Conway Mill:
The Realisation of a Dream

After many years of overcoming hurdles and fund raising the £5m Conway Mill restoration was finally launched at a gala gathering.

The Mill is aimed at promoting social/economic regeneration, job creation and business development, while preserving the heritage of one of the most significant architectural landmarks in West Belfast. The project created 16 new workspaces and enterprise units for new and expanding businesses in the Lower Falls. The building also houses 20 new artist studios and an atrium space.

Conway Mill began operation on the Falls Road in 1842. It was owned by James Kennedy & Son, Flax Spinners and its location was at the centre of the linen spinning industry. The Conway Street mill updated its spinning machinery between 1906 and 1913. The new machinery was made by Belfast’s James Mackie and Sons. With the move away from linen to cotton and synthetic fibres, the linen industry declined and the mill closed in 1976.

In the 1980s Conway Community Enterprises purchased the mill, which had lain vacant for nearly a decade. The buildings were derelict and had been badly vandalized. Lead stripped from the roofs allowed the elements to devastate the upper floors. Windows throughout the Mill were broken or completely missing, the frames rotted. Volunteers emptied, cleaned and built the classrooms, theatre and childcare centre. The Mill was opened up to all who wanted low rent facilities, especially young people who were trying to start a small business.

In 1985 the committee of Conway Street Community Enterprises Project Ltd., a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, hosted a public enquiry into the death of Sean Downes who was killed by a plastic bullet fired by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. This precipitated the Government policy of political vetting which denied funding or support to any community organisation which may lead to public funds finding its way to a paramilitary organisation. The mill was the first to feel the weight of political vetting. The Government did not have to provide any evidence to back up its claim and organisations had no right of appeal. All funding was withdrawn including salaries for creche staff. The survival of the project was down to volunteerism and organisations such as Doors of Hope in America. The ban was lifted ten years later in 1995 – at that time there were 19 tenants employing 34 people.

Conway Mill Preservation Trust Limited was established in 1999. They achieved listed building status for the complex in 2000.

Those taking part in this piece include: Jim Neeson of Conway Mill Preservation Trust, Alex Attwood MLA Minister for Social Development, Ian Lush, Roisin McDonough from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Father Des Wilson of Conway Education Project, Dr. Denis Rooney from the International Fund for Ireland, Paul Brush of the Deptartment of Trade and Investment, Paul Mullan of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Ian Lush of the Architectural Heritage Fund, Danny McAree, Manager of Conway Mill, Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein, The Andersonstown School of Traditional Music, Elsie Best of Conway Education Centre and the Healing Centre, Noelle Ryan of Springhill Community House, Fred Taggart of the Prince’s Regeneration Trust, Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister, Gráinne Holland and Feilimí O’Connor.

Music: Transgroove. Camera: Ciarán Ó Brolcháin. Editor: Proinsias Ó Coinn. Interviewer/Producer: David Hyndman

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