The hidden meanings behind Belfast’s street signs and a walk down memory lane - Anne Hailes

Street names tell the history of a place, while Derek Thompson moves on to a new chapter in Blue Lights after years in Casualty... and his Ulster Television debut

Anne Hailes

Anne Hailes

Anne is Northern Ireland's first lady of journalism, having worked in the media since she joined Ulster Television when she was 17. Her columns have been entertaining and informing Irish News readers for 25 years.

Derek Thompson who will be making guest appearances in BBC series Blue Lights.
Derek Thompson who after years in Casualty will be making guest appearances in BBC series Blue Lights

It used to be the case that a street directory was part and parcel of most households in Northern Ireland. I loved these bulky red books, telling the tale of who lived where and what their occupation was.

They were a window on the world from the 1840s until they ceased publication in 1996. There was so much information, historical facts and figures, details of public buildings, lists of parliamentary dignitaries and fulsome adverts.

My dad was in insurance and this was his bible; now they are a rare commodity and fetch big prices on the resale market - a 1973 edition is on sale for £89.99 plus 7.99 p&p, for example.

This all came pouring back from deep in my memory at an excellent lecture which was part of the very successful Imagine! Festival. Fr Martin Magill has the same fascination with street names as I have so it was a must to listen to his talk on the 4,178 names he has researched from BT1 to BT15.

For the last four years he has walked the streets, making notes and photographing townscapes. He has raided Google, visited Queen’s University, the Public Records Office, Central Library and the Linenhall Library, where he was spoke to a full house last Wednesday.

Twitter, which is now called X, has carried his messages far and wide asking for information. As he said, even small memories help him build his jigsaw. It was the shipyard poet Thomas Cardiff who in 1939 said that the history of a town isn’t in a book but in the street names.

Why Go To All This Trouble?

It’s a project that has taken hours and hours of work, all over and above being priest at St John’s on the Falls Road, a campaigner, community leader, festival organiser and author.

“It’s important to record the history of the city both for young people and those who have lived through a time of change. Everyone is involved if they wish to be, one little piece of information opens doors and allows a bigger picture to emerge. I’m a sort of detective,” he laughs and adds that research is everything.

“For instance, the Boyd Partnership proposed Galgani Crescent for a new street being developed on the former site of St Gemma’s School in the Ardoyne area of Belfast. Galgani Crescent is being proposed as Galgani was the surname of St Gemma.

“In the shadow of Divis mountain is Black Ridge Gardens, Black Ridge Way and Black Ridge Heights off the Mona bypass in the west of the city where 650 new houses were built and the roads installed had to be named. The developers worked with St Teresa’s primary school’s principal and, with the assistance of a local historian, they organised a competition involving Primary 6 pupils for the street naming of the site.”

They came up with ‘black ridge’, derived from the Irish Dubhais.

And what of Susan Street in east Belfast?

The minutes of a meeting on September 29 1886 indicate that on the application of Messrs Fraser and Son on behalf of Mrs Henderson, the wife of the proprietor of the Newsletter James Alexander Henderson, two new streets off Newtownards Road were named Susan and Trevor presumably for personal reasons. Susan Street is still there, Trevor gave way to Tower Street.

Fr Martin challenged his audience and the public in general to send any information they remember about streets they have known and to visit the website to join in the collection which some day will become a 21st century directory.

Derek Thompson who will be making guest appearances in BBC series Blue Lights.
The teenage Thompson twins early 60s
The teenage Thompson twins pictured in the early 60s
A Famous Past And Present

So after 38 years, Casualty nurse Charlie Fairhead survived being knifed in the stomach and lives to return to his native Northern Ireland to star in Blue Lights as retired police officer Robin Graham.

He came to prominence in 1986 with the BBC hospital drama but in Northern Ireland he hit the headlines long before that. Back in the early 1960s Tommy James had a TV programme called Teatime With Tommy - he was legendary.

Every Saturday we’d hold auditions and anyone with a voice could come along and Tommy would accept or decline them depending on their talent. One Saturday morning a little girl and boy appeared. They were about 13 years of age, fair haired twins who presented themselves well, beautifully dressed and modest.

Everyone was thrilled with Derek and Elaine, the Thompson Twins, and they contributed to Teatime all week. One night they sang Yellow Bird, Up High In Banana Tree and to set the scene, props man Isaac climbed a ladder and dangled bananas tied to a branch. It looked quite natural as he was laughing so much the bananas trembled as if in a topical breeze.

What a joy it was to eventually see Derek move on to great things and it will be grand to see him re-emerge in Blue Lights.