Two very different books about Belfast

Belfast: Approach to Crisis, by Ian Budge and Cornelius O’Leary
Belfast: The Story of a City and its People, by Feargal Cochrane

I got hold of these two books in preparation for the lecture I gave in Belfast last month about the electoral history of the city, which you can watch here:

These are two very different books from very different times. The second paragraph of the third chapter of Belfast: Approach to Crisis is:

The cause of this increasing prosperity, the greatest that any Irish city has known, was twofold. First, the expansion of the linen industry which became fully mechanised between 1852 and 1862 with the rapid acceptance of the power loom.3 With the coming of the American Civil War Lancashire mills were starved of raw cotton and the Belfast mills soon found a new market for their high quality finished goods.4 The linen trade continued to expand until the 1870s,5 but while the labour force trebled between 1850 and 1875 (from 16,000 to 50,000), the proportion represented by adult male workers never exceeded one third.
3‘In 1852 there was only one power loom in Belfast. Ten years later there were 6,000.’ (Jones in Belfast, p. 109)
4The number of new buildings constructed annually between 1861 and 1864 ranged from 730 to 1,400 – thereby increasing the total valuation by about 20 per cent. (B.N.L., 2 January 1865.)
5The number of flax spindles in Ireland increased from 300,000 in 1850 to nearly 600,000 in 1860, and nearly one million by the end of the 1870s. This peak figure was never equalled – too much machinery had been installed for normal output, cf W. E. Coe, The Engineering Industry of the North of Ireland, pp. 60-61. In 1870 80 per cent of spindles and 70 per cent of power looms in the whole of Ireland were to be found in Belfast and its environs. D. L. Armstrong, ‘Social and Economic Conditions in the Belfast Linen Industry, 1850-1900’, Irish Historical Studies VII (September 1951), 238.

I don’t know Ian Budge (who is now 87) but I did know Cornelius O’Leary, an eccentric colleague of my father’s at the Queen’s University of Belfast, and this book represents good political analysis combined with very poor timing. It has two parts. The first half, more or less, is a survey of the political history of Belfast, paying special attention to the city council (known as the Corporation for most of the period), from the earliest days to the 1960s, when the book was written. I got a lot out of this (and plundered it extensively for my lecture last month).

Until 1832, Belfast was a pocket borough of the Chichester family, but the Great Reform Act opened up its politics to the mainly Presbyterian merchant classes. The first successful political organiser was a John Bates, who managed to combine the roles of main organiser for the Conservative Party (which won all the elections) with that of Town Clerk once the municipal council was reformed in the 1840s. He fell spectacularly from power in 1855 when he was exposed for diverting public funds by a public inquiry. I’d love to see some more about his story.

The book goes in detail through the next 110 years of political history, including a couple more times when the Corporation was suspended and the city was run by administrators. And the second half of the book gives the outputs of an exhaustive political survey of Belfast, including most of the councillors, and many of their supporters and voters in general, along with some comparative research on the attitudes of councillors in Glasgow. The data set is very rich.

The problem is that the research was largely carried out in 1966, and the city collapsed into chaos over the next couple of years, so that when the book first came out in 1973, it was a deep analysis of a political system that had already ceased to exist. The Belfast of 1973 was very different from the Belfast of 1966. The authors do look in depth into the questions of naming the new bridge and the Sunday swings issue, but compared with what happened over the next few years it all looks rather silly. (In fairness, a lot of people thought the swings issue looked rather silly in 1966.)

Really a book only for the most dedicated of Norn Iron politics nerds (and I am proud to count myself among that number). You can get it here.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Belfast: The Story of a City and its People is:

Some years ago a friend of the family who stayed with us for a few days proceeded to tell me all about the cranes as soon as they arrived and saw the painting. ‘Hey, nice painting!’ they exclaimed, breezing into the living room. ‘That’s David and Goliath in Belfast, you know.’ ‘No, it’s actually Samson and Goliath,’ I responded – politely but firmly. ‘No, I’m sure it’s David and Goliath,’ they ploughed on. ‘You should check it out.’ I walked out of the room, my face burning with indignation, muttering through clenched teeth not entirely sotto voce: ‘Well I lived under them for nearly two decades so I think I should know what they’re called!’ My partner, her laugh stifled by the fear of a meltdown at the beginning of a social visit, rapidly changed the subject to a less divisive one as I harrumphed upstairs. ‘So let’s talk about Brexit then…’ she said.

This on the other hand is a much more accessible book, rooted in Cochrane’s personal story of having grown up as a Catholic in a mixed but traditionally Protestant area of the city (as I did), reflecting on the early history of the city, where he is keen on the radical political tradition of the McCrackens, the Assembly Rooms (now dilapidated) and the Linen Hall Library (of which I was a Governor back in the mid-1990s), and also looking at culture – music, theatre, poetry, and other parts of the arts. I found the first part more engaging, the second feeling a bit too structured, but the information is all good, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about how it feels to be in or from Belfast. You can get it here.

If I can be excused a second video, this is the percussion section of the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra performing Scheherazade in 1985. I am the third percussionist in view, holding the tambourine. The CBYO is still going strong.

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