Belfast 400: People, Place and History (Sean Connolly, editor)

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Ten days ago I finished reading Belfast 400: People, Place and History, a book published to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the city’s charter. In the light of last week’s reawakened community tensions and violence, it is interesting to look back at the roots of the city and its journey into the twenty first century.

Belfast 400’s chapters are written by a series of experts and edited by Prof Sean Connolly from QUB School of History and Anthropology. The opening chapter reminds readers that the Belfast that “emerged as the capital of Irish Unionism” was also “the birthplace of a United Irish movement committed to the establishment of an independent Irish republic”.

In sections dealing with the archaeological record, medieval times, and then looking through the last 400 years, the book intrigues and surprises with tales of how the people and places developed.

The city was labelled as “the northern Athens” by a “self appointed elite” who saw “evidence of a quickening of intellectual life in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries”. By the early nineteen hundreds, Belfast obviously had a well developed self promotion/marketing capability with its “industrial primacy” being talked up in a 1913 account that eschewed statistics to claim that the city was the “largest in the world” in five industries (largest shipyard, largest linen mill, largest mineral water factory, largest tobacco factory and largest rope-walk).

Yet the linen industry brought with it respiratory disease while overcrowding and a lack of sanitation led to cholera and typhus epidemics giving Belfast another ‘largest’ … the highest death rate in Ireland.

For me, the most interesting chapter in the 390 page book was written by Sean O’Connell and dealt with the period between the start of the First World War and the beginning of the Troubles. The impact of the Blitz was something I missed by not studying GCSE History. Poor health provision and inequality were exposed. At one point post-war, the council was suspended and the City Hall was investigated for corruption.

Differences and discrimination in employment opportunities across the city were described, combined with closed working practices in the docks. Explanations of gender discrimination and practices that required married women to resign from their public sector and clerical jobs. Barmen in Shankill Road pubs would not serve women. Pawnbrokers and money lenders were common place facilities.

In 1957, despite opposition from Christian groups, Stormont legalised bookmakers’ shops, three years ahead of Westminster.

A torrent of complaints followed an Alan Whicker film about Belfast’s legal gambling establishments that featured, in 1959, on the Tonight programme. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board felt it showed the ‘most sordid part of Belfast’. Whicker’s remaining five films on Northern Ireland were shelved amid the furore.

Now there’s something for BBC NI to unearth from their archive! The nineteen sixties also saw children’s playgrounds being locked up by the Belfast Corporation. James Young quipped:

If you had to bail out of a plane over Belfast on a Sunday, sure they wouldn’t let you open your parachute.

And the Northern Ireland Tourist Board warned:

of the dangers to the city’s £12 million annual tourist trade from its reputation as ‘a strict’ sabbatarian place’.

There are glimpses into the city’s complex political history and what one contributor calls “Belfast’s repackaging of its violent past”. Alexander (Buck Alec) Robinson is described as having “a long list of convictions” (including larceny), being a member of the RUC’s C1 Special Constabulary and a boxing champion. He was linked to the murder of a Catholic woman who lived on his street, was interned for a period, became a US bootlegger and kept pet lions. Rev Ian Paisley carried his coffin at his funeral in 1995 and called him “a rare character, a typical Ulsterman”.

Paisley pops up again in the final chapter which looks at conflict: civil rights marches and the misplaced hope in John De Lorean car factory amidst bombings and murders. Relevant to December 2012 the book lists examples where “street decorations” and flags caused tensions and disruption.

The Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (NI) 1954 forbade the display of ‘provocative emblems’. In 1964 the Revd Ian Paisley famously threatened to march up the Falls Road to remove a Tricolour from the office window of the Republican Party. This forced the RUC to remove the flag, provoking serious rioting in the Falls Road area.

There is much to praise about Belfast 400’s comprehensive study of the city. However, the book is a little let down by its inconsistent index which seems to randomly ignore some references to topics. (The index also lists the Belfast News Letter and Belfast Telegraph, but omits the Irish News despite mentioning its articles through the chapters.) Other than one brief mention, the book overlooks the Jewish community’s contribution the city.

Published by Liverpool University Press and supported with a grant of £60,000 from the Leverhulme Trust, Belfast 400 will be officially launched in Belfast City Hall in January.

However, copies are already available for immediate shipping on Amazon and (I assume) in local bookstores at £14.95. The book will make good a good present for anyone interested in the socio-politico-economic history of Belfast and wanting to get ahead of next year’s commemorations.

Disclosure: I was supplied with a copy of the book by Belfast City Council.

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