The first Shankill residents lived at the bottom of what is now known as Glencairn: a small settlement of ancient people inhabited a ring fort, built where the Ballygomartin and Forth rivers meet.
A settlement around the point at which the Shankill Road becomes the Woodvale Road, at the junction with Cambrai Street, was known as Shankill from the Irish Seanchill meaning “old church”. Believed to date back to 455 AD, it was known as the “Church of St Patrick of the White Ford” and in time had six smaller churches, known as “alterages”, attached to it across the west bank of the River Lagan. The church was an important site of pilgrimage and it is likely that the ford of the River Farset, which later became the core of Belfast, was important because of its site on the pilgrimage route. It was in ruins by the 17th century and had disappeared entirely by the 19th, leaving only its graveyard. Its font, an ancient bullaun stone, resides at St Matthew’s on Woodvale Road, and is said to hold the power to heal warts.
As a paved road the Shankill dates back to around the sixteenth century as at the time it was part of the main road to Antrim, a role now filled by the A6. The lower sections of the Shankill Road were in former times the edge of Belfast with both Boundary Street on the lower Shankill and Townsend Street in the middle Shankill taking their names from the fact that at the time they were built they marked the approximate end of Belfast.
The area expanded greatly in the mid to late 19th century with the growth of the linen industry. Many of the streets in the Shankill area, such as Leopold Street, Cambrai Street and Brussels Street, were named after places and people connected with Belgium or Flanders, where the flax from which the linen was woven was grown. The linen industry, along with others that had previously been successful in the area, declined in the mid-20th century leading to high unemployment levels, which remain at the present time. The Harland and Wolff shipyard, although on the other side of Belfast, was also a traditional employer for the area, and it too has seen its workforce numbers decline in recent years.
The area was also a regular scene of rioting in the nineteenth century, often of a sectarian nature after Irish Catholic areas on the Falls Road and Ardoyne emerged along with the city’s prosperity. One such riot occurred on 9 June 1886 following the defeat of the Government of Ireland Bill 1886 when a crowd of around 2,000 locals clashed with Royal Irish Constabulary police attempting to stop the mob from looting a liquor store. Local law enforcement officers had to barricade themselves in Bower’s Hill barracks where a long siege followed. Bower’s Hill was a name applied to the area of the road between Agnes Street and Crimea Street.
The West Belfast Division of the original Ulster Volunteer Force organised on the Shankill and drilled in Glencairn and some of its members saw service in the First World War with the 36th (Ulster) Division. A garden of remembrance beside the Shankill Graveyard and a mural on Conway Street commemorate those who fought in the war. Recruitment was also high during the Second World War and that conflict saw damage occur to the Shankill Road as part of the Belfast Blitz when a Luftwaffe bomb hit a shelter on Percy Street, killing many people. The site of the destruction was visited by the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester soon after the attack.
The Shankill Road begins at Peter’s Hill, a road that flows from North Street in Belfast city centre and quickly merges into the Shankill itself at the Westlink. Peter’s Hill is adjacent to the Unity Flats/Carrick Hill, a small nationalist area to the north of the city centre. The area of housing on the lower Shankill around Agnes Street was known colloquially as “The Hammer”, one of a number of nicknames applied to districts that included “the Nick”. The Hammer name is recalled in the Hammer Sports Complex, the home ground of amateur football side Shankill United F.C. The Lower Shankill has been redeveloped in recent years although during the 1960s the housing was ranked as the worst in Belfast. A Lower Shankill Community Association is active in the area whilst the Shankill Leisure Centre is also located here. The Shankill Women’s Centre, a women’s educational initiative established by May Blood (now Baroness Blood) in 1987, is also located on the lower Shankill. George McWhirter, a writer and first Poet Laureate of Vancouver, B.C., Canada, also came from the area originally.