Belfast has always had a reputation for being a tough city with some figures becoming local legends for their ability to “handle themselves”.
During the 50s and 60s there was one man, who had the swagger of a movie star, who stood out as the toughest of them all and stories are still being told of his exploits to this day.
This man was Silver McKee, a cattle drover and renowned street fighter from the Market area who was known for many years as the “hardest man in Belfast”.
Although he had many rivals for this title which included Stormy Weatherall, a mill worker from the Shankill who had fought many battles with the Roddy’s Bar regular.
The relationship between these two men and their impact on a young boy growing up in the city is now being explored in a new book by West Belfast author Fra McCartney called Silver’s City.
The book follows the rise, fall and road to redemption of the cattle drover, while also highlighting the everyday struggles of working class Belfast and how they adapted to an ever changing city.
Silver McKee pictured with John Roddy of Roddy’s Bar, Oxford Street, as the street fighter is presented with a portrait of himself
(Image: Bobbie Hanvey/Northern Ireland Historical Photographical Society)
Speaking to Belfast Live, Fra said: “Growing up in Belfast, the celebrities of our time were the larger than life figures that we all had in our communities whose exploits became legends across the city.
“For me, Silver McKee was the man who stood out above all of the rest, he was like a movie star with the respect that he had from almost everyone.
“He was known as the hardest man in Belfast, and while there were many people who would challenge him for a fight, there were very few, other than his rival Stormy Weatherall who were ever up to task when he was in his prime.
“While he was known for his street fighting, he was a fair man with a sense of honour and not someone that was ever considered a thug. In those days when men had their differences they would have a fair fight and it would be over with and they would go for a drink at the bar together afterwards, but there would always be the possibility of a rematch down the line.
“To this day people still tell stories about Silver which shows the impact that he had in Belfast at the time.”
Author Fra McCartney with his new book Silver’s City
Fra said that during the 1950s and 60s, the religious divide was not as prevalent in Belfast, with class division being the main aspect that would have divided communities, with the working class, both catholic and protestant living in rough conditions but striving to make the most out of life.
He continued: “Prior to the start of the Troubles the religious divide existed in Belfast, but not to the extent that it would later become.
“Those living on the Falls and the Shankill had the same cramped and damp ridden homes as each other and focused on working hard and bringing up their families. Everyone always had something on the go in order to try and earn a few quid and while it could be tough at times, people were happy and content.
“It was in that environment where hard drinking men like Silver and Stormy grew to prominence, and while one was from the Market and the other from the Shankill, there was always huge respect between the pair regardless of their run-ins and politics was never an issue.”
Fra said that he had been planning on telling the story of Silver McKee for many years, but it was not until the pandemic lockdown when he sat down and decided to write it, saying that once he started the words flew on to the page and it was completed in just 21 days.
He said: “I have been wanting to tell Silver’s story for quite some time but it was only when I had the time during lockdown that I decided to sit down and do it.
“It is based on the events of Silver’s life, his relationship with the other great hard man of the day Stormy and a young pretender to the throne, Fra Ward, who idolised the street fighter. Although some of the names and locations of certain events have been altered slightly.
“It highlights the highs and lows of these men’s lives and how their hard drinking lifestyle led them to face other challenges far harder than any fight they had ever been in.
“While Belfast plays a central role, the book shows that its characters and people are really what has made the city.”
Silver’s City is available in most bookshops in Northern Ireland or from Fra via 07833973247 who can deliver it personally.
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