moonlight flit

Rathcoole (Belfast)

Rathcoole (Ráth Cúil in Irish, meaning back of the tomb) is a housing estate north of Belfast, Northern Ireland, in Newtownabbey, built in the 1950s to house many of those displaced by the demolition of inner city housing in Belfast city.

Community history and setting

In the 1940s and 1950s, a number of new large scale housing schemes were planned for Northern Ireland including Craigavon and Rathcoole. cain project These plans were informed by attempts by successive UK governments and the local parliament at Stormont to use large scale social engineering to reduce underlying sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland. In common with other such areas, Rathcoole's design included self-contained facilities such as a cinema, youth centre, a shopping centre and schools. In spite of these planned facilities it has been acknowledged that they were insufficient for a population that grew rapidly to over 10000.

Other housing developments were built near. These were Rushpark, Rathfern and Bawnmore, all three constructed by the Northern Ireland Housing Trust, forerunner of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Other estates in the district included Merville Garden Village and Fernagh, which were developed privately by Ulster Garden Villages Limited.

Since 1 April 1958 Rathcoole and the above estates have been an integral part of Newtownabbey, the first town in Ireland's history to be constituted by an Act of Parliament at Westminster. By 1977 Newtownabbey was given 'borough' status.

A prominent feature of the community is its Christian churches, including all main Protestant denominations but notably has never featured a Roman Catholic church within its boundary, (although three lie a short distance beyond in different directions). In the original design a local council bye-law prohibited premises selling alcohol within the bounds of the estate.

In the early decades most of the commerce in the area was dominated by nearby Belfast, easily accessible by bus and public taxi services. Since the late 1970s, local shopping opportunities have been developed on what was a largely green field site centred around the Abbeycentre which has grown rapidly with the addition of many satellite trading centres including large DIY stores and most of the major UK high street retailers.

Communications are excellent, being beside the A2 Carrickfergus - Belfast road, a short drive from the ports of Belfast and Larne as well as both George Best Belfast City Airport and Belfast International Airport.

The surrounding scenery is spectacular, built in the shelter of the valley below the Cavehill, from whence on a clear summer night the lions, elephants and other animals of Bellevue Zoo can be heard clearly across the valley. It is also bordered on the north by Carnmoney Hill which features a small country park and on the south by a picturesque glen called Glas naBraden (Irish - Green of the Salmon). Before the arrival of the M5 motorway the shores of Belfast Lough at Whitehouse and Hazelbank park were short walks away.

Civil unrest

Towards the end of the 1960s, civil unrest in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles brought about sectarian conflict. A feature of the early troubles was a form of what in later conflicts would be classed as ethnic cleansing. With some exceptions in Northern Ireland this was carried out largely on the basis of implied threats rather than outright aggression and the process was completed with the tacit approval of a government overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. Rathcoole became a new home to many Protestants displaced from Belfast. The security forces of army and police were often deployed to facilitate the process of what was termed the 'moonlight flit' whereby many families disappeared from a neighbourhood literally overnight. In the period 1969 - 1973 a common sight on the streets of urban working class areas of Northern Ireland was parties of people moving furniture either by hand or any vehicle they could borrow. It was in this time that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive who controlled estates like Rathcoole was born in response to accusations from both Protestant and Roman Catholic politicians that the old Housing Trusts responsible for allocating public housing were using housing allocation as a means of Gerrymandering. In an environment official inaction, community vigilante groups acted as gatekeepers to such population exchanges in public housing areas. In the early 1970s police were briefly excluded from the area by the Rathcoole Defence Association (RDA), a move that reflected a wider pattern in Northern Ireland. Resource starved authorities could do little but stand by and re-allocate housing on the basis of squatters becoming accepted as sitting tenants. In Rathcoole for instance this was estimated at between 200 and 250 families in mid 1972.

It was during these times that the family of Bobby Sands, later to become an Irish Republican Army (IRA) hunger striker and Member of Parliament for Fermanagh & South Tyrone moved out of Rathcoole to the Irish Republican Twinbrook estate in Belfast, one of many Catholic families to leave the area to be replaced by similarly displaced Protestant families. The estate was the scene of several sectarian murders and other violent crimes during the conflict. At around this time many young disaffected males became associated with a Loyalist Tartan Gang in the estate named 'The Rathcoole KAI'. Over the years the name of the KAI has been associated with several Loyalist flute bands. A curious footnote to the history of the tartan gangs, whose markers of identity included a tartan scarf, is that the decline of the gangs coincided with the sudden success of The Bay City Rollers with younger children and the conspicuous use of tartan items of clothing by the band possibly leading to a loss of credibility of tartan as a symbol of strength.

In subsequent years at times of wider community stress in Northern Ireland sporadic rioting with security forces has occasionally occurred within the estate but not to the extent witnessed in urban areas of Belfast and Derry and the community has enjoyed long periods of calm.

Decline and regeneration

The Diamond shopping centre suffered from a lack of investment and substantial decline in its environment throughout the 1960s and 1970s and was in need of extensive renovation and reconstruction. Part of this reconstruction led to the building of a large new branch library in the late 1970s. Meanwhile the estate's other shopping area near Rathcoole Secondary School was declared derelict and demolished. Following an extensive fire and a period of dereliction, the reconstructed Alpha Cinema became the East Way Social Club, a loyalist members only working men's club.

Those who take the time to view Belfast from its surrounding hills can never fail to identify Rathcoole's location as it is home to one of the most prominent and distinctive features of the Greater Belfast skyline, at the estate's centre are four high rise apartment blocks that rise from an otherwise low level landscape to mark the northern-most reaches of outer Belfast in the same way that the giant Samson and Goliath cranes of the old shipyard characterize the landscape of the east of the city.


Over the years the estate has been served by quite a number of schools within its boundaries. The primary sector included the state controlled Rathcoole Primary, Abbot's Cross Primary and nearby Whitehouse Primary schools. The Catholic Maintained sector was served by Stella Maris Primary school. Three schools provided for secondary level education; Rathcoole, Hopefield for controlled sector and Stella Maris secondary for the catholic maintained sector. As the post World War II baby boom generation grew older, school populations declined rapidly in the area, and in the 1980s and 1990s, Stella Maris Primary and Secondary Schools and Rathcoole Secondary School (State Controlled) were closed. The Stella Maris site has now been redeveloped as a retail park as part of the larger Abbeycentre trading area. In an attempt to increase the mixture of housing tenure types in the estate the Rathcoole Secondary site has now been redeveloped into privately owned housing. State controlled sector education is now the only form of education facility in the estate with the three primary schools still going strong whilst secondary education is now concentrated on the old Hopefield site, now remodelled and extended as Newtownabbey Community High School. Children requiring grammar school education need to travel further to facilities such as Belfast High School, Belfast Royal Academy and Ballyclare High School.


The dominant political tradition in the area in recent decades has been Unionism with strong showing in successive elections by the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party. Alongside mainstream Unionists many independent Unionist and Loyalist politicians have represented the area at all levels of local government. In the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement parties associated with Loyalist paramilitary groupings such as the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) enjoyed some success in the area with the PUP's more left wing working class analysis appealing to the area's largely working class population. Alongside loyalism, the estate also had a long labour tradition. Between 1973 and 2001, the area returned at least one Labour councillor in every local government election. This party was refused affiliation by the British Parliamentary Labour party which instead maintained its loose association with the largely Roman Catholic Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland.

During the 1990s, with hopes for change in the political climate in Northern Ireland and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, change was also apparent in the estate. Funded by investment from the New Labour UK government, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive demolished some of its housing stock in the area including the hastily built 'banana flats' (maisonette style housing) which was afflicted with many of the sort of structural and social problems associated with high density community living commonplace in Glasgow's infamous tenements. They also renovated some of its out of date housing, providing items now taken for granted such as gas heating. The Diamond shopping area was extensively remodelled, creating more open space. New football pitches and changing areas were provided, and opened by HRH Princess Anne. Plans are well advanced for new social housing at Green Walk.

The estate has now changed into a progressive area, often a source of affordable housing for Belfast commuters. However, there are still some underlying problems. As with many working class areas of Northern Ireland, paramilitary groups, particularly the Ulster Defence Association still have a huge influence on the estate.


  • One of Northern Ireland’s leading musicians and composers John Anderson hails from the Rathcoole Drive vicinity of the sprawling estate. He is better known as the leader of the popular ‘John Anderson Big Band.’ In 1989 the John Anderson Big Band was featured on four number one hit singles under the guise of ‘Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers’ in the United Kingdom and worldwide. Most recently the spectacular stage show ‘On Eagles Wings,’ the story of the Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots journey from Ulster to America in the early 1600s, was written and composed by him. It was broadcast on over 300 hundred-television stations in the USA and has just been aired to acclaim in Australia. In the mid-1980s, however, he was appointed Executive Producer at Ulster Television (UTV) in Belfast where he helped produce a number of local Light Entertainment programmes. In the 1990s John brought the phenomenally successful ‘School Choir of the Year’ from humble beginnings to an event, which eventually attracted more than 10,000 young singers from across Northern Ireland and became the biggest event of its kind in Europe. The result is broadcasted yearly on UTV. Today he has his own Sunday afternoon radio programme on BBC Radio Ulster playing all genres of music, including classical, rock, swing, choral and popular.
  • Ex-Northern Ireland national football team Northern Ireland and Queens Park Rangers F.C. (QPR) football captain Alan McDonald was born in Rathcoole. He lived at Doonbeg Drive, located at the northern edge of the area.
  • Former Northern Ireland national football team footballer Billy Hamilton, who scored twice for his country at the 1982 FIFA World Cup 1982 World Cup finals.
  • The award-winning Northern Irish author and playwright Gary Mitchell is from Dunowen Pass. Mitchell attended Rathcoole Primary School where his Grandfather, the late Harry Moreland, was caretaker throughout the 1970s/1980s. One of Mitchell's plays about Rathcoole featured budding Dublin-born actor Colin Farrell, today the Hollywood superstar.
  • Ex-Northern Ireland International and Manchester United football player Jimmy Nicholl lived in Rathcoole and attended Rathcoole Secondary School in the 1960s.
  • The actress Cathy Brolly, star of the popular BBC drama 'Life On Mars' (2006) and Lynda La Plante's drama 'Killer Net' (1998), amongst other film and television productions, is a former Rathcoole resident. She resided at Glencoole House, one of the four iconic multi-story flats that tower over Rathcoole located near The Diamond shopping centre in the heart of the area.
  • Two founder members of the alternative rock band ‘Four Idle Hands’ come from Rathcoole. The Mahon brothers originally come from near the Old Irish Highway area at the top end of the estate. Their relatives still reside there, including sister Sandra Campbell and an elder brother. The band had a comparative following on the Ulster music scene. They released ‘99 Streets / Friday Man 7”’ (1990), and the ‘Blind EP 12" (4 track EP)’ (1991) on Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label based in Belfast.
  • Northern Ireland International and Manchester United football player Jonny Evans lived in Rathcoole.
  • Provisional IRA Hunger Striker and one-time Westminster MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Bobby Sands, is originally from Doonbeg Drive, Rathcoole, the same street as Northern Ireland and QPR footballer Alan McDonald.
  • Sands' former Provisional IRA associate Jim Gibney is also from Rathcoole. He and his family resided at Foyle Hill. Today Gidney is one of Sinn Féin’s (the political wing of the Provisional IRA) senior strategists. He is also a regular columnist for the Northern Ireland nationalist daily newspaper, the Irish News.
  • Michael McAdam, the founder and owner of the successful Northern Ireland 'Movie House' cinemas chain, is from Rathcoole.
  • Local Historian, Writer, Community Worker and Award-winning amateur Film-maker, George H. Stranaghan, better known today as the father who stood by his 16 year-old son after he was 'unlawfully' segregated from his fellow students at Ballyclare High School for having shoulder-length hair. The resulting court case at Belfast's High court case has yet to be resolved. The presiding judge, Mr Justice Weatherup QC, refused to grant the declaration sought by Ballyclare High School specifically regarding the legality of their school rules.
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