A city of resilience and change

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00

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.

Yet despite the importance to Belfast’s economy of the new industries, the authors of Belfast 400 suggest that the new industrialists showed less commitment to the city than the older families (including the Donegalls, rather benign rulers) who had arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries and become Belfast people.

A French visitor in the 1880s commented waspishly about Belfast’s lack of artistic soul: “The second town in Ireland is commercial, Protestant and wealthy, that is to say profoundly uninteresting.”

Black humour

There is not too much to criticise in Belfast 400, yet, although it is a very impressive work, it could be said to lack a certain empathy for its subject. This might have been remedied by an essay from a member of Belfast’s significant literary and artistic community, or even from a scholar who has some kind of affinity with and affection for the place.

The one essay that stands out as achieving this is by Sean O’Connell on the 20th century before the Troubles. Here ordinary people are given a voice and what he brings out very well is “Belfast’s resilience” and its people’s pride of place. Ordinary people are given space in separate vignettes, reproducing their testimonies. Their oral histories do not linger on sectarianism, an undoubted feature of Belfast identity, but on the many shared experiences and positive memories of the old neighbourhoods, torn apart by Luftwaffe bombing in the 1940s and the redevelopment of the 1950s and 1960s. There are also many examples in this chapter of the spiky, often black humour of Belfast people, noted earlier.

Sadly, the volume ends on a bleak note in charting the Troubles and how the city’s landscape became transformed as a result. The terrorists and security services combined to destroy old neighbourhoods and rebuild them with endless cul-de-sacs, bollards and single-access routes. Thus it became even more difficult for the working people of north and west Belfast, who bore the brunt of the Troubles, to have any kind of normal life. In the 1970s, in particular, people abandoned the city centre and businesses closed, including those landmark Victorian department stores.

But Belfast set about reinventing itself, as it had done so often in the past. Dominick Bryan concludes his piece by showing how the groups who had largely caused the Troubles are those who are still largely defining the memory of the past in their plaques, murals, parades, flags and “clashing narratives of the past”.

Yet one of the strengths of this volume is its testimony to Belfast’s resilience and ability to change constantly, and there can be no doubt that it is involved in just such another process at the moment.