In collaboration with Household, Sol Archer has spent time with individuals and groups identifying with contemporary and historical Sailortown and it’s surrounding area: elderly former residents, new migrant communities, local grassroots organisations, and children and young people living in a small post-2008 crash social housing complex.

This process has involved the documentation of oral histories, with a particular focus on historical conditions of labour in the Docks, seafaring, and the now long-gone mills and factories to which Sailortown provided generations of workers.



oral histories

John, Billy & Bobby
Terry Bo
Marie, Mary, & Sue

This archive will be added to over time. 

The documents incorporate personal histories, labour conditions, spatialised recollections, reproductive labour, immigration, religion, international solidarity, poetry, song, city planning, the troubles, the struggle for Irish independence, and the construction of working class community identity.

Historical conditions in and around Sailortown are paradigmatic of the managed decline of working class and industrial cities through the 20th century. By mid-century the neighbourhood housed between five and ten thousand people, depending on which vernacular boundaries you apply. It was a buffer area between the harbour and the city centre, with the majority of its inhabitants working in the docks, the factories and mills, and in the shipping industry as sailors and ship builders. Characterised by large families, precarious labour, and urban poverty, the dynamic of close community and familial support bolstered a strong history of internationalist unionisation, itself supported by both the shipping industry and the successive generations of immigrants, particularly Italians, who settled in ‘Little Italy’. As with other industrial cities of Northern Europe, such as Glasgow and Rotterdam, the food culture and architectural style of the city owes a great deal to Italian Immigrants for whom Sailortown was a community heartland.
The demolition of Sailortown marks a static point in both the narrative of the withdrawal of manufacturing from European urban centres, and the prevailing narrative of the Belfast and ‘The Troubles’. The neighbourhood was depopulated by the end of the 1960s in order to construct an as-yet incomplete motorway intersection, at the same time that large scale mills were automating, closing, and outsourcing, the docks were transitioning into containerised shipping, and the merchant navy was reducing crew size. This produces a complex overlap of conditions in the oral history of the neighbourhood, as at once the conditions for living, working, and constructing working class solidarity were withdrawn. The former residents of Sailortown, at first eager to live in improved housing which they believed would be re-built in the same historic neighbourhood were, in fact, scattered through the city and the strong network of community support was fragmented.

Infrastructure in Belfast, particularly roads, has been an arm of the control and separation of communities throughout the past century, both segregating the working class communities hardest hit by the Troubles, and segregating classes in the city. Pockets of community and circular diversions characterise parts of the city, controlled as much by the architecture of transit as it is by the Peace Walls and gated access. In a recycling of history, the still incomplete motorway interchange is due to be extended and broadened in the coming years, digging deep trenches and 9 meter walls through the city and expanding and redirecting traffic toward the small enclave of the contemporary Sailortown community.

We archive here conversations recorded during the Production of Daily Life residency project, alongside poetry from Dock Workers, and other forms representing the intersectional struggle of labour and conditions for living in the city. The focus is on the personal experiences of the neighbourhood, the experience of fragmentation and eviction, rights to the city and the exclusion from decision making, alongside work experience, childhood play, labour struggle, and the fight for the survival of a neighbourhood identity.