Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic vision of Belfast unearths memories of a grimmer reality

Oscar-nominated film brings mixed emotions for locals as it shines light on Tigers Bay

Tigers Bay in north Belfast, just north of Yorkgate railway station and east of Ardoyne, rarely gets good headlines.

Decades of political neglect and, more recently, austerity have accelerated the flow of people from its once-crowded streets.

The district is the fifth most deprived across more than 4,500 zones in Belfast, according to charity PPR’s mapping of statistics gathered by the Multiple Deprivation Measure survey five years ago.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact too, with more shuttered shops, the community centre being closed more frequently, and remaining local traders struggling to recover from the impact of restrictions and compete with the nearby Cityside retail park.

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“There’s nothing here for young people,” according to cafe worker Lizzie Jameson (42), a factor she believes played a role in street disturbances here in March and April last year.

However, Tigers Bay is enjoying a moment in the sunlight, following seven Oscar nominations for actor and director Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film Belfast.

The film tells the story of the departure of Branagh's family, who lived just a stone's throw from Tigers Bay, on the other side of the intersecting Limestone Road, for southern England when he was nine to escape mounting violence and sectarian attacks amid the Troubles.

Robert (68), who does not provide a second name, is one of a dwindling number who have lived in this traditionally Protestant-dominated enclave all their life, and recalls what it was like to live through that violence.

“There were barricades, vigilantes on the streets, rioting every night, pubs and shops that were Catholic-owned being burnt,” he said.

"You'd have the pavements all turned up to help form the barricades. It's all changed now over in Duncairn Gardens, but you'd have all the streets going into Tigers Bay barricaded, the same on the New Lodge side. The atmosphere changed overnight," he says.

Branagh’s cinematic vision of Tigers Bay and its surrounding streets will be seen by international audiences as a fairytale, he adds, but it contrasts with the grimmer reality that he and others lived with for six decades.

Struck a chord

Nevertheless, Branagh's film has struck a chord among many who grew up here amid the chaos of the period, including BBC Radio Ulster broadcaster William Crawley, who like Branagh attended the Grove Primary School.

Crawley was one of many locals and former locals who attended an early showing of the film at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. “All the references in the film take me back. It just felt like my childhood.

“The nostalgia of those wee two-up, two-down houses. I grew up in a house like that with a toilet out the back,” he told The News Letter.

Ten years younger than Branagh, Crawley remembers his parents trying to keep the reality of the Troubles outside the family’s front door.

“They obviously didn’t want to scare me. Kids always know more than their parents realise. I connected a lot with that, piecing things together,” he said, after seeing the film.

A charity shop worker on North Queen Street felt many of the same emotions: “The film triggered some positive memories – it put a smile on your face and brought certain things back. One thing that’s changed is the sense of family closeness.

“All the redevelopment and people moving away. At that time [depicted in the film], your granny lived two doors down, your aunt lived across the street. That isn’t the case any more,” she told The Irish Times.

Demographic changes

The population has changed, too. In 2011, the census showed less than 10 per cent of residents identifying as neither Protestant nor Catholic. This year’s census is expected to show major changes, partly because of immigration.

Noha, who moved to Tigers Bay from Sudan three years ago, said she was "surprised" an Oscar-nominated film had been made about her current home. She was aware of Tigers Bay's reputation as a "no-go zone" during the Troubles.

Besides disturbances during marching season, life in the district is relatively peaceful. “It’s not easy being a minority here. Things can get scary around the summertime. But so far I’ve had no major problems.”

Today, much of the Tigers Bay and surrounding area of Branagh’s childhood is gone, with the Grove Primary School demolished more than a decade ago.

The vacant lot where it once stood, along with a number of others in the increasingly depopulated area, is earmarked for private housing.

Mountcollyer Street, where Branagh’s family lived, has changed, too. No longer a row of Victorian terraces as depicted in the film – and recreated for it through a makeshift artificial set in England – the street is a cul-de-sac, flanked on one side by Alexandra Park.

There, a several-foot-high “peace” gate still acts as a physical frontier between communities – although it opens during the day.