Rathcoole (Newtownabbey)

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Rathcoole as seen from Cavehill

Rathcoole (from Irish Ráth Cúile, meaning "corner/nook of the ringfort"[citation needed]) is a housing estate in Newtownabbey, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. It was built in the 1950s to house many of those displaced by the demolition of inner city housing in Belfast city. Rathcoole is within the wider Newtownabbey Borough. Its approximate borders are provided by the O'Neill Road on the north, Doagh Road on the east, Shore Road on the south and the Church Road and Merville Garden Village on the west.

Community history and setting[edit]

In the 1940s and 1950s, a number of new large-scale housing schemes were planned for Northern Ireland including Craigavon and Rathcoole. [1] 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[by whom?] that they were insufficient for a population that grew rapidly to over 10000. The cinema had been shut down and a taxi service had taken over the west wing of the building; since then[when?], the building had been demolished and a new 'bar' built on its grounds; the taxi service has moved to the 2nd floor in the Diamond.

Other housing developments were built near: 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 it 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 estate sits below the Cavehill and is 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). The shores of Belfast Lough at Whitehouse and Hazelbank park are within walking distance. Hazelbank is surrounded by the leftover walls of the Carrickfergus Village. The walls are built along the Belfast Shores.

Civil unrest[edit]

Towards the end of the 1960s, civil unrest in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles brought about sectarian conflict after a period of reducing community antagonism. 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. Rathcoole became a new home to many Protestants displaced from Belfast. 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 was born in response to accusations that councils responsible for allocating public housing were using allocation as a means of favouring their own. 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'. 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.

In October 2010 there was serious rioting in the area linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force and resulted in Translink suspending their services in the area for a period of time after some of their buses were hijacked and set on fire.Police also claimed a gunman from the UVF was sighted at the scene of the rioting.The unrest was believed to be a reaction to police raids in Rathcoole.[2] [3]

Decline and regeneration[edit]

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.


A UDA South East Antrim Brigade mural in Rathcoole
Red Hand Commando Mural, Rathcoole

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.[2] This party was refused affiliation by the British Labour party which instead maintained its endorsement of 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 The 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, the Ulster Volunteer Force, Red Hand Commando and particularly the Ulster Defence Association still have a huge influence on the estate.[4] Past UDA brigadiers in the area have included Joe English and John Gregg.


Rathfern Rangers F.C. of the Northern Amateur Football League play their home games at the Diamond on Ardmillan Drive in Rathcoole.[5] Rathcoole F.C. of the Ballymena & Provincial League also play at the ground, which features two pitches. The 1st Newtownabbey Linfield Supporters Club is also based on the estate for fans of the IFA Premiership club.[6]

Notable people from Rathcoole[edit]

  • One of Northern Ireland's leading musicians and composers John Anderson grew up at 60 Rathcoole Drive. 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 stage show 'On Eagles Wings', the story of the Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots journey from Ulster to America in the early 17th century, was written and composed by him. It was broadcast on over 300 television stations in the USA and subsequently 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 Anderson helped to popularise 'School Choir of the Year', 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 broadcast yearly on UTV. He currently 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 and Queen's 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.
  • Ex-Northern Ireland International and Manchester United football player Jimmy Nicholl lived at 25 Drumcor Green and attended Rathcoole Secondary School, which was directly opposite his house.
  • The actress Kathy Brolly, who appeared in the 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 multi-story flats that tower over Rathcoole located near The Diamond shopping precinct in the area.
  • Two founder members of the alternative rock band Four Idle Hands come from Rathcoole. The McMahon brothers originally come from Gortmore Terrace at the north-western edge of the estate. Their relatives still reside in Rathcoole, 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 72 (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. He was born at nearby Abbots Cross Garden Village, Doagh Road.
  • Sands' former Provisional IRA associate Jim Gibney is also from Rathcoole. He and his family resided at Foyle Hill. Gidney is one of Sinn Féin's 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.
  • Northern Irish rapper, Jun Tzu, was born and raised in Rathcoole before moving to Manchester.
  • Acclaimed poet, Adrian Rice, was brought up in Rathcoole. He was raised in 196 Derrycoole Way. He went to school at Whitehouse PS, and then on to Ballyclare High School. Now living in North Carolina, Rice's new book of poems - The Clock Flower (2012) - has a notable section on his Rathcoole childhood, entitled 'Eleventh Night'.


  1. ^ Darby, John. "CAIN: Issues: Housing". University of Ulster. Retrieved 30 June 2012. 
  2. ^ BBC News
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ Police size pipebombs in Rathcoole
  5. ^ The Diamond
  6. ^ 1st Newtownabbey LSC Awards Evening