The first time Rev David Moore walked down Belfast’s Falls Road, he thought he had Prod written all over him.
“The murals and iconography can be intimidating,” says the Presbyterian minister. “I thought, I’ll never get out of here. Two weeks later, that feeling was gone.”
It is exactly a year since Moore was appointed to a special missionary posting in west Belfast – where the Presbyterian church has had no presence for 40 years and moved into an apartment close to a peace wall separating republican and loyalist working-class communities.
Today he is herding people into the beautifully restored St Colmgall’s School on the Lower Falls for an exhibition celebrating the history of Albert Street Presbyterian church, which sat for more than a century just 100 yards away in the nationalist stronghold.
Tin foil wrapped plates of home-made lemon drizzle cake and caramel square buns – made by members of a church once served by Moore in leafy east Belfast – are carried into the former classroom as cups and saucers are lined up.
Shortly before the invited lunchtime crowd arrives, Moore is locked in conversation with former IRA prisoner and Irish-language activist Jake Mac Siacais.
“I’ve a favour to ask you, David,” says Mac Siacais, director of Irish-language development agency Forbairt Feirste. “I need a 19th-century Presbyterian Bible – in Irish.”
“There should be a few of them about, Jake. We’ll have a look and see if we can find something for you,” responds Moore.
The pair have spent almost a year organising the exhibition, poring over historic documents and tracking down older members of the church, which was forced to close in 1971 when it could no longer withstand the violence of the Troubles.
The building, constructed in a field near Belfast in 1854, was originally known as Falls Road Presbyterian Church. By 1923, Albert Street Presbyterian Church had 823 families connected to it.
An accidental fire gutted the building in 1997 and the Maureen Sheehan healthcare centre now stands in its place. Four face carvings were rescued from the original church and built into centre’s stone facade.
“Those four little carved heads ... That continuity means so much,” says Moore.
Roy and Jean Thompson are among the first to arrive at St Colmgall’s. They dart over to a sepia-coloured photograph showing rows of uniformed boys and men adorned with sashes.
“That’s me there,” says Roy excitedly, pointing to the front row. “I had just turned 13 and was in the Boys Brigade [a Christian youth organisation]. We were getting ready for an annual parade that afternoon beside the church. It was 1953 and one of the young officers was emigrating to Canada.”
Sinn Féin councillor Tom Hartley gave a 10-minute eulogy on the history of Presbyterians in west Belfast. At the end of that, he said: ‘What we need is Presbyterians back on the Falls Road’— Rev David Moore
The couple are both aged 83 and worshipped at Albert Street for 30 years.
“I was baptised in the church, and me and Jean were married there,” says Roy. “I went morning and evening every Sunday. It was very much part of our lives ... That’s why we’re so pleased to be here today.”
They recall the warmth with which they were received by the community during that pre-Troubles period.
“Somebody asked me the other day if we had experienced any sectarianism in the years we were going to Albert Street. The answer was very decidedly no,” he says.
“Things went absolutely chaotic in August 1969. With the putting up of the peace gates, night services became impossible. The last two Sundays in January 1971 were the closing services.”
One of Jean’s fondest memories was meeting some of the neighbours after that final evening service. “A number of locals came over and asked if they could have a wee look, they’d never been in the building,” she says. “There a Catholic lady, Mrs Earley, who lived next door and who would have kept an eye on the church. She was a lovely person and was sorry it was closing.”
Jim McKee, from the neighbouring Catholic St Peter’s parish, remembers “being chased” by Mrs Earley when he played football close to Albert Street as a young boy.
“She would have told us to ‘get the blazes out’,” he chuckles.
McKee discovered photographs from the St Peter’s archives that included some material featuring Albert Street church, which Moore describes as a “treasure trove”.
The idea for the exhibition was formed just weeks into his post last year when he attended a talk at the Cultúrlann centre – another former Presbyterian Church on the Falls Road – delivered by local historian and former Sinn Féin councillor Tom Hartley.
“Tom gave a 10-minute eulogy on the history of Presbyterians in west Belfast. At the end of that, he said: ‘what we need is Presbyterians back on the Falls road because they’re so much a part of us’,” says Moore.
“I’m thinking to myself, Did I just hear that? This guy was a former Sinn Féin lord mayor. I said to him afterwards, ‘Tom we’ve got to talk’. I had started in west Belfast a fortnight earlier before with a blank piece of paper ... So Much a Part of Us became the title of our exhibition.”
The three-day event was attended by almost 400 visitors last month – it also involved walking tours, lectures and a book launch – and was part of the Féile an Phobail festival.
“Jake went through the 1911 census street by street for the exhibition and found that 1,400 Presbyterians lived in the immediate area in the Lower Falls,” says Moore.
People “came out of the woodwork” to help with the research and the two men want to “build on what’s been happening”, with an oral history project in the pipeline.
“The real underpinning of all of this was that west Belfast over the past 50 years has become monocultural,” says Mac Siacais. “It has lost its connection to the richness and diversity of what it was and what it can be.
“We want to ensure that rich tapestry of our very diverse cultures is captured and brought together. What you’re seeing in Belfast at the moment is a blossoming curiosity – people want to recover what was lost during the conflict years.
“And while this seems like west Belfast inviting Presbyterians in, we’re not, we’re actually inviting them to put us back in touch with what we lost. If we want to see what Presbyterians do, we need to engage with them and we need to build.
“The only way we get to the conversation about our future is to get to know each other. The first time David walked on to the Falls, he thought it was an alien environment. Now he loves it.”
For Moore, the first year of his four-year posting to west Belfast has been a revelation. “It’s been absolutely fascinating, I’ve loved every minute of it,” he says. “The warmth of the welcome has been very, very strong and genuine.
“The community transformation that has gone on here is astonishing across arts, education, language and sport. They are a confident community and because of that they can be generous and reach out to someone like me.”
He belly laughs when he says: “Only one person asked me if I was a spy. I told them that if I’m a spy, I’m not a very good one.”
Would he feel safe moving out of a so-called peace line and into the heart of west Belfast?
“My wife and I got an apartment at the top of the Ballygomartin Road beside a police station, it was close as we could get to republican west Belfast without being in it. At that point when we were buying, we worried that it would be, ‘there’s two Prods moving in’, and didn’t feel comfortable. But I now feel like we can live here.”