‘I Just Cried’: Film Stirs Memories on Belfast Street Branagh Left Behind
As director’s movie is nominated for seven Oscars, residents of Mountcollyer Street recall when the Troubles started

The Guardian, 11 February 2022
Lisa O'Carroll

Thanks Karen

Little remains of the street where Kenneth Branagh was raised.

It is the day after the Oscar nominations and Branagh has professed he is “dazed and delighted” and in a “beautiful state of shock” over the seven Oscar nominations his film 'Belfast' has received.

A BBC radio crew goes house to house to inquire about the parties planned for Oscar night. But the pickings are thin. Most of Mountcollyer Street, including No 96 where Branagh grew up, was demolished 10 years ago. It’s pretty much a wasteland.

Buddleia competes with moss for the cracks in the street, and a so-called peace wall and 3-metre-high galvanised steel fencing stretching along both sides of the road suggest dereliction and years of neglect.

But the place is packed full of memories for those who remain and those who, like Branagh, moved away as the Troubles began in 1969. Fond recollections of playing on the street until dark, of running in and out of each other’s houses, Catholic and Protestant. But also memories of the intimidation, of the petrol bombs to get Catholic families “put out” of the area – all depicted in this semi-autobiographical film now destined for world acclaim.

“I cried, my wife cried,” says Moore Armstong who grew up at No 92, two doors down from the Branaghs. “When the hand-to-hand fighting started, I just sat in the cinema; the tears. I just cried. It was scary and it was reminiscent and realistic.

“I didn’t see fighting in Mountcollyer Street because we moved to the Ardoyne by the time the Troubles broke out, but I saw fighting there too. And it was just like in the film.”

Like Branagh he moved permanently to England, a journey many of his generation underwent. “It was like going from hell to heaven,” he says.

An older woman who lived four doors up from the Branaghs is initially reluctant to chat. She doesn’t want to revisit the past but has heard all about the film.

“That was the way it was back then. It was terrible. There was violence on both sides. People were told to get out of their houses. And you just did what you were told. You were just glad you weren’t shot or kneecapped,” says Marilyn.

“I remember from my bedroom window seeing a large group of men who had barricaded the soldiers against the fence and throwing stones and petrol bombs. I just thought: is this real life or am I watching a movie?”

Those who did not live through the Troubles or in Northern Ireland will have little understanding of the horrors of what many think was a civil war.

“I worked in town in Donegall Street and a bomb went off,” Marilyn says, remembering an IRA atrocity in 1972. “A bin lorry just came and they were throwing bits of legs and stuff into it. I couldn’t go and watch that film.”

Not everything is a faithful representation of Branagh’s childhood street, which was recreated on a studio set in England because of Covid restrictions during filming in 2020.

In real life there was just one side to the street, recalled 92-year-old Peggy who lived a few doors away from Branagh. The terrace of red bricks was a mixture of “kitchen houses” – local slang for two-up two-downs with outdoor toilets, which Branagh’s grandparents lived in – and the bigger “parlour houses”, including No 96, that had sitting rooms and indoor toilets.

A mural of Northern Ireland’s second most famous footballer, Danny Blanchflower, is also a forgotten memory or fiction for most. When Armstrong was small it bore the words “Sexy girls wear frilly knickers”.

“I remember it very well because I didn’t understand what ‘sexy’ was and I remember asking my mother. She told me it meant ‘girls who were not married’,” he recalls.

For some it is a glimpse of the poverty as well as the violence of the time that Branagh has got spot on.

“There’s a scene when someone is there sitting on the toilet having a cup of tea and chatting and there’s newspaper hanging on the wall. My grandad used to do that. He would cut out the newspaper in triangles and hang it on a butcher’s hook and that was the toilet roll,” says Clara Stratton, whose mother was a first cousin of Branagh’s mother, Frances Harper.

They lived 2 miles away and she says the sectarianism was the same. “I thought the movie was so sad. We had Catholic families that were also ‘put out’. Neighbours rallied round and told them they were not to go, just like in the film, but the people who’d come for them would come from another part of town. How to blessed God did we live in those days. It was just unbelievable,” she says.

Branagh has said the film is not an autobiography but inspired by his memories and “a look at a people and a place in tumult” through the eyes of Buddy, the central character of the movie at nine years old, the same age as Branagh was when his parents moved to England.

This article was amended on Saturday 12 February. The article originally referred to Moore Armstrong as Moore Kennedy. This has been corrected.

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