A Street Through Time: Indian Community Centre
Indian Community Centre on map of Clifton Street

Connected to the Carlisle Memorial Church by a cloister was its Sunday School, which opened in 1889. Sunday schools combined academic education with moral, religious teaching so were an important way to encourage religious piety in impressionable children during the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, as the Troubles waged on the doorstep of the Clifton Street churches, Protestant congregations increasingly moved away from their inner-city homes to the comparative safety of the suburbs. As attendance to the Carlisle Memorial Church declined, so too did the community’s involvement with the Sunday school.

Carlisle Memorial Church Sunday School in the 1890s, shown on the right of Orange Hall

Following the School’s closure, the building was put on the market in 1979. Its buyers, representatives of the Indian Community, was unconventional for the area. Multi-ethnic immigration in Northern Ireland was, at this time, distinctively small compared to its diverse neighbour England. The earliest wave of Indian migration arrived in Northern Ireland in the 1930s, mainly from the Punjab region.[1] This trend of Punjabi migration continued until the brink of the Troubles, where sectarian violence dissuaded further migrating communities. During this time, the small Indian community met in eachother’s homes to engage in activities central to their culture, such as Indian dance classes. On celebratory days, larger premises were rented to accommodate them, for example in 1965 Diwali celebrations were held in the Presbyterian community centre in College Park gardens.[2] The Indian diaspora at this time had no solid infrastructure in what was an overwhelmingly ethnically white city.

The Indian Community Centre today

The Carlisle Memorial Church Sunday School opened as the Indian Community Centre in January 1981, as a permanent solution to their transient existence in Belfast. The opening was attended by India’s High Commissioner, testament to the centre’s relevancy for the Indian community. [3]The centre’s large space proved particularly important in post-conflict Belfast as Indian families, attracted by the newfound peace, emigrated to Northern Ireland in increasing numbers. Importantly, this migration was not confined to those from the Punjab region as it was previously, migrants now represented a geographically and culturally diverse Indian population. Estimates suggest that 15,000 Indian migrants currently live in Northern Ireland, many of which arrived under high skilled migrant programmes thus gain employment in industries such as engineering and medicine.[4]

The Indian Community Centre’s Hindu Temple

The centre offers the Indian community an opportunity to celebrate various elements of their rich culture, which are not common in mainstream Northern Irish society. For example, inside the centre is a Hindu Temple. The centre offers an opportunity for the Indian community to integrate in Northern Ireland, whilst not losing touch with its unique heritage. The Indian Community Centre’s permanent home in the former Carlisle Memorial Church Hall thus firmly weaves the Indian community into the fabric of Northern Ireland.

[1] Coll, B., ‘Indians adapting to a complex culture’ in The Irish Times, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/indians-adapting-to-a-complex-culture-1.1215668, 29th May 2008.

[2] ‘Wearing their colourful Indian saris at the new Diwali festival in the Presbyterian Community Centre at Queen’s University, College Park’ in Belfast Telegraph, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0002318/19651021/031/0002?browse=False , 21st October 1965.

[3] ‘Festive welcome for Indian envoy’ in Belfast Telegraph, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0002318/19800115/059/0005?browse=False, 15th January 1980.

[4] Scott, S., ‘Belfast’s Indian Community Centre on how it has adapted to Coronavirus lockdown’ in Belfast Live, https://www.belfastlive.co.uk/news/belfast-news/belfasts-indian-community-centre-how-20252233,  27th March 2021.

Members Involved

YEAR: 1889

Location: Clifton Street