If you are looking for a gift for Christmas, a decent book of Irish interest or republican memorabilia, political posters, craft work, Irish language cards, prints, recordings of rebel songs or decent T-shorts then the new An Fhuiseog is the place for you. Siopa an Ealine, the republican book shop has been a local feature of the Falls Road for over 40 years. Now located at 55 Falls Road it was first opened at 85 Falls Road in 1975 by Proinsias MacAirt. I knew MacAirt. He was imprisoned in the 1940’s and 50’s and later in the 1970s. In fact he was one of those republicans who were interned for a short period in August 1969. MacAirt was also editor on Republican News for two years between 1970 and 72 until his arrest and imprisonment again.
Outside of his more serious activist role MacAirt also loved to sing. He was a fine seán nós singer. In 1975 republicans took over an old derelict building at the corner of Linden Street on the Falls Road. It became the centre for providing transport for republican prisoner’s families to the various prisons. MacAirt opened the Art Shop - Siopa an Ealine – as part of the project. It got its name from the craft work it sold, in particular the republican handicrafts – leather work, carved Harps and Celtic Crosses which were made by the internees, and by the sentenced prisoners in the Cages of Long Kesh, in Armagh Women’s Prison and in Portlaoise. The profits went to the prisoners support organisation Green Cross.
When MacAirt stepped down he was replaced by Billy Parker and then by the redoubtable Gonne Carmichael (Roe) and Roseleen Ferris.
In 1980 Tom Cahill managed to raise the money to buy 51/53 Falls Road which had been a doctor’s surgery but which was then derelict, a dundering in. After a couple of weeks of making the building weather proof Gonne and Roseleen moved down from and opened the shop in what was then 53 Falls Road. Conditions were primitive. The building was damp, freezing in the winter and was once described by a bad tempered RUC man - who had got lost while raiding it - as a rabbit warren.
Gonne had always wanted to sell political books and she grasped this new opportunity. While the shop continued to sell handicrafts Gonne began to sell an increasing number of political and history books and pamphlets. Later after Gonne got married and went to live in France for a time Marguerite Gallagher and Pat McGivern took over.
For much of the 70s, 80’s and 90’s Sinn Féin offices, party members and family members were targeted by unionist death squads. Working in the shop was very dangerous. Late one Wednesday evening loyalists hung a bomb on the shop’s grill and drove off. Some children who saw them alerted families living in Sevastopol Street. The bomb exploded and destroyed the inside of the shop. Fortunately it didn’t catch fire. The rest of the building housed the POW department, Republican Transport - which brought scores of families each day to the various prisons -, the party’s international department, and the Republican Press Centre. Windows were blown out and ceilings fell but the offices were open for business immediately and within two days the shop was open also.
On another occasion a UDA gang stopped across the road at the top of Leeson Street and fired a rocket at the building. It smashed into the room above the shop.
For years the women who worked in the shop and those who managed Green Cross from the back room, were a regular target of harassment by the RUC and British Army. Every day they were stopped going into and out of the shop. Often British foot patrols would stop outside the building and stop and harass everyone walking by or going in or out.
By 1992 Sinn Féin had bought 55 Falls Road and the shop was now in the middle of the building. Marguerite and Pat were there in February 1992 when RUC officer Allan Moore, pretending to be a journalist, went into the advice centre next door and opened fire killing Paddy Loughran, Pat McBride, and Michael O'Dwyer and wounding several others. When Moore left the building he was grabbed by the arm by Marguerite. She was dragged by him to his car which was parked in Sevastopol Street. He pushed her away and drove off. Later he killed himself.
Despite the obvious danger Pat and Marguerite and the other women who were often with them, were never deterred. They refused to be intimidated by the RUC and British Army or by the threats and attacks of the unionist death squads.
The Art Shop was largely frequented by local people who came to buy books and handicrafts. In the summer time the delegations of Troops Out activists from Britain and Noraid visitors from the USA would buy souvenirs for family and friends back home. But after the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement the numbers of tourists increased dramatically. When the old building was demolished and the new office constructed the Art Shop moved into 55 Falls Road.
Today the frequent tour buses slowly travel pass Sevastopol Street to allow tourists to photograph the Bobby Sands mural – which is now one of the most recognisable and iconic images in the world. Buses will stop. Black Taxi tours will drop their passengers. Groups of people will stand in front of the mural to get their photo taken. Many will go into the shop.
With so many visitors now coming every week it was decided that the shop needed to be redesigned, modernised and opened up – made more attractive. There was a need for more space and a coffee/tea dock. It is a brilliant new facility, beautifully designed, and very welcoming.
The new shop – An Fhuiseog (the Lark) – taken from Bobby Sands poem The Lark and the Freedom Fighter, accomplishes all of those things. Tony Bell, the local artist, has redesigned the name and the logo: “Like the Lark I too have fought for my freedom.” Well done to everyone involved.
So, if you live in Belfast or are just visiting, take a few minutes and drop by An Fhuiseog. You will be warmly welcomed by Anne Marie, Joanne and Deborah. Nollaig Shona daoibhse go leir.