hell’. Gable walls were plucked apart by the blast from explosives; to one eyewitness it seemed as though they had been ‘squashed by a giant hand’. Over a distance of hundreds of yards windows were shattered and roofs stripped”Brian Barton , The Blitz, Belfast in the War Years, 1989
For the first and only time in its history, Sunday Mass was not said in Saint Joseph’s on 11th May 1941 due to an unexploded high-explosive bomb lying in Pilot Street!
Saint Joseph’s Church was the heart of Sailortown, an area that has endured more than its fair share of hardship – economic, social and political.
Through recession and industrial unrest including the Dockers Strike of 1907 to the sectarian troubles of 1864, the 1920’s and 1969 the Church kept this working class tight-knit community alive.
However, by the late 1960’s Belfast City Council decided the area had to be redeveloped for the new M2 Motorway, new apartments and businesses. The traditional little streets that made up St Joseph’s Parish were demolished and the local populace dispersed throughout the city and beyond. While some have described the redevelopment area as “very inferior streets and lanes” it was also home to four generations of Belfast families in a tight-knit community.
“But what sectarian outrages and German bombing could not do, the planner and the developer succeeded in doing, and they laid the area low. ‘Progress’, redevelopment and transport planning laid the street and the various communities around it to waste, scattering the people to the four winds”John Campbell, Memories of York Street, 1991
Closure of Saint Joseph’s Church
In 1999 the Catholic Church closed St Joseph’s as there was no longer a sufficient congregation to warrant the expense of keeping it open. The little Church itself was under threat from the developers. However, a prolonged campaign by ex-parishioners and those who value our built heritage managed to save the Church from the bulldozers.
Now St Joseph’s serves as a community hub, celebrating and cherishing the history, families and memories of this once lively and colourful district of old Belfast.
“..it is envisioned that the Church and the attached Parochial House will be restored to provide iconic space for cultural and creative activities in an area of high urban deprivation. The project will support local people in coming together and working towards positive change for their community in this historic and long-neglected city centre area”Sailortown Regeneration Group
Sailortown in the Arts
While the population of St Joseph’s Parish may have scattered, the area holds a special resonance for many.
Irish artist Terry Bradley features the men and women of the docks in many of his quintessential paintings.
Playwright Martin Lynch’s arguably most famous work Dockers, depicts the struggle for employment in the 1960’s.
Author Eoin McNamee described Sailortown in his novel Resurrection Man and poet John Campbell’s books Corner Kingdom, The Disinherited , The Oul Jobbin Poet and more are set in the docklands.
The loss of this once thriving community has left a hole in the hearts of many that can never be filled.
“ …so in future years the sounds of human voices and homes will be replaced by the hum and rattle of industry: the silence of God’s creation will be replaced by the emptiness of man’s ingenuity. Children’s voices will be heard only when on conducted tours or on rambles around the dead heart of a once-throbbing bed of humanity. But the ghosts of ‘Sailortown’ will always live in the memories of those who once stepped along Prince’s Dock Street to St Joseph’s the ‘Chapel on the quays’Fred Heatley, St Joseph’s, Story of a Dockside Parish, 1972
We’d like to thank the representatives of the Sailortown Regeneration team for allow us to photograph inside the church and would acknowledge their efforts in keeping this wonderful building available for the Sailortown community.
Address: St Joseph’s, Prince’s Dock Street, Belfast BT1 3AA
For more information on the history of the church and parish see: St Joseph’s Centenary 1872–1972 by Fred Heatley published 1972
For more information on events and the future of St Joseph’s see: www.sailortownregeneration.com
Gallery of Images
Click image for slideshow mode. Mobile users slide up to end slideshow.
The Farset gave Belfast its name (originally Béal Feirste, ‘mouth of the sand-bank ford) and was at the heart of Belfast’s industrial success.
A walk with Scotty around Belfast’s Sailortown, the Lagan side, the Big Fish, Queen’s Square and Clarendon Dock
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