Gray Matters - Memories of the old Belfast

By Tanya Mitchell
Source: File image

Having grown up in the Belfast area during the 1980s and 1990s, I am lucky enough to have fond memories of both this cleaner, eclectic, artsy city, as well as the grittier Belfast of the past.

While the old Belfast may not have been nearly as pretty as it is these days, the city sure had its share of interesting characters who made their living at the factories that used to line the waterfront.

I got to know some of those characters myself after I took my first real job at the former Stinson cannery, which once occupied some of the buildings neighboring the footbridge. I worked in the shipping department for Dede McAllian, a lady I quickly grew to see as more of a really cool aunt than a boss (Dede, if you're reading this, you're still one of my all-time favorite supervisors).

Dede led a crew of between eight and 10 women and men whose sole job was to pull thousands of sardine cans from giant bins, and in stacks of five at a time, visually check the seams and discard all cans with breached sides or tops. The ones that passed the eyeball test were included in various-sized cases, which were then stacked on pallets. Samples from each of the cases were usually checked over once more before the whole lot was shipped out to vendors.

Looking back on that work years later, I can tell you it was not only repetitive, but physically exhausting, even as a young teen. The work was hard and sweaty, but it made me strong, as did the time I spent with these people. Many of them had a lot more life experience under their belts — and, thankfully, all were willing to share what they knew with me.

We spent long days together, carping about having to work a Saturday or having to stay late to finish checking this lot or that lot, and all spoke often about their families — I talked about my dog, because that was before I had a family of my own. The best part was, no one minded listening to the ramblings of my youth. As I came to decide that someday I wanted to be a writer, they all supported me with that dream, too.

I started taking a couple of writing classes while I was working at the cannery, and in a place like Stinson's, that news got around faster than the belt that used to carry thousands of fresh-caught herring up to the packing line. One of the many ladies who spent much of their days on the packing line, methodically chopping the heads and tails off each fish before inserting them into open cans, was a woman named Verna Small. When she found out my plans for the future, she started bringing me copies of Reader's Digest. I remember sitting in the smoke-filled break room reading the short stories and memorizing new words from the vocabulary tests, and telling Verna how I did on every one of my exams.

Verna is no longer with us, but I'll never forget the kindness she showed me. She once told me she wanted to see me leave the factory and do something more with my life than spend the next 30 years breaking my back, and I'm glad to report that she did live to see the day I published my first article in this paper. I only hope she knew what her encouragement meant to me.

I left the factory on my own, but a few years later, the cannery closed its doors for good and all were forced to find a new way to make a living. It was a hard time for many of those folks, but these days, the former Stinson employees I still see are working at new jobs, raising families and seem quite happy. Few things put a smile on your face more than knowing old friends are doing well.

So while the old Belfast may not have been quite as picturesque, and maybe didn't always smell so great, I'll never forget the beauty I found underneath it all.