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A View North Belfast century: booms, busts, bombs and buzz

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

A picture book has been lying on my desk for almost a year now. "Belfast: A Century," by Jonathan Bardon, is a pictorial history of my home city from 1900 to 1999.

The 20th century has been Belfast’s only century, in fact, since the place was not incorporated as a city until 1888. It would prove a tumultuous one. Belfast would experience one of the greatest industrial booms of any city; it would totter on the verge of rebellion and civil war; it would suffer an economic bust followed by an extraordinary recovery; it would be among the first to endure the horrors of the blitz; it would experience another, this time terminal, industrial decline; the terror of political and sectarian violence would return to stalk its streets; and with peace would come another economic and social revival as it was transformed in the late 1990s from a city of industry to one of trade and service, coming, in a way, full circle to what had sustained it in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The women with their dark shawls who appear in the first photograph of the collection, dated 1903, standing in front of the half-built City Hall, could not have foreseen the transformations that the new century would bring, but then who did? Certainly not the "experts." After all, it was they who declared that in the new century large-scale wars between European nations would become a thing of the past. World trade would ensure the triumph of peace and prosperity.

The Edwardian ostentation of the City Hall and the exuberant glitter of the music halls, then in full swing, hide the warrens of noxious back streets and festering alleys, such as those in Peter’s Hill. Shoeless children tended by shawled women with sunken cheeks peer at the camera from the doorways of small, dark houses. In the first decade of the 20th century, in back streets such as these, where the grime was thick between the cobblestones, deaths from typhoid were the highest of any city in the British Isles, and the tuberculosis rate was higher than that of Dublin.

What is startling is that there is another photograph of the same area, showing the same squalid, gas-lit, narrow streets, with a huddle of poor children, next to their mothers, gazing at the camera. The second one is dated 1961. Fifty years on, the people look somewhat fatter, and the children have shoes on their feet. But halfway through the 20th century, it is evident that many of Belfast’s citizens were still living in 19th century conditions.

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It was not until the following year that a massive rebuilding program began to provide the city with the 58,700 additional dwellings it required.

The images from the succeeding years tell their tale: women with parasols, wearing bonnets, long black skirts gaze down from Cave Hill over an untouched countryside, hay is still being made near Belfast Castle, and the Royal Alhambra is still one of the city’s most popular music halls. (My father brought me there years later when it had become a cinema. It was probably the only one with a bar in the theater.)

It is 1912 and the tugs are pictured taking the Titanic up Belfast Lough. The same year, Donegall Square is flooded with 100,000 Protestants eager to sign the Solemn League and Covenant committing them to resist Home Rule. Three years later, the first invalids from the Great War are pictured in a ward of the Royal Victoria Hospital. They are the fortunate ones.

Seen from the roof, the smoky street is filled with cloth-capped men, all clad in black, milling around not far from another mob. The year is 1920, and sectarian violence is claiming hundreds of lives. Two years later, a squad of Specials on a lorry drive from Gt. Victoria Street Station with a batch of IRA and Sinn Fein prisoners heading for the Crumlin Jail and internment without trial.

Royal Avenue 1928, crowded with trams and vintage motor cars, shoppers thronging the pavement, prosperous department stores and women for the first time in skirts that showed their legs in public, and wearing those little round hats made fashionable during the Roaring Twenties.

Four years later, a group of boys are being fed on tea and bread at the Belfast Central Mission as the official unemployment rate for the city hits 28 percent. Belfast had gone from boom to bust.

The photographs of the next decade show a city convulsed by war. Arnott’s Department store is a ball of flame. The date is May 4-5 1941, and the city has suffered its second major blitz. Entire blocks are smoking heaps of rubble. A car is caught disappearing down a huge crack in the street. A cot is glimpsed dangerously near the edge of a bedroom with the wall sheared off. (In these houses, nine died.) But thanks to the war, the economic boom came back to Belfast as the city’s shipbuilding works and factories turned out materials for the army, navy and air force.

Then come the images of the 1950s, trans-Atlantic in ways, as mass culture begins to take hold: the siffle group pictured could have been in the

Midwest or England.

A decade later, the trend continues — the hysterical young women at the Beatlse concert in November 1963 no longer look particularly Belfast. But one scene does: a well-dressed man perusing goods under the glass and metal roof of Smithfield, a treasure trove of old books, records, clocks, clothes, prints, musical instruments, and furniture. In 1973, it was burned to the ground in an arson attack.

The images from that decade are all too familiar — the Abercorn restaurant, McGurk’s Bar, and Bloody Friday, bits of burned flesh placed in plastic bags, sobbing women, stunned men.

The 1980s are represented by contrasting images: the masked gunmen firing a volley over the coffin of Bobby Sands, the punk-rockers in Cornmarket and the new-look Markets area, with its tree-lined streets of handsome Georgian-style houses. The grime is gone.

Come the 1990s, the Troubles will be gone too: Gerry Adams sits with John Hume, and President Clinton waves to a huge crowd in Donegall Square. The Lagan flows on, but now its waters reflect the bright lights from the Waterfront Hall. Commercial buzz has replaced the bombs.

The Belfast century comes to a close, and in a manner the old women in shawls would never have dreamed of.

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