What’s in a Name?

Last year the community in the shadow of St. Patrick’s church wished to bestow on us a grand tribute to the lives that were lost in the McGurk’s Bar Massacre of 4th December 1971. They wished to name a street in the newly developed area of Lancaster Street and Great George Street “McGurk’s Walk” in memory of the McGurk’s Bar and family home that stood there before it was razed by a UVF bomb.

This great memorial was not decided upon in a vacuum. Habinteg, the housing association in charge of building the new homes in the area, contacted the local St. Patrick and St. Joseph Housing Committee and asked for ideas for a street name. The committee contacted local families and then the campaigning families of the McGurk’s victims because McGurk’s Walk was the resounding choice. They kindly broached it with us before formalizing their choice but we agreed warmly that this was a fitting tribute.

Habinteg disagreed though and thought it “too political”. They put forward alternative names but none of these were accepted by the people of the area. An issue politicized by the housing association was placed in front of the council and, of course, the normal tribal lines were drawn.

For some there was the viable argument that a city looking forward to the future should not have daily reminders of a dirty war in the past, regardless of the innocence of the dead and injured. DUP Councillor, Brian Kingston, said:

The terrible suffering caused by violence in this city should never be forgotten. However I do not believe that the formal naming or renaming of streets after incidents of mass-killings and murder is an appropriate or helpful way of doing that.

Unfortunately when it was in session at the council, members whose votes could have held sway were absent on other business. The residents’ wishes were not listened to and the name “Fisher’s Court” was voted in instead.

But all was not lost…

The new street sign "McGurk's Way"

The residents’ committee was well aware that they could petition to have the street name changed if the vast majority of the residents who were moving into the development were in agreement. They were and the committee has gone ahead and placed its own sign up until the petition is officially passed. On Tuesday night past they invited the families down for the unveiling of the street plaque that they made especially. The residents have chosen to name their street “McGurk’s Way”, “Bealach Mhic Oirc”.

One family member remarked that the next street along could be renamed “Truth Close”.

How touched the families were by the community’s tribute cannot be understated. Indeed, I too registered the depth and significance of the place-naming gesture as both a topographical and an historical marker.

The naming of places by our forebears and the etymology of place names are important in every country and language. They are echoes of a very local history as well as a national heritage. This is particularly true of Irish (and Ulster-Scot) oral and written tradition as these names, received from pre-history at times, bind the local topography, language and peoples of the past to those of today.

It is a tradition no better exemplified than in the epic Táin Bó Cuailgne or Cattle Raid of Cooley. Place names and their very genesis form a mnemonic map of Ireland and narrative alike. Even its characters become part of the landscape when they surrender their names to specific places. In doing so they become memorable for the part that they have played in the gathered stories.

Therefore, story-teller and reader commemorate them as they are now the sinews of the local landscape and the text.

That part of Belfast has changed utterly in even two generations. I had considered it apt that the West Link fly-over marks the spot that the bar once stood. This symbolizes progress and modernity on one hand. As you pass the site, it is easy to imagine people going about their daily grind apart from the history of the place.

On the other, it represents how town planners re-drew Belfast to befit a city at war. St. Joseph’s parish, Sailortown, particularly was decimated, although its spirit remains, as the arterial route cut a swathe through it. History was lost – it is no coincidence that this was a Roman Catholic community by then – but at least the Falls and Shankill are kept from each other’s throats.

Thanks to the community between St. Patrick’s Church and the West Link, McGurk’s and the memory of McGurk’s will be woven into the topography of the city. When future generations trace the etymology of the place and attend to its narrative, let us hope that they have learned from it – great heroes have surrendered themselves for its name.

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