A city of resilience and change
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.”
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.