Rural residents of the north of Ireland, especially those west of the Bann, have an ambivalent relationship to Belfast. They curse its dominance and resent the smugness and arrogance of some of its residents, but it’s still their native city that they look to for political and economic leadership.
Even as an ‘out-of-towner’ Belfast’s streets contain a map of my life. I can walk its central throughfares, pass its many corners and buildings to trace the timeline of much of my life. It is still my home city. I have seen it through its many traumas and it has seen the many ups and downs of my life. Just like an old coat or a trinket that has been around for so long, with memories too tightly attached to allow it to be discarded. It is a part of me, of who I was, but hopefully not who I am now. I have too little to remind of those days, so I keep Belfast around to enable me to reflect on what has passed and gone. Cities perform that purpose.
Many people have their home city where they gather in large throngs to express who they are. A place where they can become anonymous, escape small town life and feel a part of something bigger and more powerful; where there is history, tradition, and a sense of belonging. Even though Belfast to many outsiders is just a large town, to us it was and is an important city. After all, didn’t it grab the world’s headlines for years?
I was not born in the city and only briefly lived in it as an adult. I visited it rarely as a child, but those childhood visits were awe-inspiring events for a young boy from the country and the sights, sounds and smells are still etched brightly on my mind.
During the fifties and sixties my family visited twice a year: once for the Balmoral Show in May and then in December for the Christmas shopping, where all was wonder and excitement. In my teenage years during the early seventies my friends and I visited the city to party in spite of and because of the risks. It was an edgy city then like no other, but that was part of its attraction.
From the late seventies I worked in Belfast at various times and in many capacities until the late noughties. Belfast and I have accompanied each other through many phases of life; good times and bad.
Now I visit Belfast occasionally from my western retreat. We are in many ways strangers now. Like an adult child that you see infrequently; you have the memories and the old affections, but little else. You have both ‘moved on’ and need to negotiate a different relationship. At the time we want to believe that the city, like relationships, is timeless and unchanging, only to discover in later years that this is not true. It’s all transient. In reality the city is full of people who are just passing through, even though many think they are there to stay. The city changes with us and because of us, but the change is gradual and day to day it is imperceptible.
I was confronted with this when I visited Belfast this week. I visit infrequently now and see the changes more clearly. A change in the old girl was obvious.
I wanted to avoid the site of the burnt out Bank Buildings, but still I sensed at atmosphere of decline, age was catching up. There was a shabbiness, empty shops, a lack of energy. It was a grim and grimy city putting on a brave face.
I knew the city well in the seventies, eighties and nineties when it was under daily attack. But this was not that kind of war-torn grimness. It was a form of decay caused by a lack of hope, sheer fatigue and debility.
Over 200 years ago this city refused access to slaving ships and many of her Dissenter citizens led by the young Henry Joy McCracken planned to overthrow of the British state and join with Catholic Ireland in founding a revolutionary state. Radical ideas of the French and American revolutions were common in Belfast’s streets.
One hundred years ago this city was a jewel in the British crown. Its shipyards employed over 30,000 men. The city and the surrounding area of north-east Ireland produced over 80% of Ireland’s industrial output – a reason given for the north not joining an all island state in 1922. Today that figure of of Belfast’s share of the all-island industrial output hovers at around 10%. The economic powerhouse has relocated to the old southern rival, Dublin. A large book could be written on the reasons for the steady decline that has been experienced by Belfast since the end of WWI – in spite of unionist rule for half that time, and not all of it due to partition, but I won’t attempt to go into that here.
There are four images that stick in my mind from my recent visit.
The first was Castlecourt shopping centre which I had to detour through to avoid walking past Bank Buildings.
Castlecourt is one of those personal landmarks for me because I was closely involved in its opening in the spring of 1990. The idea was to regenerate that whole northside of the city centre. While Castlecourt itself has remained successful as a temple to consumerism, its presence has failed to regenerate its immediate environs. The area around Castlecourt has become even shabbier than I remember back in the nineties, when it was under almost daily attack, no doubt made worse by the recent Bank Buildings fire.
Second, was the Bank Buildings itself.
In spite of my efforts to avoid it, I caught a glimpse as I turned down Castle Lane. It looked for all the world like a Gothic ruin from a film set with its empty windows staring madly out into a world that was no longer understood. An image of Edvard Munch’s the Scream flashed into my mind’s eye.
I have to confess that it was one of the few buildings in Belfast I have never had a good attitude towards. Primark never did it for me. Now it inspires in a different way. Its burnt out hollow shell is an eerily appropriate metaphor for the times we are in politically. I hope they knock it down and start again to complete the symbolism.
Moving quickly away from that scene of destruction and Gothic horror, I found myself walking past the Somme installation at the city hall. Hundreds of little white cotton figures laid out to represent the dead of the Somme in 1916. It did not trigger an empathetic reaction in me.
My father was serving in France at the time of the Somme (he was old enough to be my grandfather). He came home from that war a severely disabled nineteen year old. So I have a closer connection with that war than many today. I was brought up with the commemoration of both world wars, but I never remember the Somme being commemorated as much as it is now.
This society is in love with the past and with the dead from ancient battles. We mourn our dead year round, but many mourners would send our young men and women off to war in foreign fields again at the drop of a smart red beret. At the the other end of the life cycle, this is a society which is also strongly protective of its unborn. It’s the living in between that seem to present the city with its greatest challenge.
It struck me looking around the city that, if this society valued the living more highly, we would find ourselves in a better place and the city would not be literally dying on its feet, with the highest suicide rate in the UK.
The final image that I took with me was the new Grand Central Hotel on the site of the old Windsor House office block in Bedford Street.
It was all glitzy metal, glass and marble and no doubt packed with wealthy foreign tourists and business people in sharp suits. It contrasted wonderfully with the urban squalor of Royal Avenue just a few minutes walk away on the other side of Castlecourt and with the Somme installation placed neatly between them. The hotel is typical of any you might see in London, New York or Moscow. It represents yet another attempt by the local business community to join the virtual global culture, as Castlecourt did almost thirty years ago, bringing with it little benefit to the surrounding streets.
I suppose my overall impression of Belfast was of a city that had no sense of itself any more. It was a hollowed out shell like the Bank Buildings standing between the past and future, not knowing which way to go or how to get there and not knowing what it was to be in the present. Its past was heavy industry. It built ships for the empire. More recently for good or ill it was a revolutionary city when, in a simpler world, most knew where they fitted in – unionist or nationalist. Even ten years ago it was known the world over for setting the standard for reconciliation with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in government together and best pals to boot.
The ray of hope that was brought to Belfast in the time of the Paisley-McGuinness partnership has been replaced by the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry, where dry legal minds endlessly grill cringing politicians and civil servants about dates of meetings and emails. This obsessive picking over of dead bones in the search of truth passes for political discourse and even entertainment these days, feeding the local media with news.
Some might say Belfast is a city in waiting, looking to find its identity in a new and more confusing era. Others would say it is a lost city being discovered by cruise ships, coffee shop merchants and location scouts for dystopian films. Henry Joy must be mightily vexed, publicly executed where today shoppers scurry about looking for shoes and a good cappuchino. Maybe we need to listen to Henry and his ilk..