A city of resilience and change
BELFAST:Four hundred years after the Belfast charter, the city is still showing its remarkable ability to transform itself
Belfast 400: People, Place and History, Edited by SJ Connolly, Liverpool University Press, 392pp, £35 hardback, £14.95 paperback
Modelled on the very successful Liverpool 800, this book is designed to mark this year’s 400th anniversary of Belfast’s charter. In format and content it is high-brow-meets-coffee-table and the illustrations and maps are quite stunning. In many ways the character of the two cities is quite similar, and given that I am Belfast born and bred, but live and work in Liverpool, I can be honest. We share a strange sense of humour, directness and a belief that the rest of the world is against us. We have not yet invented a word similar to “Scouse” to identify these Belfastian traits. They are there, more often than not, however, defying the sectarian stereotypes.
Belfast 400 takes us from prehistory to the present, and there are masterly historical overviews by Sean Connolly and Gillian McIntosh. Yet, from the outset, we might well wonder how Belfast ever came about in the first place, for it is largely built on reclaimed slobland, perennially in danger of subsidence and flooding. Nor does it appear to have much history before its foundation charter in 1613, or as one local poet put it in the 1940s: “This jewel that houses our hopes and our fears / Was knocked up from the swamp in the past hundred years.”
Was this claim to newness, to being a town with no apparent link to a Gaelic, let alone a prehistoric, past only a Protestant foundation myth, asks the editor. Certainly it is suggested that a case of later unionist “wilful amnesia” was occurring in relation to the peoples who had gone before. Yet, despite valiant efforts, the early chapters of Belfast 400 struggle to present any concrete prehistory of the 17th-century town. And as there is no single book on Belfast archaeology and there have been only insignificant modern excavations, maybe the myth of Belfast as the Protestant-created capital of Ulster may not be so far-fetched.
Belfast was very much the creation of the Chichester (Donegall) family, their names still reflected in its streetscape. Like counties Antrim and Down, which it straddles, it was not part of the Ulster Plantation, but was granted to Sir Arthur Chichester in 1603 as “a speculative venture” to restore his shattered finances. Thus its very foundation was a business venture. And so the foundation charter of 1613, reproduced in the book, has none of the “fripperies” of colour and illuminations of other such charters.
Yet the image of Belfast as a Protestant town has always required modification. Presbyterians disliked the Anglican monopoly of civic politics, their 18th-century challenge eventually producing the Society of United Irishmen, established in Belfast in 1791. It was a time when Belfast became known as the Athens of the North, Ireland’s capital of politeness, sociability, classical taste and enlightened thinking. It was then that Catholics began to arrive in significant numbers, their tendency to congregate in the west a reflection of where they first arrived rather than the sectarian corralling that it sometimes seems.
Certainly Belfast would progressively become the polarised city of repute, but there are enough examples also in this book of shared experiences and a Protestant working class which was only intermittently the privileged group of legend.
It was in the 19th century that Belfast became the industrial capital of Ireland, a success that redefined the city’s architecture. Here Stephen A Royle expands on his earlier volume (with Frederick W Boal), Enduring City: Belfast in the Twentieth Century (2006), with a splendid analysis of 19th-century developments. True to form, Belfast reinvented itself. The old centre was demolished and today’s rather formidable and austere buildings erected. Royal Avenue replaced working-class Hercules Street, where butcher women had once rescued Henry Joy McCracken from the military. Stylish, upmarket department stores arrived to serve the growing wealth. Huge linen and cotton mills, “aerated water” and tobacco factories were built just north and west of the centre and there was plenty of work for Belfast women, who made up as much as 43.7 per cent of the workforce by 1905. Then there was the shipyard, employing 14,000 people by 1914.