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.
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.
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.
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.
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.