“As a boy, Highfield was a fantastic place to grow up. We passed our time up the mountain doing the things that kids did. One of the highlights of the year was bonfire night, anything that grew on branches we were taking down to burn for the Eleventh Night.”
“We had no leisure centres, our nearest park was the Woodvale Park and you were sort of encroaching onto other territory there. Highfield was hard, it was not a place for the faint hearted in those days.”
Bobby left school in the 1970s. “The Troubles, as a boy, crept up on us. There were rumblings around 1966. People had talked about the shooting down the Shankill that murdered the Catholic barman. As things continued towards 1969 there wasn’t a lot of notice paid to the rise of Paisley or things like that. I know they were happening but to 13-14 year old boys, it wasn’t happening really, it certainly hadn’t reached as far as Highfield.”
“But in 1969 on the quiet nights, you could hear the shooting going on across the town up in Highfield. The Army came and it was taking over church halls and schools and that was a big thing. As each atrocity happened, it sort of impacted on you, but then it took something worse than the last one to make a difference to you, you became harder to it”.
One of Bobby’s most vivid memories of growing up during the Troubles occurred when he was 16, “I’ll never ever forget the first time. Being among a gun battle and these things going over your head like an angry bee. It was frightening, nonetheless to be there. The next morning when you went into Springmartin you could see where these bullets had hit the walls, there must have been 300 rounds fired, what caused it, I don’t know.”
Bobby met his soon to be wife socialising at the riots and they married in 1974. Five years later they decided to leave Northern Ireland “We decided that we would emigrate to Canada. I worked for Westinghouse on the maintenance of oil line pumps. It was amazing, it was a learning curve.”
During his two-year contract in Canada, Bobby feels he got a unique look at Northern Ireland from a different perspective. “You felt duty bound to defend the place. A lot of the Canadians thought that the people of Northern Ireland were 95% nationalist, people who were being occupied by British troops. You were trying to tell them that the majority of people in Northern Ireland wanted to remain British.”
In 1981 Bobby and his wife returned home to start up a family. He had always had a keen interest in history, “as my mother used to say, that’s a terribly unhealthy interest you have. From the age of eleven, I was in libraries, looking at Irish history books.”
After an accident in 1997 paralysed his left hand resulting in Bobby becoming unemployed, his interest in history led to him becoming in involved in a local museum.
Given the wealth of historical literature on the Troubles, in areas like the Shankill, Bobby decided to use his passion for history to portray the troubles in marginalised areas. “What I thought I could achieve would be putting the Woodvale people’s history and Ballygomartin and Highfield and West Circular on record. Over a three-year period I interviewed 127 people, protestants, catholics, men, women, old and young. Belfast City Council funded it the publication and four exhibitions which were held in Whiterock Orange Hall and Fernhill House.”
“There are now three local history groups set up in the Shankill. It makes a community stronger because it gives them identity and it adds value to their own lives.”
Bobby then went on to work for the Spectrum Centre in the Shankill. “We tend to try and include as much local history as we can. We are pushing the Shankill forward in terms of tourism and having a story to tell, which is a pretty big part in this new Belfast.”
Over his lifetime Bobby has seen a huge transformation in communities in the city. “Communities that I grew up in will never be there again, everything has changed. When I grew up a lot of people didn’t have an awful lot of stuff, that was the great equaliser. Today, even in my own children I see that it’s a material world. We grew up with fixed lines and black and white TVs. It’s mobile phones and Internet and communications have changed the world totally. In many ways the community has advanced forward in as much as, we are very americanised. The old Belfast community is not there anymore, it’s gone and it’s gone forever.”
“We live in a world now where you close your door and get on with your own life. Maybe that’s evolution and that’s just the way it goes.”