A Street Through Time: United Presbyterian Church
United Presbyterian Church on map

The building of Clifton Street United Presbyterian Church was completed in September 1881 as a place of worship for the Scottish Presbyterian denomination, also known as the Church of Scotland. The first serving reverend was John Cairns, a Scotsman.[1] Despite being designed by prominent local architects, Young and Mackenzie, the building was designed with medieval Scottish architecture in mind, reflective of the denomination’s Scottish origins. The Church could be accessed by a large, ornate door from Clifton Street and a smaller alternative on Henry Place.[2] After the Clifton Street Presbyterian Church, on the opposing side of the road, was destroyed in the Belfast Blitz, the United Church opened its doors to the displaced members of the destroyed Church for combined services. These joint services would foreshadow the churches later formal unification.

  In May 1957, serving minister of the Church, Rev John McLay, commissioned the McLay memorial hall on Henry Place to act as a community hub for the newly united churches.[3] At this time, attendance to the Church was thriving, meanwhile other inner-city congregations were declining. However, by 1971 attendance at the Clifton Street United Presbyterian Church was so poor that no reverend was willing to minister there.[4]

McLay Memorial Hall

   Reverend Donald Gillies, another Scotsman, saved the Church from crumbling into obscurity as he agreed to minister there in 1971. Gillies previous church on Agnes Street, in the Shankill ward, was demolished to make way for a ring road.[5] The Clifton Street United Presbyterian Church appeared to thrive once again as members of the existing community combined with the displaced Agnes Street denomination. Gillies also enjoyed relative celebrity in his ministerial role, his vocal, conservative political opinions were widely reported in the media alongside his peer Ian Paisley. For example, his opinion of the Catholic church in 1965 was that ‘Outwardly the Roman Church may have donned a more lamb-like dress, but inwardly she remains the ravening wolf set to devour the evangelical Protestant faith’.[6]

   In his role as the ‘Convenor of the Synod’s inter-church relations committee’ Gillies described the year 1981 as the year of ‘Ecumenical disaster’.[7] This seemed to reflect his own church’s demise, as in June 1982 Reverend Gillies retired and the Clifton Street United Presbyterian Church closed its doors for the final time.[8] Factors cited include a dwindling religious population, migration out of the city as The Troubles raged around the Churches doors. The Church’s interior was striped and sold to another Church.[9] As many Churches were forced to do the same thing, the building remained on the market for a while before its subsequent demolition. In its place today is the Clifton Street Surgery, which opened in 1993, according to earliest records. It was then described as being a brand new building, fit for its new function.

Site of United Presbyterian Church today

[1] ‘United Presbyterian Church, Clifton Street’ in Belfast News-Letter, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0000038/18810905/020/0008?browse=False, 5th September 1881.

[2] Ibid.

[3] ‘McLay Memorial Hall, Henry Place, Belfast’ in Archiseek, https://www.archiseek.com/2018/1957-mclay-memorial-hall-henry-place-belfast/.

[4] ‘What lies ahead for Clifton Street’ in Belfast Telegraph, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0002318/19800607/067/0004?browse=False, 7th June 1980.

[5] Ibid.

[6] ‘The WCC-and why Donald Gillies changed his mind’ in Belfast Telegraph, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0002318/19800517/081/0004?browse=False, 17th May 1980.

[7] Belfast Telegraph, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0002318/19820309/069/0005?browse=False, 9th March 1982.

[8] ‘Saddest Days’ in Belfast Telegraph, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0002318/19820621/120/0009?browse=False, 23rd June 1982.

[9] Ibid.

Members Involved