In 1974 I was twenty years old and one of my very favourite haunts in Belfast was Smithfield Market. The musty smell was wonderful, stale, damp and sour, drawing me in to browse and to absorb some sense of the olden days. It had been standing in its unique untidy fashion for over 200 years displaying and selling all manner of stuff from livestock way back to furniture, antiques, books, bric-a-brac, everything queer and quaint you could think of and much more that had never crossed your mind. "I Buy Anything" said Kavanagh, McQuillan's "Records To Buy & Sell", Hugh Greer "Bookseller" for well-thumbed tomes on every subject known to man, key cutters, scissor sharpeners, clothes in heaps and old knackered tools that still had a few jobs in them. It was a gloriously evocative quadrangle of merchants and moochers.
Then came the fire in May 1974. What a blaze, what sadness in the ash. The fire was started deliberately and in a matter of hours Smithfield was gone. The new buildings hadn't a hope of recapturing what had been there before. I remember feeling very emotional about it all.
I was born and raised in Belfast. I worked in British Home Stores. I know the city well. I have pounded the streets many times. I have loved the architecture and the good history, the brilliant writers who have written great words in praise of the place. Recently, I read extracts from Cathal O'Byrne's As I Roved Out which has a sweet gloss to it but nonetheless underlines the character and characters of old Belfast.
So, it was with similar dismay and emotion that I watched the Bank Buildings engulfed in flames and smoke. It was and is heartbreaking to see (soppiness alert) another old friend facing total destruction.
The building carried its own fair amount of history, transforming from a bank in 1785, to a bishop's house, to retail stores, most recently Primark. Like a lot of city centre buildings, it was a target for bombers and arsonists during the so-called Troubles. But repaired and refurbished, it was restored and opened for business once again. This time things look too far gone for restoration.
It is good news that no one was hurt. The cause of the fire will be revealed eventually. But (as I write I am unsure about the shell of the building's chances of survival) when I come home to Belfast on my next visit, if it is gone, then I might just shed a tear.