Inside Out

A Tale of Two Hol(l)ywoods

And Why the Northern Irish One is Superior

by Davy Sims

I’ve never been to Hollywood, but I’ve seen it in the movies. I live and have always lived in Holywood, Northern Ireland, on the shore of Belfast Lough.

That’s Holywood with one ‘l’. It is pronounced “Hollywood,” but the entertainment capital of the world and the hometown of golf champion Rory McIlroy are very different places. And lest you think we have a chip on our shoulder about that missing “l,” I expect it’s the people of Hollywood, Calif. who should envy us our town.

We have a Maypole. A permanent one, not something erected on a movie set. It’s the only Maypole in Ireland. Every year schools kids dance round it during the May Fair. I bet Hollywood doesn’t have a May Fair.

While we don’t often get confused with our Californian cousin, there are some things we do have in common. Holywood is a media town. Yes, there are movie-makers, TV producers, directors, production houses and editing facilities. You will find more than one resident with their name in the Internet Movie Database. Large parts of HBO’s Game of Thrones were shot within walking distance of the Maypole. (Oh yes, we can walk five or six miles along main roads without being arrested for acting suspiciously, as you might in certain cities renowned for their freeways).

I will concede that it is quite a long walk to the Paint Hall – currently the centre of Northern Ireland’s movie industry. And it isn’t actually in Holywood, but for the purposes of this article, we Holywoodians will claim it.

Oh – and did I mention that we also have Rory McIlroy? Surely he’s more valuable than that extra “l.”

As the reports of this preternaturally skilled young golfer mention his hometown, Holywood, the listening and watching public think “Hollywood? Swimming pools? Movie stars?” No, it’s Holywood – and we don’t have a swimming pool. That has been a matter of disagreement with the Council for many years – and, sigh, another story.

The final approach to Belfast City’s George Best Airport leads right over Holywood. As the private jet carrying Our Rory flew him home, he could look out the window on the left side to see his town below: the golf course where he began playing, his school, the places where he grew up.

A few days earlier, Rory had won a trophy that had spent the previous year only 80 miles to the north, in Portrush. Last year’s winner, Graeme McDowell, is from Northern Ireland too. So if Northern Ireland wins the U.S. Open a third time in succession, do we get to keep the trophy? Only seems fair.

By the time our champ arrived to celebrate in the Holywood Golf Club, the town’s businesses were displaying posters congratulating him: the crystals shops (oh, we are very New Age here), the fish & chip shops (and traditional), the post office, the bakery, you name it. Rory was to be seen everywhere.

Last month, President Obama came to Ireland in search of the missing apostrophe in his name (O’Bama? What a hoot that man is; typically Irish). Holywood has never been in search of a missing “l”. Sure, we have that Maypole – “overcompensation” do I hear you say?

Holywood is on its third name. First known by the Gaelic name Ard Mhic Nasca, it went through its youthful religious phase in the 7th century when it was called by the Latin Sanctus Boscus (the Holy Wood). Monks were sent out to the known world from Holywood. The same thing was happening from Bangor’s monastery, a few miles further east. There has been a certain simmering sibling rivalry between the two towns to the present day; I mentioned the swimming pool, did I not?

But the unanswerable question is when people began calling it “Hollywood” rather than “Holy Wood”? It may never have been called Holy Wood – in the 14th century the town’s name was spelt Haliwode. My father called it Hollywood, his mother did too and there were no movies when she was growing up here. So I’m guessing the name has been pronounced with a double-l for at least 700 years.

You’ll never go hungry in Holywood. Within the 500 yards from one end of High Street to the other there are more than 30 restaurants, coffee shops and hot food takeaways (not a McDonalds or a Taco Bell among them). There are fewer pubs than in the past, something that might come as a surprise to you. Fewer people visit the bars, too. It is commonly held that the UK-wide ban on smoking in public places is to blame. That is probably coincidental rather than causal. More likely are the economic conditions that persist and the availability of cheaper supermarket alcohol. Most of the bars have turned to serving food. Yet one bar remains that is totally traditional, serving drinks only with a TV in the corner and swift cordial service. That is the Maypole Bar, adjacent – as you might expect – to that Maypole.

Flying past the town – in a private jet or not – one might think it is just that 500-yard High Street. But this is Ireland (and yes, it’s also the UK, and that is yet another story). We here have a whole different concept of place and place names. We have “townlands,” of which Holywood takes in several: Ballycultra, Ballymenagh, Ballydavy, Ballykeel and Craigavad, among them.

The town sits on the coast only six miles from Belfast city centre. It has its own humble little yacht club – no snobbery or cut glass accents here. The yacht club has been home to a Tuesday night blues club for years. No ocean-going craft either, but there are a lot of dinghies. At the foot of the Holywood Hills (yes, we have those too) lies the Holywood Golf Club. This is no exclusive country club. Your plumber or truck driver is as likely to be a member as your accountant or doctor. Golf here is not the exclusive pursuit of the rich. That is probably one of the main reasons that Rory is held in such affection by the locals. He is one of us. His father is one of us. There are no airs or graces.

Our admiration of this young man didn’t start with some sweeping victory. For many it began when as a 9 year old. He appeared on a local TV programme chipping golf balls into his mother’s washing machine.

There is much else to make this town the envy of its glamorous, sun-kissed namesake. Each Hallowe’en the annual fireworks display marks the oncoming winter. The larks in May mark the beginning of the longer, brighter (if not drier) days, and the fireworks at Seapark forewarn of the dark evenings and the cold winds ready to whip up Belfast Lough from the Irish Sea. Those winds make aiming a golf ball with any accuracy almost impossible. What isn’t there to envy?

But the big difference between Hollywood and Holywood is this. Rory McIlroy says “Holywood is the greatest place in the world.” That will do me.

Davy Sims is Head of Social Media at the charity where he runs the political engagement project for young people (Where Is My Public Servant?). He is former Head of New Media at BBC Northern Ireland. He does not play golf.

*Photos by Davy Sims.