There is life in Sailortown and St Joseph's Church is at the heart of it

Sailortown's legendary and now vacant Rotterdam Bar lies vacant under the shadow of a major apartment scheme. Picture by Hugh Russell.

DURING this latest phase of severe public health restrictions, which will hopefully be eased over the coming weeks, we have been permitted to exercise with one other person from a different household.

That’s meant that my weekend running adventures which pre covid could have involved a group of 20 or more, has meant just two of us, sometimes returning to familiar routes, often seeking out new ones, covering a large part of our home city, run by run, weekend by weekend.

A few weeks ago my running buddy suggested we head to Sailortown, where St Joseph’s Church had been re opened to the community as a restoration project gathers momentum.

That suggestion was good enough for me and off we went, and en route I recalled my few ventures into that part of Belfast in the past.

In truth my only real knowledge of Sailortown was gleaned from warm memories of hugely enjoyable afternoons and evenings in the two long abandoned pubs, Pat's Bar and the Rotterdam.

The old Pat's Bar in Belfast's Sailortown. Picture by Hugh Russell.

They were our venues of choice for my gang of friends in our student days, there was always music, there was a familiar face and there was always mighty craic.

It is sad to see the two bars now, derelict and apparently abandoned. The Rotterdam especially has a direct link to Belfast’s musical heritage, having hosted gigs by virtually all local artists as well an apocryphal appearance by Bob Dylan in his early days.

My other source of Sailortown knowledge was from the wonderful, simple and evocative song by local singer songwriter Anthony Toner (its a great song, but he has so many others, please check him out) so beloved by the late, great Gerry Anderson who played it regularly on his morning radio show.

In the song Toner laments, “There’s nobody left here that works at the docks, it’s all urban renewal and apartment blocks…” Well as it turns out, he was half right.

For as we discovered on our early Saturday run, there certainly is life in Sailortown and St Joseph’s Church is at the heart of it.

Amanda St John was among the performers at St Joseph's for the Sailortown Regeneration St Patrick's Day live-streamed event. The deconsecrated church is now at the heart of the community-led Sailortown revival. Picture by Hugh Russell.

The Church was formally deconsecrated by the Catholic hierarchy 20 years ago but at this point the local community called a halt to any further running down of the area.

Thousands of voluntary campaigning hours and days later, funds have been secured from various arms of local Government and Stormont Departments as well as Trusts and charities.

Work is well underway' which will make St Joseph's the heart of Sailortown once again, the magnet that will draw in local people, tourists, and anyone with a keen sense of Belfast history.

Just last week on St Patrick’s Day a brilliant live concert was broadcast from St Joseph's and it was immediately apparent that this has real potential as an arts and community hub.

What I discovered is that the area is steeped in Belfast dockside history.

Erected within and outside the Church are plaques, photo montages and tales of Belfast past, including the characters who were forged by this city and who helped shape the industrial world.

Caoimhe Howell from Ferris Irish Dancing School performing in St Joseph's Church on St Patricks day. Picture by Hugh Russell.

Trade union leaders, anti slavery campaigners, famous one armed footballers (yes, its true!) are among those who make up the colourful and vital history of this part of Belfast.

I spoke this week to Terry McKeown, the project manager of the Sailortown Regeneration Group who is leading the campaign to preserve and promote Sailortown.

She is a determined Belfast woman whose mission is to ensure that what was once a bustling community can become so again. I wouldn’t doubt her for a second.

The area is surrounded by major infrastructure projects including Titanic Belfast, City Quays and the Ulster University redevelopment.

A short walk away from Sailortown is the Cathedral Quarter, the opposite direction takes you to the commercial and retail heart of Belfast.

Sailortown could be, should be, the thread that links it all together. That will require vision, foresight and pubic investment and why shouldn’t all those things be in place?

We surely cannot let private commercial property development dictate the entire future shape of our main city?

It is sad to imagine the Rotterdam and Pat’s Bar becoming yet another block of apartments.

Every city should have the vision to accommodate and encourage it’s dreamers, architects, artists and, yes, it’s local characters and history.

Terry told me that the American Bar and McKenna’s - one established in the 1860s and one in 2014 - have invested in outdoor dining and drinking areas, in anticipation of the rules which will apply to socialising post covid.

Those bars deserve our support, so too does Benny’s sandwich bar which featured recently in the BBC drama Bloodlands.

The entrepreneurs behind these outlets are examples of what is achievable and possible in a renewed Sailortown.

St Joseph's Church is at the heart of the community-led Sailortown revival. Picture by Hugh Russell

After my run, I gave my outing a name on running app Strava, I called it ‘what was once Sailortown’, a quote from the Anthony Toner song but the Sailortown folk weren’t happy.

Their reply on twitter said ‘We’re still here you know!’

And they are, thankfully. Long may they run.

Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate ( Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast

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