Half Bap And Little Italy districts
By Joe Graham,
In the final decades of the 1800s, Belfast trebled in population due to the rapid industrial expansion in the town. People poured in – not only from all the counties of Ireland, but from many other countries also; journeying to seek regular employment and share in the new prosperity.
Among those who came to make Belfast their home were many Italians who settled in the then quite run down area of Little Patrick Street and the surrounding streets which were sandwiched between two rather ornate Catholic Churches, St Joseph’s and St, Patrick’s-perhaps this gave them a feeling of ‘home. This area was close to the Belfast docks which was the immigrants’ port of entry into Belfast. The accommodation was inexpensive and no doubt this would have greatly influenced their decision to settle in that district and the area soon became known as ‘Little Italy’. The neighbourhood in which they made their home was already peopled with those who knew what it was to have little yet not be afraid to work hard to provide for their families. Indeed, the Italians and the Irish shared a strong love for family life. They opened their arms to embrace Irish life and yet in doing so shared with the people of Belfast the traditions of “the old country”. Many of them arrived in Belfast without even being able to speak the language: they came to these shores with only a hope for a better life, an ability to work hard, and sheer determination to build a future equal to the dreams of their youth.
Before long names like Cheverine, Scappaticci, De Lucca, Meli, Augustino, Notarantonio , Morelli, Tragginti, Marcello and Saclio, Valente, Fusco, Forte, Vergatti, and Capitano, Pasquale, Dragonetti, became common place in the area and blended in well with the Murphys and O’Neills, etc. Most of these Italian people were of poor background and had turned their backs on poverty at home in search of a better life in Belfast which was at that time being spoken of around the world as "Linenopolis" due to its huge linen industry and all those contributory industries such as bleaching and printing. As if that weren’t enough, Belfast had received the status of being made a city in 1888 and was basking in the international limelight of housing the biggest ship building and rope works in the world, so this new environment must have been quite different from the rural areas of Italy which they had previously called home. Perhaps they found it easy to settle here because so many Irish families had themselves in earlier said farewell to sons and daughters of their own who had sailed to foreign shores in the hope of finding a better life. Many of the young Italian girls and women went to work in the linen mills, but many of the men had specific skills in sculpturing and other artistic abilities, they became much sought after in their adopted city for their skills in sculpting figures, their ability to lay beautiful terrazzo floors and plastering abilities. This was at a time when Catholic churches where being completed or refurbished to a more ornate standard of finish, and statues were much in demand now that the city had its own work force of those who could sculpt the most exquisite religious figures. The less skilled men and boys would create smaller ’holy’ statues, painted most beautifully, to be sold around the doors of catholic homes.
Not all the Italian immigrants were poor; some were already internationally accredited sculptors and artisans who had been commissioned to come to Belfast to exercise their craftsmanship with marble and mosaic to the many new Catholic churches that sprang up in the late 1800s. Many of these religious works depicted classical biblical scenes which could easily be described as master pieces.
However, it was not only churches that benefited from the skills of these craftsmen and before long, local business men also made good use of their talents. ’The Beehive Bar’ on the Falls Road had some beautiful ornate plaster work undertaken by these highly skilled Italian men, as did the then new ‘Clonard Cinema’ on the Falls Road. Evidence of their skill can be still seen to this day in the beautiful full sized crucifix which takes pride of place in the front garden of St. Paul’s Catholic Church, also on the Falls Road; and was presented to the Church by the Italian community many years ago. This crucifix in itself became quite an oddity to the people of the Falls when they noticed that the figure had its feet crossed and one nail was through both feet whereas they were used to seeing the feet of the figure nailed side by side with a nail through each foot. This drew such attention that it was decided a small bush be placed in front of the beautiful crucifix concealing the crossed feet, and so it remains to this day.
Another art form which was undoubtedly a great link in bringing the Italian families closer to the locals was music, for both they and the Irish had a love of the accordion and fiddle. At times though there were heated, yet friendly competitions against each other whilst entertaining the people queuing at the early downtown cinemas of Belfast - a case of “Duelling Accordions” as they each battled for tips from the cinema goers! Italian organ grinders busking around Belfast were also a familiar sight on the streets in the first half of the 20th century.
It was a Mr Morelli who first opened an Italian ice cream making establishment in Nelson Street and in doing so he opened the door for a whole new industry that was viewed fairly and squarely as belonging to and coming from the Italian people. Before long the Italian men had built very colourful painted carts and pushed them around the back streets selling their ice cream which they had bought from Morelli’s factory, a whole new form of self reliance had opened up.They introduced our taste buds to delicious ice creams and fish and chips, and they gave us beautiful marble, alabaster, and other magnificent works of sculpture to inspire and delight our gaze. Those who knew the inhabitants of ’Little Italy’ remember them with warmth and affection; those who are descended from them should remember them with pride.
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