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Attack on Belfast’s North Gate by Cromwell’s troops Glenravel Local History Project

elcome to the latest special edition of the Belfast History Magazine which this time looks at the fascinating ghost stories associated with this city of ours. These are just a few of the many thousands which we have gathered over the years but they are some of the few which we can state confidently are based on facts. We can not say if ghosts are real but but we have researched the events behind them and can state that they are indeed fact. Here's how it works. Someone tells us a story and we obtain as much information as possible. We then research the events behind it and if they happened then the story is published. If they did not happen then we ignore it and place it in the massive 'made up' file. At this point we must state that we are not 'ghostbusters' and we do not research every single story we hear about so if you hear a bump in the night and want to know who died in your house then we'll tell you how to research it but we will not do it for you. There are paranormal researchers out there but all we will tell you is to be careful. We are not paranormal researchers but we are local historical researchers and what we have done in this publication is present the facts behind the ghost stories. What we have found in our research is that the more boring the story is then the more likely it is to be true! That's not to say the stories here are boring as they are far from it. We hope that you enjoy them and once you read them you can be assured that there is more chance of seeing a ghost at three o'clock in the afternoon in Royal Avenue than there is at three in the morning in your own home.

W BELFAST HISTORY MAGAZINE 5 Churchill Street, Belfast BT15 2BP

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The Belfast History Magazine is a monthly publication compiled by the Glenravel Local History Project. It is just one of several Glenravel titles which aim to promote an interest in the subject of local history. It has always been claimed that history belongs of the higher classes and looking at the way it has been presented for decades then this would seem to be the case. Glenravel are not interested in the history of lords and earls, their estates and titles. Instead we are interested in the history of working class life in this wonderful city of ours. We are not interested in politics either and we must stress that if an article appears in the magazine which appears to be a bit one sided then this is due to the simple fact that it is taken from a Nationalist or Unionist newspaper. We use both to try and balance things out. Our section recording the Northern Ireland Troubles is exactly how the events were reported at the time. The Glenravel Local History Project itself is a local historical scheme based in North Belfast. Our activities are centred around the educational promotion and restoration of the areas historic burying ground at Clifton Street and is named after the nearby Glenravel Street which was destroyed to make way for the Westlink road system. The Belfast History Magazine is not funded by any grant making body and is entirely funded by you - the reader.


BELFAST HISTORY MAGAZINE On sale every month in all leading newsagents throughout the city

THE SAD GHOST OF JOHN MELDRUM here is a theory that ghosts are images of past people that have been caught in some sort of natural ‘recording’ and that is the reason why they are sometimes seen by different people at different times. An interesting theory but what happens when these images are seen doing different things at different times and by different people? One such case was the city centre ghost story which had become known as ‘Sad John’ and ‘Poor John.’ Throughout the period known as The Troubles the centre of Belfast had been sealed off by massive barriers which blocked every road, street and allyway and which were to prevent the IRA bombing the heart of the city. Most of these were open during the day when everyone


passing through them were searched and just a few were open 24 hours a day. The main one of these was at High Street which eventually became the only constantly open security cordon. The other which was open 24 hours a day when they were first erected was across Donegall Place directly facing the Belfast City Hall and it was here that the ghost of ‘Sad John’ was regularly seen and not always at night. This barrier was guarded by British troops and during the Troubles it was they who were seeing the strange ghost and its strange habits. Most reports were the same in that they described a small man in old style clothes cleaning outside a particular section of Donegall Place. Strange indeed but some reports stated that he was brushing, others that he appeared to be lifting


rubbish and some even went as far to say that he appeared to be polishing the pavement. But these are from the reporting’s we know about. What about all those which went unmentioned by the British soldiers who feared ridicule! For those who did claim to have seen this ghost (it wasn’t all soldiers) all the descriptions were basically the same. One description from a sighting in the early 1970’s matched another from the early 1950’s. Naturally this left the question as to who or what was ‘Sad John’ and what were the sightings all about? On the site where the sightings were taking place was the famous Ulster Arcade which was a high end shopping complex containing mainly drapers, silk mercers, costumiers and furiers. Needless to say someone had to look after this place and keep it clean and tidy and that person was a man named John Meldrum. His job was the caretaker and the arcade was something he was extremely proud of and as an added bonus he lived in a small apartment on the top floor. Mr Meldrum was not only extremely well known to all the staff and customers but also to passers by who he would chat with when he was out cleaning the front of the arcade. During the Second World War tragedy struck when Belfast was bombed by the German Luftwaffe. Mr Meldrum took shelter at a nearby air raid shelther at the City Hall and while there he lost everything. His beloved arcade and home were completely destroyed. Afterwards he moved in with a relative in the Donegall Pass area where he stayed for a few years before his death in 1948. It was after his death that the strange sightings began at the open ground where the arcade had stood. There are very few details of the early sightings but what is known is that there were consistent with the sightings reported by British soldiers and security staff in the early 1970’s. One of the most common was 4

of the figure of a man who seemed to be polishing the ground and when approached the figure would completely disappear. What we do know is that one of the tasks Mr Meldrum undertook was the cleaning of a massive mosaic which was at the entrance to the arcade. Was the figure seen that of John Meldrum continuing this task long after the arcade was destroyed and long after his own death? This is something we will never know but the arcade stood where the present Marks & Spencer is situated so the next time you’re passing keep an eye out and maybe you too might catch a quick glimpse.

WAS THIS BELFAST’S MOST HAUNTED STREET? f there is one section of Belfast on which we have plenty of ghost stories then it would have to be Glenravel Street as our very project is actually named after it. Because of this we have researched every aspect of the streets history and over the years we have come across quite a number of ghost stories relating to it, so many in fact that we are left wondering if this was Belfast's most haunted street?


Cemetery. The earliest ghost story we have come across was a sighting reported during building work on the street in particular the erection of the Hospital for Skin Diseases. As this was being built there were quite a few sightings of a man in old fashioned army clothes who was seen in different parts of the building site. What makes this story very interesting is the fact that all the sightings were in broad

The Skin Hospital shortly before it was destroyed by Luftwaffe bombs in 1941

Glenravel Street stood directly behind the old Belfast Poor House and before it was constructed it was just a field between the Poor House and their burying ground which today is known as Clifton Street

daylight and none were at night - although we are sure the night watchman was not reassured by this! Naturally these sightings were not a daily occurrence but they were consistent over a number

of years and when the building was complete they continued with the staff and patients of the hospital. Not long after the Skin Hospital opened work began on another hospital next door on the Ear, Eye and Throat Hospital which later became known as the Benn Hospital. Once again during its construction the sightings of this man in an old time military uniform continued and although it was a common enough story in the area Victorian Belfast builders were not known to be a superstitious lot! 5

The Benn Hosptial (right) at the turn of the last century

The Skin Hospital was built by the well known Belfast firm McLaughlin & Harvey and the Benn Hospital by another company. Shortly after work began the sightings also began and almost all were extremely familiar to those seen by the previous workers. It is unknown exactly how many sightings there actually were but today we are aware of at least three and these were by the same person. John Collins was a labourer who lived at 49 Silvio Street and who was employed in the construction of the Benn Hospital. He had been working with many other preparing the foundations when he saw the figure of a man who seemed to be watching them from about twenty feet away. He had watched him for a few 6

seconds and when he went to get the attention of the others the figure completely disappeared. Once again this was in broad daylight and again the dress was described as old fashioned army uniform. Although he had tried to get the attention of his fellow workers John was not alone at seeing this ghost. Two other men working closer to where the figure was had also seen it and their descriptions were exactly the same as those of John Collins. Very little is know about the second sighting which Mr Collins had seen as the accounts are from verbal family history but what is known is that after the first he had been ‘keeping an eye out’ for the ghostly figure as most of his work mates had

dismissed the whole thing. His third sighting was when the building was almost complete when he was one of a team removing scaffolding from around the building. As he was passing material down he could clearly see the figure standing in a field next to the site. The advantage for him on this occasion was that several others had also seen it. Not long afterwards the Benn Hospital was complete and work began on private houses on the field where the last sighting occurred but it is unknown if there were any sightings during their construction. (It was in one of these houses that the world famous author Brian Moore grew up). The Benn Hospital’s proper name was the Ulster Ear, Eye and Throat Hospital and as

demand for its services grew then more space was needed. This came when the hospital bought two of the houses next to it. It would appear that there had been no sightings of the military ghost for some time but when the Benn Hospital took over the private houses it seems that they also took over a ghostly problem. A number of years later sightings of a ghost began to be reported in this section of the hospital. Many patients and members of staff reported seeing the figure of a man in one of the sitting rooms and all the sightings were the same. The apparition entered through the door and slowly made its way across the room. Those who saw it said that it looked quite normal and appeared to have been dressed as though it were working. The figure would then go to the fireplace and after a pause of a few seconds it would completely disappear. At first the story was disbelieved as only some people within the room saw it but as time went on the story gained more credibility after the ghost was sighted by members of staff. One of the nurses who claimed to have seen it described the sighting as follows; The figure would enter the room through the open door. It was

The private houses on Clifton Street which were taken over for use by the Benn Hosptial. Unfortunately they got a bit more than they expected! very lifelike and was obviously others, both staff and a workman aged about 50 years inpatients, agree with me. old. He would then slowly make What was interesting about this his way towards the fire place story was that all those who which stood at the opposite end claimed that they saw this of the room directly facing the figure stated the same thing all door. When he reached the fire the time, that it made its way place he would stop for a few across the room and moments and then vanish into disappeared at the fire place. No thin air. I had heard of this attempt was made by it to sighting many times and I did contact anyone and those who not believe them. There is no saw it while in the room said doubt in my mind that what I that it behaved as though no one saw was a ghost and many else were there. These 7

descriptions certainly give credibility to the belief that ghosts are "past images caught in time," a sort of natural transmission. But what was the image and how did it begin. On the third of January 1884 a number of men were working in the hospital under the employment of Riddel & Co., Donegall Place. The men were to repair a fire in one of the rooms and in doing this one of them got on to the roof. The man working on the chimneys was James Bell who lived at 13 Rotterdam Street. Mr. Bell needed a rope and called for one to be sent up. The workman below was a man named William Black and he said that he would bring the rope up and climbed up through the skylight. The roof had been damp as it had been raining earlier that day. He delivered the rope to his workmate and on his way down Mr. Black slipped and fell head first through one of the windows of the dome. He then fell 20 feet and crashed on to the floor below. Another workman rushed to his aid and noted that a large amount of blood was escaping through a wound at the back of his head. Helped by a few members of staff his workmate lifted him and placed him on one of the beds in the ward as the matron rushed out to the home of Dr. Johnstone 8

The fireplace in the Benn Hospital. It was here that the ghostly figure was said to have disappeared who lived nearby at the corner of Henry Place. When the doctor arrived he examined the man's injuries and discovered that his skull was badly fractured and that his arms and leg were broken, he was also bleeding very heavily and little hope was expressed on his recovery. A few minutes later the man became unconscious and a few hours later he died. When the story on the sightings began to spread it came to the attention of a Mr. Curtis Wilkinson who lived at 102 Halliday's Row (now Halliday's Road in the New Lodge area.)

Mr. Wilkinson knew Mr. Black for around twelve years previous to his death and was the man who went to his assistance directly after the accident. When he heard this story a number of years later and that it was the figure of a workman he knew that it could only have been that of William Black. He began to write to the hospital but his investigations were dismissed by the committee. A few months later he wrote to the matron and she was more helpful. She put him in contact with one of the nurses who claimed to have seen the

apparition and soon after they both met. She described the figure in detail and Mr. Wilkinson stated that the description matched fully with that of Mr. Black. Mr. Wilkinson was to continue investigating this one sighting and at one point he asked the Society for Physical Research to investigate but they refused. (The S.P.R. was an English based organisation and due to the fact that there was no local group it would have been too expensive to look into this one

sighting.) Mr. Wilkinson later wrote a full account of the sighting in one of the local papers but unfortunately no trace of it can be found at present. (The paper is believed to have been the Northern Whig and the article was written between the years 1912 - 1925) In the following years after the sightings the story began to take a new twist and it was stated that the apparition only appeared whenever someone was about to die in the hospital. Death within the hospital was

Victorian map of Belfast showing the new Benn Hospital

a rare occurrence as only minor operations were carried out in the institution on the ears, eyes, nose and throat. An interesting account of this same ghost was told during the early 1940s when it was said that the ghost appeared in one of the corridors to a number of people. The following night another sighting was reported by one of the night staff who said that he had seen it in the same area as the night before. These were the first sightings reported in over twenty years and many believed that it was signalling some misfortune. A few nights later Belfast was to suffer an onslaught by the German Luftwaffe. Many hundreds of people were killed and thousands of buildings devastated. One of those destroyed was the Glenravel Skin Hospital which stood directly next door to the Benn Hospital. If these later sightings were true then is it possible that they were a sort of supernatural warning of what was to come? It seems that there were no more reported sightings of the 'military ghost' up until a new set of building workers moved into the street. This time they were building a new special needs school on the site of the skin hospital where the original sightings had began all those years ago. What is remarkable in this case is that over sixty 9

years had passed and yet the sightings remained almost exactly the same. Work commenced on the new building in the late 1950's and almost immediately there was talk of a figure being seen in an old army uniform but unfortunately there are no details as to where and when. One sighting was quite detailed and did not involve any of the workmen but an inspector from the Water Board. He had been out to oversee the water connection to the building and while examining the basement he saw the figure basically staring at him and that it was an old fashioned soldier. However what made this story unique was that it was the first sighting of the 'military ghost' which was actually inside. Next door to this building was the Glenravel Street Barracks and over the years lots of ghost stories have been connected with this building but sadly most of these are now long gone. It is unknown if there were ever any sightings of the 'military ghost' here but it would seem to be quite likely. The most widely known ghost connected with the barracks was one which was seen quite regularly from the war years right up until it was demolished in the early 1970's. This figure was of a man in a police uniform who was often seen 10

The Glenravel Street Special Needs School where there were several modern sightings of the 'military ghost.' walking along the corridors before completely disappearing. This had not been seen on one occasion by one person but dozens of times by many different people. For years it was widely believed that it was one of seven police constables killed during the Luftwaffe blitz on Belfast in 1941. Victoria Military Barracks was yards away and was a prime German target which is why buildings on Glenravel Street were hit. Glenravel Street R.U.C. Barracks received a direct hit

killing the following instantly:Constable Martin Armstrong Constable Hugh Campbell Constable William Lemon Constable James McKenna Constable Robert Wilson Constable Robert Reid Special Constable James Thompson As stated many people who had seen or heard of the barrack ghost had assumed that it was one of those who were killed however we can now state that this is not the case as there were several sightings before the German bombing and the above deaths.



Glenravel Street R.U.C. Barracks pictured in 1961 The sightings reported before the wartime bombing were exact in that a man in a police uniform was seen wandering the corridors and disappearing. Then it was suspected that this was the ghost of a police constable who died tragically in the barracks only a few years previously. The only person who died in tragic circumstances in recent years at that time was a constable Francis Smyth who had committed suicide in April 1935. He had come of duty and returned to the barracks and into the rest room where he pulled out his revolver and shot 12

himself in the head. Was the ghost roaming the corridors him? We don't know but at least we now know that it was not any of those killed during the bombing. The ghosts of Glenravel Street are no more as the street itself is no more. All the buildings on it were demolished in the 1970's and today it is occupied by the Westlink Motorway. But what of the ghost seen of the man in 'old fashioned military uniform'? Who was he? No one ever found out but in recent years we came across the following paragraph in the History of Belfast by prominent

Belfast historian George Benn (who's brother Edward built the hospitals) It reads as follows:A duel between two officers took place on the 26th of August, 1799, at the back of the Poor House. No spot more secluded, or more certain to be free from interruption, could have been selected than the back of the Poor House in 1799. The Antrim Road did not then exist, nor for many a year later. A narrow path called Buttle's Lane ran up beside the Poor House. The lane derived its name, it may be fairly presumed, from David Buttle, the deposed sovereign of 1703.

The field behind the Poor of the 'military ghost' and now dueling between military House is where all the buildings we have discovered that it had officers. Could the sightings be were built which had sightings been used in days long gone for that of one of the losers!

The old Belfast Poor House behind which the old military duels took place

n the 14th of November 1866 a man named John Woods, an ill-looking character, described as a professional beggar, was charged with stealing a little girl named Quinn, aged seven years. Sub-Constable Murphy said that on the previous evening he observed the prisoner walking through Greencastle with a child on his back and he arrested him. The child was not crying but she began to cry when the witness took her off the prisoner's back. Ms Quinn, mother of the child, said that the prisoner had no liberty from her to take away the child. She lived at Robert Street and she had never seen the prisoner before. Woods had wanted to take the poor child round the county and make a beggar out of her. Two years later the mother, Margaret Quinn, was on her way home from the tea warehouse of Wilson & White where she worked. While leaving a large sack of tea fell on her from an upstairs loading plank and killed her outright. Since then it has been said that she still haunts the building crying after her little girl and in recent years people have even claimed to have smelt raw tea even though the building has not been used for this purpose since the turn of the last century.



Jennymount Mill



"WHEN I die, do not put me in the ground - put me where I can be free to ride my horse, to visit my lands, to call my hounds and to visit my Jennymount (above) "I would rather have my horse and Jennymount than the highest seat in Heaven." These words from an article in the Belfast News Letter in 1936, were attributed to a wayward member of the Thompson family of Jennymount in Belfast's York Road area in the 19th century as he lay on his deathbed. The dying Thompson had been nicknamed "Galloper" because of the time he spent on horseback in the grounds of the family estate and because of his daily ride to work at Jennymount Mill (facing) on his white horse. 15



It was only when he died, however, that Galloper achieved fame - and a certain notoriety - as one of Belfast's best known "active" ghosts. For, according to locals, he is still reputed to frequent Mountcollyer Street, Alexandra Park Avenue, Limestone Road and the Grove area on his favourite white horse. Sightings of Galloper in the early part of the 1900's were quite frequent, and even today many strange or unusual happenings in this area are attributed to him. Although the Galloper Thompson ghost legend is well known in this particular part of the city, the actual history of the man whose death led to the ghost's appearances are shrouded in mystery. There are many conflicting versions of when he lived, when he died, or even which member of the Thompson family he was. The most common version is that he was a member of the Thompson family who lived at Jennymount House in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were well known bankers but also owned the nearby Jennymount Mill at Milewater. Members of the family were the directors of the Belfast Banking Company and the first John Thompson (1766 to 1824) also gave his name to Thompson's

Bank, which was not in fact a financial undertaking, but the embankment at Jennymount on which the Jennymount Mills were subsequently erected. Galloper Thompson was a member of the family though there is no certainty which one was designated in this way. One version is that the name was given to Robert Thompson, because of the place at which he rode from his home at Milewater to his office. From this doubtless sprang the legend of the ghostly mounted figure which in the firm belief of later generations haunted the avenue leading from the road to the mansion at Jennymount. In local legend it was stated that Galloper's abode was Mountcollyer House, situated between the top end of Mountcollyer Street and the Alexandra Avenue gate of Alexandra Park. This gate closed at

sundown and only the very brave ventured near it after dark. The site of the old Mountcollyer school was then, it was said, waste ground adjoining Thompson's Brickwork's on the Limestone Road. In the centre of this was a mound of white coloured clay known by the children of the neighbourhood as Buttermilk Hill. It figured prominently in their daytime games but after dark it was supposed to be haunted by Galloper on his white horse. To these youngsters he was the local bogy man. About this time Mountcollyer House was let out in apartments and as this brought more people around the house, it helped to banish the Galloper.



Mary Reid and Minnie Boyd from Newtownabbey recalled that while they never saw him, Galloper was talked about quite freely in their young days around the turn of the last century. "We often heard his horse on a little wooden bridge - at least we always thought it was his. The bridge was between Seaview Street and Crosscollyer Street and Galloper's house was between the top of the Limestone Road and the Glen, now called Alexandra Park. "The house was called Jennymount and we

remembered it being pulled down. Mountcollyer, Crosscollyer, and Glencollyer Streets were all built on the land Galloper owned. Before he died he is supposed to have said "Jennymount, Jennymount, how can I leave you?" A local historian who had researched the Galloper story confirmed that he lived at Jennymount House and owned the Jennymount Mill in the same area. "There is a bit of confusion to the identity of the Thompson who got the name Galloper and I would certainly be interested in finding out which one, when

he lived and where he might be buried." The spirit of Galloper caused quite a bit of concern to the locals after his death, and at one stage a minister was called in to exorcise the ghost. Eventually, the spirit was supposed to have been put in a glass jar but escaped and continued to haunt the Jennymount area. "After the exorcist had been called in a second time, it was decided to take the spirit far away from Jennymount - to the Red Sea in fact, where it was weighted and dropped to the bottom." 19

This story of Galloper's spirit being exorcised and taken out to sea is featured in the following account by Philip Dawson. In the 1800's, the Thompson family owned Jennymount Mill and estate. The young Thompson was the heir to the estate and the wealth that went with it, but he was very wayward - drinking quite a bit and recklessly riding his favourite horse around the estate. When he reached his late twenties he became very ill, and his doctor told him he would die. His family expected him to change his ways, but while they were gathered round his deathbed, they were astounded to hear him declare that he would "rather have his horse and Jennymount than the highest seat in heaven." 20

As he was dying he asked for his favourite niece to make sure that he wasn't buried, but left where he would be free to ride his horse. He then asked for a drink and kissed her farewell. But as he kissed her, the niece screamed in pain for the death kiss had burned her cheek and left a mark which was to remain for the rest of her life. Contrary to his wishes, Thompson was, after all, buried in his rising gear, and it is said that a blue aura hovered round the hearse on its way to the graveyard. Some people in the area of Jennymount started talking about seeing Thompson's ghost and one night a man decided to prove that his wife had imagined her sighting on the Limestone Road. He went to the Jennymount Stables. Stall after stall was empty until he

reached the last one. There to his horror he found Thompson's horse, exhausted, and covered in a sweaty lather and trembling with fear. After a search, a minister was found who could exorcise ghosts. He brought a sealed jar to Jennymount House and told the family that it contained Thompson's spirit. The jar was to be left undisturbed in the cellar. For a while, all was well until one day, a maid, who had been left alone in the house, found the jar. She lifted it, but her fingers froze and she dropped it with a crash on the stone floor. It smashed on impact and with a blinding flash, Thompson's spirit escaped. The maid was warned not to tell anyone and eventually the minister was called again to lay the ghost. This time the sealed jar was taken out to sea, and after being weighted down with heavy stones, was lowered to the seabed. However, as everyone knows, glass will not withstand the ravages of the elements for ever. One day the glass will smash again and when that happens Galloper will be free to come back to see his beloved Jennymount. There are those in the York Road area who will tell you that he already has ....

THE FIVE MARY’S ne old ghost story which was well known in the Dock areas for many years was a story which was known as ‘The Five Mary’s’ and which was centred on an area of Nelson Street. For years children would never go near the site in question as many incidents were reported relating to it. These ranged from people being pushed by unseen hands through to the hearing of piercing screams late at night. Leaving the ghostly aspects aside the modern historian is then required to research the site in question to see if it was the scene of some tragedy and for this story we do not have to look back very far.


tragedy did indeed occur at this site and the whole story can be taken up by a report which appeared in the Northern Whig on Thursday 23rd March, 1916.

FIRE TRAGEDY IN BELFAST Yesterday afternoon a fire broke out in the stores of Messrs. O & T Gallagher, rag, waste and paper stock merchants and marine store dealers, 41 - 53 Nelson Street. Owing to the inflammable nature of its contents the whole structure of four floors became almost instantaneously involved, and in the course of a few moments the entire premises from the ground to the roof were a mass of flame. A Shortly before the 1916 Easter rebellion and at number of women workers who were in the the height of the First World War a horrific upper portion were caught by the flames.


LEAPING FOR LIFE Some of these, desperate in their eagerness to escape from the threatening flames, jumped from the upper windows on to the street. A lorry laden with tow had been drawn underneath the windows with the object of breaking their fall, and the women were encouraged by the excited spectators to leap for it. Several succeeded in alighting upon the tow and escaped with shock and minor injuries. Others were less fortunate, and, coming into contact with the cobble pavement, were more or less badly hurt. No fewer than six women leapt from the third floor window. All fell on the tow with the exception of one poor creature, who struck the side of the lorry and came to the ground, sustaining a fracture of the spine. Blankets and rugs held by onlookers broke the fall of some of those who escaped through the lower windows. At the fourth or top floor windows several women were observed by the horrified spectators appealing piteously for aid. VAIN EFFORTS AT RESCUE Sergeant Stafford, of the Henry Street Police Barracks, and some civilians obtained a ladder, which they placed against the building and mounted. By this time, however, the women had disappeared, and the shouts to them of the plucky would be rescuers met with no response. The Sergeant and his helpers indeed had to descend the ladder very quickly to escape the flames, which were now bursting through the windows with great fury. This all happened before the Brigade, which had been promptly summoned, and which promptly turned out, had time to arrive. When the first of the fire appliances reached the scene the building was simply enveloped in flames, and all the firemen could do was pour water on it from the 22

outside. As one spectator expressed it, "The whole place went up like a train of gunpowder." In less than half an hour nothing remained of it but the blackened and bulging walls. TRAGEDY OF A FEW MINUTES Occurring as it did in broad daylight, the outbreak caused a big crowd to speedily assemble on the scene. But the tragedy of the fire had really been enacted almost before anyone was aware that life was endangered. It occupied but a few moments. Only the police who were hastily summoned from Henry Street Barracks and the residents of the immediate vicinity saw the workers’ desperate leap for life from the third floor and the awful spectacle of the hapless women trapped on the floor above. Now saw the still more awful climax inside the burning building. Finding no help coming by way of the windows, these poor creatures doubtlessly tried to make their way downstairs, only to meet their fate from the storm of flame and smoke that had by this time gained possession of every part of the lower floors. TWELVE INJURED - SIX MISSING Twelve people were taken to hospital within a few minutes after the outbreak had been discovered, suffering from concussion, fracture, shock and burns. Six women who had been on the premises at the time of the outbreak were reported missing. SITE OF THE TRAGEDY Nelson Street is a long, narrow thoroughfare running from Great Patrick Street to Whitla Street. Most of its buildings are artisans’ dwellings, but it contains also a number of stores and industrial establishments. The premises of Messers Gallagher consisted of a brick fronted building about 75 feet square, near the junction of Great George's Street with Nelson Street on


the Great Patrick Street side. The place was burned down a few years ago, and re-built, so that it was practically a new structure. The firm have for many years carried out an extensive trade as waste, tow, and rag merchants and they employed ordinarily some fifty or sixty hands, mostly women, engaged chiefly in rag and tow sorting. The office and plant of the firm occupied the ground floor, the other three floors having been stores containing large quantities of most inflammable material. Adjoining the premises on the Great Patrick Street side are those of Messers Love, cartage contractors, who usually kept there some seventy horses. WHERE THE FIRE BROKE OUT When the fire was discovered most of the regular workers were on the premises. The outbreak occurred on the ground floor and in a few minutes the entire building from ground floor to roof was ablaze. The alarm was given from Messers Love’s premises the call reaching the central Fire Station at ten minutes past five. As shown with what terrible rapidity the injury to life and limb occurred, giving the Brigade no chance, it may be stated that just four minutes after the fire call came the ambulance call from the scene. In that brief period the tragedy had really been enacted.

also the occupants of the houses opposite. However the fire was confined to Messers Gallagher’s premises. One of the firemen Johnston, of the Ardoyne Sub-Station - got his head rather badly burned while endeavouring to reach a point of vantage from which to direct his hose and had to be treated at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Those who had been burned or injured by jumping from the windows were removed to the Mater Hospital, the Brigade ambulance conveying seven of them, while some of the others were taken on lorries. They were promptly attended by Dr O’Doherty, visiting surgeon, and Dr Paul, resident surgeon.

GOOD WORK BY THE POLICE Sergeant Stafford and the police from Henry Street deserve every credit for their prompt attendance and good work in connection with the fire. A number of the local civilians also exerted themselves in praiseworthy manner to try and save the women - notably a man named Reilly and an Italian named Satinia. Twice the Sergeant, assisted by these men, mounted the ladder which they had obtained from the adjoining premises in the hope of rescuing the women who had been seen at the top floor window. However, before the ladder could be reared the women had disappeared from the Under the charge of Superintendent Smith and window, doubtless to make their desperate and Assistant Superintendent Stafford the Brigade fatal dash downstairs. turned out from headquarters, contingents coming also from the Shankill, Ardoyne, and Whitla Street Stations. Streams of water were During the evening a great crowd gathered at soon playing on the burning building, not in the the scene of the fire, and much excitement hope of saving it, for it was already doomed, prevailed. With the aid of the police and a but of preventing the extension of the fire. number of bluejackets who came on the scene, Messers Love’s premises seemed to be in danger the firemen kept the people well back from the of becoming involved, and the horses stabled burning building, and eventually a barrier was there were removed to a place of safety, as were erected on each side of it. This was fortunate, 24

for about nine o’clock the front wall collapsed with a great crash, scattering the debris all over the narrow street. The firemen continued to pour water upon the smouldering ruins until an advanced hour, pursuing meantime the search for the bodies of the other women who were believed to have perished. The regular firemen were ably assisted by a number of the police who, since the depletion of the strength of the Brigade owing to the war, have been specially trained for fire brigade work. Of these Sergeant Gordon especially did excellent service. THE MISSING WOMEN The names of the missing women are: Mary Ann Johnston, 56 Little York Street Mary Ann Worsford, Academy Street Mrs McClinton, 79 Academy Street Mary Ann Gibson, 24 Little Corporation Street Mrs Shield Mrs Digney

THE INJURED Margaret Ellen Casey, 17 Little Patrick Street Bridget O’Halloran, 5 Edward Street Mary Ann Mooney, Market Street Mary Clifford, Academy Street Maggie Ward, 66 Little Patrick Street Annabell McKenna, 71 Little Patrick Street Fannie Alderdice, 1 Carolina Street John Hickey, 13 Little Patrick Street Mary Ann Plunkett, Little Patrick Street Agnes Mulholland, 61 Little Patrick Street Agnes Kinnaird, Little Patrick Street After the fire had been extinguished the bodies of the missing were found in the smouldering ruins and as can be seen from the names four were named Mary. Obviously one of the others was also named Mary therefore giving us the story of "The Five Mary’s"

For lots more on our local and factual history


SUPERNATURAL BELFAST FAIRY FORTS AND WELLS OF OLD BELFAST In Belfast there once was many places associated with the fairies. In Divis Street on the site which is now occupied by The Job Club (previously St. Comgall's School and previous to that The Model School) there was once a popular well, and local people said it was a 'fairy well'. The benefits of drinking the water from this source was known far and near and many people flocked to use it. This "fairy well" and it's associate "fairy thorn" were replaced by the above school. Every resident of Belfast today is familiar with the recent conservation campaign to save

the Bog Meadows but how many know that it was once the host of another popular "fairy well" which provided sparkling ice-cold water even on the hottest summer's day. This source of fresh water was also said to have many medicinal properties, a common feature with many of these wells. Sandy Row had a very popular well also which later became known as "Monday's Well". The water from this well was used to supply the water for the fountain at Fountain Street (this was how the street actually received its name). Today every space in Belfast has been built upon and many of the sites of our ancient

Belfast map of 1902 showing Carlisle Circus and Carlisle Street 26

heritage have been wantonly destroyed. However it is on record that the fort nearest the centre of Belfast was once situated around Carlisle Circus. The Gaelic word for fort is 'rath' and it is usual to hear this Gaelic word used in place names everywhere in Ireland today, for example; Rathcoole, Rathmore, Rathvama to name but a few. The rath at Carlisle Street was oval in shape measuring about 140 feet from N.E. to S.W. and 110 feet traversely. It's centre was exactly where No. 50 Carlisle Street was located. This street was demolished to make way for a housing programme in the early 1960's. In "The Ulster Journal of Archaeology", there is a note to the effect that this ancient rath was located in that vicinity around 1834. In 1857 it had been effaced by a brickfield. Such desecration of raths was said to bring bad luck from the "daoine sidhe", for it was said that the fairies lived below these raths and although they were known as "the good people" few people would dare to test their patience and disturb one of their raths. The whole area around Carlisle Circus is steeped in history, legend and folklore. An ancient well was discovered at the steps of the Carlisle Memorial Church in

Carlisle Memorial Church

the 1920's. This well had been covered up for a long time and records show that it had once been used by the residents of the Poor House at Clifton Street. On up the Antrim Road we come to a place called Duncairn. This place derives it's

name from the fact that the area was once the site of an ancient fort (The word 'Dun' is another Gaelic word for fort'). Previous to it being called Duncairn it was known as Fortfield leaving us in no doubt about the fact that there was once an ancient fort in the locality.

Across the road from Duncairn was Thorndale, a name which recognises the fact that the area was once the site of the ancient "fairy thorn". There arc many raths and forts still to be seen by anyone who is interested in the subject. As you leave Duncairn and continue on your journey up the Antrim Road we come to an area called Fortwilliam. Here can be seen some of the best examples of forts in Belfast located at the grounds of Dunlambert School. This was the ancient townland known as Ballyaghagan, almost under the shadow of Ben Madigan, or Cave Hill as it is now known. Fortwilliam is also the site of another well which at one time was venerated by many Belfast citizens due to its reputation as being a 'holy well'. The place remains to be a noted archaeological site within the city boundary. Continuing on up past Fortwilliam we come to an area known as Glengormley, a corruption of Gleann an Ghorm Liath. Within this area is Fairyknowe. The placename itself describes the site where these `daoine sidhe' live. Recently a housing project in the area had to build around this 'fairy ring' on government orders, no less, so that these fairy folk will no longer be disturbed within our city. 27

SHANKILL'S MYSTICAL STONE One of the most well known mystical stones in Belfast is that which was once in the grounds of Shankill Graveyard. The stone was removed to the front of St. Matthew's Church, Woodvale Road in June 1911 and was erected on a pedestal there where it is to be seen to the present day (right). The stone was said to have been used as a baptismal font from the ancient church in the vicinity from which Shankill derives its name. (Shankill is a corruption of the Gaelic 'Sean Cill' which literally means the 'Old Church'). It is believed that this is the site of one of the oldest ecclesiastical settlements in Ireland. In all parts of Ireland, stones which bear oval or round depressions are found. They are usually called bullauns' (from the Latin bulla which means a bowl) or basin stones and in some cases they are even regarded as holy wells, for it is said that water is always to be found in them. Other authorities believe the stone to have been the base for a cross, and others, that they were stone basins used for grinding grain. Throughout the years however the Bullaun Stone at Shankill was known as the 'wart stone'. It is basically a slab of rock with 28

a hole etched into it. The belief among the citizens of Belfast who visited this mystical stone was that if anyone troubled with a wart stuck a pin in it and then dropped it into the basin of the stone, the wart would disappear. However if anyone took a pin from the basin then he would acquire the wart of the owner of the pin. Old folk relate that they remember the basin filled to overflowing with rusty pins.

OLDPARK'S FAIRY WELL In the days when Oldpark was a Whinnie Brae' and the Old Lodge Road was known as Lodge Lane there used to be a fairy well along the latter path on the way to where Agnes Street is now located. Situated beneath a large whitethom, it occupied a pretty spot at the rear of the County Courthouse, and for many years the inhabitants of Old Belfast used to go there in crowds each

Belfast Castle and Cavehill

Easter Monday, some to watch the 'sun dancing', others to carry home the crystal liquid of the spring and many others to trindle their eggs in this vicinity. In those far off days the 'Fairy Well' was a popular place and many of the older folks could tell of the strange things they had seen and heard there. Near the spot once occupied by the well a public house was built in later years. Above it was displayed a picturesque sign bearing the name of 'The Fairy Well Tavern'. Once, the field in which the fairy thorn and well existed, was known as a 'gentle place' because of it being sacred to the 'little people'. Now however it is covered by a vast burnt out courthouse.

Raths and thorn trees in and around Belfast were greatly respected by the native Irish population but such beliefs were laughed at and put down as purely superstition by the wealthy landowners who flocked to Belfast after the Plantation of Ulster. The leaders, teachers and thinkers of the various Christian religions tried to suppress any such notions of magic and belief in fairies. They eventually married their own religion around the ancient beliefs of the native Irish people. No matter how hard they tried they never managed to banish such beliefs. The influence of the ancient druidic religions have remained with us right down to the present day.

MYSTICAL SPRINGS AND WELLS ON THE SLOPES OF CAVE HILL The Cavehill holds a wealth of stories of supernatural occurrences. A popular venue on the hill slopes of yesteryear was the "Volunteers Well". This well was an ancient "fairy well" and it came to be known as the "Volunteers Well" after the fact that the slopes of Cavehill were used as a parade ground by the volunteers of the day. These events attracted large crowds who came to the area and picnicked at the spot. In days gone by it is recorded that the residents of Belfast flocked to the slopes of the Cavehill in their thousands around Easter time, and a steel 29

cup hung by the well to help the weary traveller quench his thirst. The slopes of Cavehill had a scattering of thorn trees. Within the forest can be found the source of a spring affectionately known as "Second Life" due, it is said, to the medicinal qualities attributed to it. This veneration of water and trees was a common practice throughout Ireland and was one of the principle tenets of the druidic religion which was widespread throughout Europe before the arrival of Christianity. There have been many tales of supernatural happenings in and around Belfast Castle. One of the most sensational being the tale of the ghost who appeared on the road leading to the castle. This ghost, who was said to be that of a man who had committed suicide, was seen by several different people throughout the years. Belfast Castle was built in 1867 by the Third Marquis of Donegal and it was occupied by the Shaftesbury family until 1916. In 1934 the Earl decided to live permanently in England and the Castle and grounds were given to the people of Belfast. With the adjacent Hazelwood and Bellevue they form a public park of 350 acres. 30

BELFAST'S PIED PIPER AND HIS FAIRY MUSIC A pathway known as the "sheep's path" led the traveller to the famous caves from which the hill receives its name. Noone to this day knows for sure the origin of these caves. The mystery is enhanced by an old legend which tells of a pied

piper type character who, by playing enchanting music on his pipes, enticed people to follow him to the foot of the cliff which magically opened and swallowed everyone. A poem immortalising the legend entitled "the Sea Piece" was written by John Kirkpatrick M.D. ( London 1750 );

Here as tradition's hoary legend tells, A blinking piper once, with magic spells, And strains beyond the vulgar bagpipe's sound, Gathered the dancing country wide around; When hither as he drew the tripping rear (Dreadful to think, and difficult to swear !) The gaping mountain yawned, from side to side, A hideous cavern, darksome, deep and wide; In skipped th'exulting daemon piping loud, With passive joy succeeded by the crowd. The winding cavern, trembling as he played, With dreadful echoes rung throughout its shade; Then firm, and instant, closed the greedy womb. Where wide-born thousands met a common tomb. Even now the good inhabitant relates, With serious horror, their disastrous fates; And, as the noted spot he ventures near, His fancy, strung with tales, and shook by fear Sounds magic concerts in his tingling ear: With superstitious awe, and solemn face. Trembling he points and thinks he points the place. Fairy music was said by many to cast an enchanting spell over those who hear it. Once in this trance the poor victim is apparently at the mercy of the 'little people'. The fairies' love of music has for a long time been a well accepted

fact in Ireland and some place names in Ulster celebrate this fact. In County Down we have a place called Knocknafeadla (the hill of the whistling) and in County Armagh we have Lisnafeedy (fort of the whistling). Similar place names

occur commonly about the country. Stories handed down through the generations have explained how the `daoine sidhe' love to celebrate by dancing in their 'fairy rings' throughout this land. Today world famous groups such as the Chieftains have continually played songs such as Ri na Sioga (King of the Fairies) and Si Beag Si Mor (the big and little fairy) which traditionally depict the 'good peoples' love of music. CAVE HILL'S FAIRY TREASURE The 'sheep's path' continues past the caves and follows the cliff face until it comes to the most famous of all Belfast forts, MacArts. Its cliff top prominence provides us with a panoramic view across the north. A popular legend associated with this area was that if, on a night of a full moon, you could stand on the exact spot where it was possible to see four loughs, then you where standing directly above a ruby mine. Some people say that this was the place where the fairies kept their treasure. Others maintain that this was the hiding place of the long lost treasure of the O'Neills, which was probably only guarded by these supernatural beings. Whichever story is true it is known that the treasure has

never been found even though many excavations have been carried out. When Lord Deputy Sussex marched into Clannaboy against the Mac Donnells, a record was kept of his journeys. In it, mention was made of "the great cave in the hill at Belfast, wherein lies the treasure of the country of Clannaboy". Indeed it is possible to see four loughs from McArt's Fort; Belfast Lough directly below the Cave Hill; Strangford Lough to the south beyond the Co. Down Hills; A glimpse of Larne Lough to the

north east; and the wide expanse of Lough Neagh. The existence of hidden caves and subterranean caverns on the slopes of Cave Hill have for a long time been a popular belief in Belfast. Indeed at the time of the evacuation of Belfast after the Germans blitzed the city in 1941, thousands of people fled to the Cave Hill in the belief that in and around the quarry there was the entrance to a massive cavern which would have been big enough to hold all the city's refugees. 31

THE STRANGE CASE OF JAMES McKENNA he old Half Bap area of Belfast has many fascinating ghost stories many of which survive to this day even though the old district is long gone. Sadly some of these are complete rubbish and have been made up so that so called tour guides can make money. For example one tour tells the story of the ghost of a Belfast hangman who roams the area in search of victims. Sounds interesting but those telling such a yarn should carry out a bit of basic research because then they would discover that not only was there never a Belfast hangman there was never even an Irish one! Leaving this aside there are some strange ones and one of these involves Grattan Street which was a small street off Gordon Street which was the centre of the slum areas and which was later renamed


Dunbar Street In 1870 a man named James McKenna owned its only public house which in reality was a hive for prostitutes and criminals. In February of that year Mr McKenna was married and shortly after the service set of on honeymoon for a few days in Maghera. The pub stayed open as usual and later that night James McKenna and his new wife walked into the bar, over to a door which led to his upstairs living quarters, opened it, entered, closed it and all without saying a word to anyone. Needless to say everyone thought this strange and assumed that they were in a foul mood after missing their train. The following day there was no sign of of them and one of the bar staff decided to check if everything was ok but was unable to as the door was locked. A few hours

McKenna’s pub was not the sort of place you went to for a quiet drink 32

Victorian Belfast map showing Grattan Street had passed and there was still no sign of them and there were no sounds coming from upstairs so now the bar staff were concerned. Someone had noticed that one of the upstairs windows was slightly opened so they went and borrowed a pair of ladders and entered. Inside everything was left as it was and there was no sign of Mr and Mrs McKenna. The bed had not been slept in and none of the fires had been lit. This was very strange as they could not have left their living quarters without going through the bar and therefore seen. The day after this Mr McKenna’s brother, who owned a distillery in nearby Edward Street, came to the public house to speak to the staff. He had just received word that James had died in a tragic accident with his new wife in Maghera when they were suffocated in a room in which they were staying in. A gas lamp had not been shut of properly. The bar staff informed him that this was impossible as they had both come into their living quarters two nights ago and that there were plenty of witnesses who seen them. Needless

to say this caused a bit of a stir and after the whole matter was looked into it was discovered that they had both definitely died in Maghera and that it was strangely at around the same time they had been seen in the bar. After the funerals there were additional sightings of Mr McKenna but none of his wife. Many different people claimed to have seen him at different times and some of these were even outside the pub itself. The public house, which was at the junction of Talbot Street, continued but this time with the ghost of James McKenna. Many of the staff continued to state that they had seen Mr McKenna in the upstairs rooms and these sightings were also by the new owners who were quite sober at the time. Those who saw this claimed that it was clearly Mr McKenna and was life like as opposed to being the traditional ghost image. It was never seen for any great length of time as each sighting only lasted a few seconds before completely disappearing. 33

THE SECRET BURIALS AT PETER’S HILL eter's Hill was an old area of Belfast which also had hundreds of fascinating ghost stories. However, one which sticks out was the ghostly sightings which were seen in and around a shop at the junction of Peter's Hill and Boyd Street and which were said to have never been of the same person. The stories centred around sightings of men and woman who would be seen for a few moments before c o m p l e t e l y disappearing. This continued for quite a few years and during our research on the story we came across the following which we reprint in full.


Weekly Northern Whig of Saturday, 27th May 1871: Mr Mairs, who for some time past carried on a grocery establishment at the corner of Peter’s Hill and Boyd Street, has had a number of labourers employed

during the past week in taking down the old building that the premises may be reconstructed on an extensive scale. On Monday morning, about eleven o’clock, some of the workmen, who were making excavations and clearing away the debris, prior to putting in new foundations, made an extraordinary discovery of human remains. While they were digging in the rear of the building they brought up a number of bones, and on continuing their work, they found, within a distance of a few yards and not more than a foot and a half beneath the surface, no less than nine human skulls, and as many bones as would go to make up nine human bodies. The place where the remains were discovered would lead to the belief that they must have been interred at some point subsequent to the

erection of the old house, as the spot where the excavations were being made was where a doorway existed, leading from one room to another. When the old doorstep was removed, the skulls were found resting against the stonework of the foundations, and the bones lay in a straight line from each skull in a manner in which bodies are interred in graveyards. The news of the discovery soon spread, and in a short time thousands of people were attracted by curiosity to the place, and different opinions were formed as to when, and owing to what cause, the remains had been deposited in this place. Some persons who examined the skulls said that at least three of them were those of females. By some they were set down as being the remains of persons who fell during the rebellion of 1798. Others said that

the house was built on a prison graveyard, and that they were the remains of persons who had suffered execution. Some people went so far as to assert that a wholesale murder had been perpetrated, and that the guilty parties had buried their victims in the place where the bones have been discovered. For the present, however, there is no reliable one to unravel the mystery. During the day, the thoroughfare of Peter’s Hill was almost impassable, as hundreds assembled from all parts of the town to obtain a view of the bones, and to make inquiries as to their discovery. The remains were placed in a box, and an eccentric individual took charge of it and would allow no person to view its contents, unless he received a money contribution for the privilege of inspection. The matter was reported to the

police, and on their making inquiries in the neighbourhood they found that "the oldest inhabitant" remembered a doctors shop in existence at this corner at one time. This may account for the bones being found there. When the coroner was informed of the discovery, he ordered the remains to be buried. A fascinating article indeed but by reading it there are a few theories that can be ruled out. No prison existed there and all of the executions dating from before the 1798 rebellion can be accounted for. In relation to the rebellion they could not have been the bodies of those who fell as no battle took place in Belfast but the theory of this being a pre-Victorian serial killer is indeed an extremely interesting one. Because of the description of the bones resting against the stonework then it is obvious that the stonework was there before the bones so it’s

obvious that a previous tenant of the building buried these. With the ‘oldest resident’ remembering a doctor’s being there is it possible that he was buying corpses from bodysnatchers?

It is certainly a reasonable thought bearing in mind that it was the remains of nine bodies discovered thus ruling out the straightforward murder with the body lobbed beneath the

floorboards. An excellent reason for the sightings we're sure you'll agree but what is interesting is that there were no recorded sightings after they were reburied.


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ISSN 1470-0417


Old Belfast Ghost Stories  

A collection of true ghost stories from all over Belfast

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