The Old Courthouse

The Old Courthouse

By Sheila J. McMillan

 As you stand on the Church steps your gaze pauses on the elegant sweep of lawn and flowerbeds but soon comes to rest on an unsightly derelict building, close to the main Belfast-Dublin railway line. Still referred to as the ‘Courthouse’, it was our Church Hall until 1973. It is sited above a former Malt Kiln, over a stream that connected a large water dam behind Stewarts Mill, to the Glen River that flows down to the River Lagan on the other side of the village. The Hall ceased to be used as a Courthouse from around 1950, presumably because it was not large enough to accommodate increasing criminal numbers in the area, but the name stayed.

Exhausted, brooding, smothered in ivy, moss and saplings, the whole building is now open to the elements….a sad sight. However, it belies a whole world of vibrancy, adventure, art, drama, dance sport , education and social gatherings that would be the envy of any modern community centre. Inside there was a stage, at the back of which was the kitchen and toilet. The hall itself was heated by a pot-bellied “furnace.” kept mysteriously alight by the caretaker who lived in the next-door cottage and guarded only by a rickety fireguard of doubtful ability.

When I think back to just what went on in there, I wonder at how the building stayed upright at all. Of course, in those days, for most families in any village community, the church was the centre of their social lives as television was only for the wealthy and there were no iPhones. Mass media was never dreamt of and radio was confined to the family living room.

Besides the regular Sunday School classes, and the Women’s’ League meetings, we children learnt both Irish and Scottish dancing, and took part in numerous annual productions of pantomimes, dramas and even an Opera….yes, on that tiny stage, with a mixed dressing room among the piles of sandwiches being prepared for the Interval. It was the kitchen. Make up was done in the toilet, by the wee woman who once had a part in The Group Theatre. I particularly remember “Blythe Spirit,” The Mikado” and “Toad of Toad Hall“ which should really have reached Broadway or the West End, as we felt we were just ‘the best’. We rushed around the whole village to sell tickets for all these worthy occasions, door to door . Once, we even had lessons in Grecian dancing. Some well-meaning and daring soul, spent weeks trying to instill a sense of glamour, floating sweeps around the hall, head tilted back, arms gracefully aloft…probably stubby and solid in our school uniforms too…… Rumour had it that she had a nervous breakdown after the first term as she never returned, but we thought we were so elegant and suave. Every few weeks we would be in there to take part in, concerts, exhibitions , sales, gymnastic displays, demonstrations and dances. That old stove never got time to cool down and never seemed to let us down.

Amazingly, considering the state of the floor boards, we had a thriving badminton club, countless fund-raising ventures and more serious debates and discussions, Then there was The Club. That’s all it was called. The Club. Every kid in the area tried to join in and I still meet folk in the village, wobbling on their walking sticks, who so fondly remember the Club. There were Boy Scouts using the Hall but the Club was Rev McCleery’s way of occupying the youth of Dunmurry. We were taken somewhere, was it every week? We walked up to the top of Colin Mountain, explored a much wilder Colin Glen, visited the Ormeau Bakery, the Belfast Telegraph and tripped into the local Lilliput Laundry. We were introduced to the Egyptian Mummy at the Belfast Museum and were even once shown into the hallowed walls of the Linen – Hall Library, interspersed with much outdoor sausage-sizzling and seaside trips. How we got to all these places, I cannot remember at all, but I have never forgotten the excitement of seeing what went on outside our own small world. It was revolutionary in those days.

Downstairs, there was a smaller concrete built room which still exists behind the odd abandoned car. Here there was a target-shooting club, and a darts club, but, joy of all, the” First Dunmurry Table-Tennis Club”…which had quite a formidable reputation among a couple of Leagues. I played, so proudly, ‘First Reserve’ for the B team! We were coached by Victor Walker, one of the famous seven sporting brothers and we just lived for our Saturday nights out at the T.T. Club. There too, many a romantic relationship was formed which poor Victor had to monitor on the quiet. When I look back on that time, the man was a saint for what he had to put up with every week. One unforgettable recollection was Victor bringing down to the club a small transistor radio, usually to let us hear radio Luxembourg, the excitingly rogue Rock and Roll station. One stormy night we all gathered round it to hear the commentator reporting on the terrifying trauma of the Princess Victoria tragically trying to reach safety. The grey concrete surroundings and the wind howling against the doors and windows made us really feel the horror, huddled together in that wee hall. I think that was the night we began to leave behind our fun-filled childhood.

The evening the entire congregation always looked forward to the most was New Year’s Eve. That was the night of “the Social”. I have no memory of who supplied the music, I suspect it was just my Dad and Mr Crawford on the piano, but there was much dancing and craic and no one was allowed to be a wallflower. We danced the ‘Waves of Troy’, ‘the Gay Gordons” and even an occasional Eightsome Reel. Mr and Mrs Simpson, an elderly Scottish couple, always insisted on “rendering” Scottish airs…. a lot of Scottish airs I remember! Then shouts would come for “the Lancers”. Well, we teenagers sat back and watched in astonishment as our parents leapt about the floor, shrieking and laughing while their feet and their bodies went into some sort of spasm of hysterical knee and ankle jerks, Was it a post-war “knees-up”? The hall was full, the food was plentiful, there were huge brown pots of tea to drink and after a very loud rendering of Auld Lang Sayng, we all put on our coats and, sedately, trooped over to the church for the Watch Night Service. Have to admit, a very clever move to get the church filled on a cold December night.

When the new McCleery Hall was built,” the Troubles “confined people to their homes and times had changed, Entertainment became sophisticated and home-spun events were spurned, as television and cinema showed us the professional counterparts. The atmosphere of the old Courthouse was never recaptured. During the eighteen months it took to build the new Hall, the country was going through its political upheaval and one night, some lads ran along the railway track trying to burn down various buildings alongside. Perhaps it was the connotation of its local name but whatever inspired their action, we never discovered. The fire destroyed the back of the old building incorporating the kitchen. All the old church records had been stored under the stage while the work up at the Old Glebe was underway. Consequently, they were completely destroyed in that pointless devastation, and so we lost three hundred years of irreplaceable church records. However, it did not destroy our memories and so I am sharing this one with you. Look at the Old Courthouse with respect when you next pass by, for it has brought hours of happiness to so many of us.