I Predict A Riot
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
By Joanna Braniff
Toward the end of the long, oppressive summer of 1964, a famous riot took place in Belfast.
Not the usual petrol bomb-throwing, stone-hurling kind, (that was to follow just over a month later), but rather a riot of youthful exuberance responding spontaneously to the new possibilities and exciting connections associated with the decade.
The unlikely sparking junction box for this very particular kinetic energy was the Belfast debut gig of the Rolling Stones which took place on July 31 in Belfast’s hallowed Ulster Hall.
Such was the local crowd’s enthusiasm for their charismatic, long-haired, rebellious R&B heroes, that following a stage invasion of up to 70 fans and a legion of fainting girls, the show was cut short after only 11 minutes.
In stark contrast to Ulster’s usual religiously-driven social conservatism, this was exactly the violent theatre of primal hedonism the youth of Belfast craved.
For Northern Ireland’s hip young things, this event proved the old adage that the devil has the best music.
Undoubtedly, the premature end to the Jagger-induced pandemonium came as a relief of the custodians of the century-old Ulster Hall, affectionately known as the Grand Dame of Bedford Street. Particularly, given the widely-reported wave of devastation to venues the Stones had left in their wake as they toured England in the preceding weeks. Theatre seats had been ripped up, chandeliers smashed, grand pianos violently assaulted and the group was banned from ever playing Blackpool again!
In How Belfast Got the Blues, we explain how Belfast’s relationship to the Stones, (and vice-versa), was to remain controversially entangled for years, even though the band only played in the city three times.
Their brief but combustible appearances were to have influence and consequence way beyond the usual limitations of pop culture.
The second famous riot in Belfast that year occurred eight weeks after the Stones memorable appearance at the Ulster Hall and was sparked by a tricolour flag.
Ironically, its genesis began in the same venue under the direction of another charismatic rock star figure - The Reverend Ian Paisley. He claimed to have God in his backing band, so the battle for the hearts and minds of Belfast’s excitable youth just got epic, both theologically and politically.
So significant was this particular incident of civil unrest that veteran Republican leader Gerry Adams states in his autobiography that the injustices of the ‘tricolour disturbances’ stimulated his political interests so greatly, that ‘within a few weeks of the Divis Street riots, I joined Sinn Fein’.
On September 28, 1964, less than a mile from the Ulster Hall as the brick flies, 50 police officers smashed in the door of an Irish republican election office and confiscated a tricolor flag. Enraged by heavy-handed policing and this blatant unionist state insult, some people in the local nationalist community of West Belfast protested and then rioted for two days.
The police action had been taken at the behest of the devolved unionist government mostly to placate Paisley who had staged a rally at the Ulster Hall, having heard of the brazen public display of a symbol of united Ireland sympathies.
At the rally on Sunday, September 26, from the very stage where the Rolling Stones had stirred revolutionary passion with their music just weeks before, Paisley threatened that if the RUC did not remove the Irish tricolor he would lead his followers in an attack on the Republican Party election office.
In the light of an upcoming election, Paisley was whipping up a frenzy of working-class hatred to put pressure on the ruling Unionist politicians to revert to the old methods of governing the North when suppression and discrimination were the order of the day.
This was the theatre of violent, primal sectarianism that many extremists craved.
Such were the ramifications, that the 1964 Divis Street riots are often cited as the spark that ignited 40 years of civil unrest in Northern Ireland resulting in over 3000 deaths.
This really puts into perspective any State or public concerns about teenage Rolling Stones fans’ destruction of theatrical fixtures and fittings as an outlet for their youthful frustrations.
An RTÉ News report broadcast on 10 October, 1964 documenting the actions of the police as they violently remove a tricolour from the window of the Irish Republican Party headquarters in Divis Street, Belfast can be found here www.rte.ie/archives/2019/1007/1081607-belfast-tricolour-removed