The Secret Country Life of Belfast

Martin Mooney presents a very different view of the nature of Belfast

All places have a self-image, a vision of themselves that their inhabitants collectively create, revise and reproduce. The rich and the poor, establishment and the marginal, powerful and powerless, each articulate their predicament or justify their position of strength with versions of the same myths.

Dominating Belfast’s self-image are the symbols of manufacturing and engineering greatness. As the Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s website has it, Belfast is ‘the engine-room that drove the whirring wheels of the industrial revolution in Ulster.’

Nevertheless, there is another ‘heritage’, a suppressed id to the superego of the industrial past. It is, perhaps perversely, possible to see the ‘city’ as instead a rural town. It may even be that by doing so, by trying to put the industrial past in its place, we can see more clearly through the mythologizing of the political and commercial forces currently re-shaping the social and physical fabric of the city.

Think about linen. The crop that first secured Belfast’s industrial identity at the same time linked the red brick streets to their agricultural hinterland, the factory workers to the agricultural labourers – their ancestors by a generation or two, and probably still their cousins and second cousins. And of course that archetypal red brick is itself simply the baked form of the clayey loam on which much of the city stands.

The cover of the Blackstaff Press 1995 hardback edition of Jonathan Bardon’s Belfast: An Illustrated History reproduces a 1908 painting (Flax-pullers by R Ponsonby-Staples) where the Edwardian city is little more than a shallow smoky crust formed on the coast of the lough, itself a slender interruption in the rural landscape stretching between the sturdy agricultural beauty in the foreground to the louring mass of Cave Hill far beyond.

The ‘streets, end on to hills’ observed by Philip Larkin in his poem The Importance of Elsewhere, have for more than a century now marked Belfast for natives and visitors alike. It is a common, if not a trite, observation that, however urban the fabric of the city, the countryside is never more than a brief drive or walk away.

From almost anywhere in the city centre, you can see one or more of Cave Hill, the Black Mountain, Divis, the Castlereagh hills, the white smoke of gorse fires scarfing along the crests. (Gorse Fires is the title of a collection by Belfast-born poet Michael Longley, whose ‘nature poems’, while most often set in the west of Ireland, subliminally remind us of a countryside supplanted by yet quietly subversive of the urban environment.)

The Belfast Hills Partnership recently secured land in this horseshoe of high ground above the city (from the British Ministry of Defence, in large part – one uncomplicated win-win tranche of the ‘peace dividend’ at least). And from the perspective of McArt’s Fort, with its psycho-geographical taproots into the pre-industrial and indeed prehistorical past, you see Belfast for what it remains: a small human settlement surrounded by the countryside and shaped by its surroundings.

But it is not simply that the city as we know it today is less than a hundred years old: the city as we know it is brand new, its outlying districts and suburbs extremely recent impositions on agricultural or semi-natural land whose geographical character – and the social and cultural structures of its inhabitants – actively continue to shape the nature of the town.

In living memory, there were cattle drives down Templemore Avenue, heading for the Albertbridge road’s rail depot and the markets – mooing stinking yards with a faint afterlife in the designer farmers’ markets of today. The sea crossing to Ardrossan in Scotland was until the 70s made by cattle boat. All this recalls the ancestral shambles of Hercules Street, and the seventeenth and eighteenth-century ordinances that forbade (obviously in vain) the fouling of the streets of the town with offal and dung.

Development agencies may use the phrase ‘urban renewal’, but you might argue that what’s really going on is a struggle against the countryside. And nature struggles back, though pushed to the parks and the coastal margins.

Belfast Lough is an Area of Special Scientific Interest, Important Bird Area. The Lagan estuary is temporary home to wintering populations of bar-tailed and black-tailed godwits, curlew, oystercatcher, redshank, turnstone, scaup, goldeneye and great-crested grebe. In the lagoons of Kinnegar you’ll find roosting waders, passage migrants, dabbling duck, buff-breasted sandpiper, long-billed dowitcher, and the black-winged stilt.

Stretched out on wither side of the Lough lies Belfast the village. That’s a casual cliché, but work in any sector of the urban economy and you’ll be at the very least acquainted with everyone else who shares your trade. Literary life, in particular, has always been cramped, if not incestuous. You could say that even understood in urban terms, Belfast is not in fact a city at all, but a conglomeration of villages (of course, one district actually is called The Village) sharing a living space but barely on speaking terms, like a couple staying together for the sake of the children.

Examples of these villages include: the university area; ‘leafy’ Malone; ‘nationalist west Belfast’, with its self-conscious exceptionalism and its inferiority complex; or Ardoyne, known to locals as simply ‘the District’. And often the villages identify not with areas but with single streets: the Newtownards Road, the Short Strand, Sandy Row (originally a detached settlement, barely a hamlet): places that lead elsewhere or exist even now in and for themselves and only marginally involved in the greater urban whole.

And this discontinuity is reflected in the population itself. The people of Belfast aren’t a homogenous citizenry at home in their small metropolis, but a series of separate groups, teams or clans, almost. Their allegiance to the city is tenuous. Think of the students coming every year from the country still, crowding the Holy Land (another self-contained and aggressively self-identifying district) like peasant farmers driven from the land.

Historically, the demographics of Belfast were formed by discrete waves of Protestant and Catholic country people more or less driven or dragged from the agricultural hinterland, thrown to the urban cauldron by famine or less brutal, but still inexorable economic and social forces. Belfast’s sectarian geography is in and of itself a rural phenomenon translated into urban terms.

Linguistically also those population shifts left their mark: Belfast lies physically constrained by Ulster Scots speaking areas to the north and south. Consequently the speech of Belfast contains numerous vocabulary, grammar and syntactical features of Scots origin brought to the city by nineteenth and twentieth century incomers from Down and Antrim.

What distinguishes a city, though, what sets it apart from rural towns, is the question of sustainability. And as Fred Boal, from Queen's University’s Geography Department, points out (in Shaping a City. Belfast in the late Twentieth Century) each year Belfast imports 2m tonnes of fuel, 50m tonnes of water, 795,000 tonnes of food, and 110,000 tonnes of paper (don’t print out this article!).

In return, the city ‘exports’ 375,000 tonnes of sewage sludge, 3m tonnes of CO2, and 121,000 tonnes of household waste. It would take more than 577,000 hectares of farmland to supply the city’s food needs. That is, the people of Belfast need an area 50 times bigger than the city to keep them in existence, nearly the total area of Northern Ireland.

So Belfast, the city, may be simply unsustainable, sucking in resources from the countryside around it. In a sense, all of Northern Ireland is Belfast’s hinterland, and all towns are country satellites of the middling post-industrial metropolitan area on its eastern flank. So the next time someone – the Tourist Board, the Laganside Corporation, some Council politico – presents as unquestionably worthy our great industrial past and its incorporation into some new model of urban living, remind them that we’re a village too and, whether we know it or not, are living off the land.

By Martin Mooney
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation