Having been nominated for seven Oscars, it’s safe to say that Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” definitely put the north of the city on the map.
In the acclaimed film, Branagh goes back to his own early years in the Mountcollyer area of North Belfast, just off York Road. Although semi-autobiographical, with some modifications, it shows the area through the eyes of a nine-year-old when The Troubles broke in 1969.
Kenneth Branagh grew up at 96 Mountcollyer Street and has often spoken of his happy early years in Belfast. He grew up in a row house with his older brother Bill and his parents Frances and William.
The street where he lived is still there, but looks very different than it did then. New houses were built at the bottom of the street overlooking the park where they often played, Alexandra Park, while the top of the street where he lived is now derelict.
Young Kenneth Branagh attended nearby Grove Primary School and left for England when he was just nine years old to start a new life.
Liz McCabrey also attended school and was born the same year as Branagh, however she was born in April 1960 and he in December meaning they were in different school years.
When Liz watched the movie “Belfast” she said that it was sometimes difficult to watch as it was very close to her home.
“I thought it would be an amazing film but I felt like I could have gotten up and walked out for the first half,” she told Belfast Live.
“I think that’s just because of being in the thick of it and experiencing what the film went through. I have a brother and a sister and it just reflected our experiences at the time.
“We lived on North Queen Street at the corner of Limestone Road, where our terraced house was now a church. As children, my father often had to carry us out of the house at night and take us to relatives four or five blocks away, which was safer than where we were. Then we would have to get up the next morning and go to school as if everything was fine.
“I now have four grandchildren and I’m glad they don’t have to go through what I went through.”
Liz added that the film is “very timely” right down to how the homes in the area are decorated. One thing the film does well, she added, is that it highlights the importance of family back then and how home became a truly safe place for many.
The 61-year-old continues: “The apartment furnishings are as I remembered them. We lived in a townhouse with three bedrooms, a scullery and the living room. As hard as it was growing up back then.” My family home couldn’t have been better. Maybe you haven’t felt safe outside, but you’ve always felt safe in your home.
“The part of the film that was very timely was that you had extended family support. It wasn’t just the mother, father and children, we had aunts and uncles who lived two streets away, we had more who lived a few streets away from us.
“You never felt isolated because only you and your parents could handle the situation. You had such a large family network around you that we always had a place to go when things got difficult where we lived.”
Although Grove Primary School has since been demolished, leaving only derelict land and the distinctive blue school gates, Liz says the school has always had a great sense of community.
“Kenneth was my junior year in school,” Liz added.
“But the school was a very community-based place where everyone knew each other. You always knew people who were the same year, below you, or older than you.
“There was a lot of coming and going at school at this time. I’m sure Kenneth’s family weren’t the only ones who left for the same reason. I remember him as a kid, but I wouldn’t have been close to him. “
Lesley-Ann Brown’s grandmother, Harriet Breen, owned a shop on Glencollyer Street, just around the corner from the Branagh house in Mountcollyer. The little grocery store Harriet’s was even featured in the movie “Belfast” which blew Lesley away.
She said: “When he was writing his bio he mentioned the store, Harriet’s. The store is in the movie, so as we looked at it I was like, ‘Holy God, that’s us on screen!’
“In the book, he calls the place ‘the fountain of local knowledge,’ and she absolutely loved it, but I said, ‘Nana, that means you’re a gossip, that’s not a good thing!'”
Lesley now owns The Alexandra Florist on York Road, the rear of which faces directly onto the Harriet’s site, but there are now new houses there. Harriet’s was a community store that all locals would have frequented daily, including the Branaghs.
“When I saw the film, I thought it was great that he remembered the store,” Lesley added.
“It was a grocery store and it’s not that far down, it was there until about a year ago. The family lived upstairs with the store below. My grandmother had four children. My uncles would have been about Kenneth’s age, and would have gone to elementary school with him, and they would all have gone to the park together to run around.
“It was a tiny shop and not only did Harriet, Jim and four children live there, it was a big part of the community. Money was tight so they ran a system where you got your groceries all week, then when it got paid on a Friday you went around and paid your bill.
“Kenneth would have run into the store for little things during the week and said ‘my mum said I have to get me’ whatever it was and Harriet wrote that down to keep a note for the end the week. Everyone looked out for each other during these difficult times.”
Lesley added that she found the film “amazing” and was impressed that Branagh had remembered so many details from his early childhood in the city.
One particular aspect she “hadn’t heard from anyone for 40 years” was his reference to the kids squeezing through a “curvy bar” into Alexandra Park. Here children in the area would have pressed the bars on the park gate to squeeze through and play even when the park was closed.
Lesley added: “This film really means something to us. Me, my two kids, my sister and her husband all watched it together and we couldn’t believe it.
“The Grove School, the park, the flexible bar – we couldn’t believe it. He took off, had an amazing career, and here are his memories. I haven’t heard anyone say ‘bendy bar’ in 40 years It blew my mind.
“I’ve spoken to countless people who have lived in this area and they all loved it.
Lesley adds that the city of Belfast has “jumped” out of those dark days, and Lesley takes the film tracks as a good way to look back and remember what it was like back then to see how different it is now.
“My kids have said they can’t understand that Belfast was like this 50 years ago and that we lived through it,” she said.
“Belfast has developed by leaps and bounds. Forty years ago you couldn’t go into the city, there were police checks everywhere. It’s just amazing how far we’ve come.”
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