Belfast 400: People, Place and History

Read an extract from the glossy new history and discover how visual artists, playwrights and authors depicted the city up until the 1960s  

In 1932 Sir Robert Baird, proprietor of the Belfast Telegraph, presented Belfast Corporation with a painting that he had commissioned from the artist William Conor. 'Ulster Past and Present' (partially shown above and in full below) depicted a line of warriors with cloaks, shields and spears marching towards a centrally placed dolmen, while beyond it industrial workers in shawls and flat caps passed under the shadow of a shipyard crane, against a background of factory chimneys.

At first sight this was a striking challenge to the short-term perspective on Belfast’s origins proclaimed by Henry Cooke in 1841 and implicitly accepted by [artist J.W.] Carey and others. By this time, however, several decades of Unionist writing had established the notion that early historic Ulster had already been a separate region, defending itself against the incursions of the Gaelic south. In this new perspective it became acceptable to show the world of Cú Chulainn as metamorphosing over time into that of Harland and Wolff.

A second significant feature of Conor’s painting is that this successful marriage of the ancient past and the industrial present was achieved just at the time when that present too was about to pass into history. As Belfast’s industrial pre-eminence began to fade, its place in the developing iconography of the new Northern Ireland became less certain. Friezes commissioned by the government for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924, and the Glasgow Empire Exhibition in 1938, included representations of shipbuilding, linen and tobacco. But these sat beside images of rural and seaside Ulster, intended to promote Northern Ireland as a holiday destination.

The guides produced from 1927 by the Ulster Tourist Development Association likewise depicted a rural pastoral idyll, offering golf and an unspoilt landscape to potential visitors. Belfast as a significant port was also one of the principal features of the Ulster Tourist Development Agency’s Ulster guides in the 1930s: ‘Belfast is Ulster’s ocean gateway.’

In tourist and advertising posters there was little, apart from varieties in the depiction of the landscape, to distinguish images of Northern Ireland from those of the Irish Free State. There were few illustrations of Belfast per se, and even fewer references to its industrial character. Where such images emerge or are hinted at, as in Norman Wilkinson’s portrayal of industrial Belfast’s busy port, they were sanitized depictions of a harbour in which no one seemed to work.

John Luke City Hall mural


Alongside such cosmetic images, one further visual representation of the city stands out. This was John Luke’s mural for the City Hall (above), commissioned to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951. Luke had earlier contributed Belfast-inspired images to the 1938 exhibition, offering highly stylized depictions of men and women engaged in industrial work. His 1951 mural had the same consciously artificial quality, allowing him through a representation of the distant past to remind the viewer of those industries that had until recently made Belfast great.

He himself claimed that he had begun by thinking of the linen industry, and from that had passed on to the granting of the town’s first charter in 1613. The finished mural thus has at its centre the figure of Sir Arthur Chichester, reading the charter to an audience of townspeople beneath a clearly recognizable Cave Hill. The emblems of later development, a spinning wheel and a partially completed wooden ship, are placed on either side.

A foreshortened history thus links Belfast’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century industrial growth to its plantation origins more than two centuries earlier. The Elizabethan military costumes of the central figures also link the town’s origins to the world of Sir Francis Drake and the foundation of the first British Empire. From another point of view, the poet John Hewitt, writing thirty years later, felt that the ‘simple, rather sober, admittedly static’ style of the painting was also part of its appeal as a depiction of Belfast, ‘for we are not a mercurial, Mediterranean people’.

In 1961 Luke received another commission: to create a mural for the then Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education (BIFHE) at Millfield (now Belfast Metropolitan College). This time what he chose to depict was an industrial, technologically advancing city. Part of the mural, for instance, represented the structure of an atom, while the dominant foreground image was of a large piston turbine, and cranes, new bridges and liners filled the landscape.


Particular images, such as shipbuilding and the presence of Belfast’s workers, echoed Luke’s City Hall mural. In the new work, however, these were not principally manual workers (who have a ghostly presence as unfinished builders) but architects and technicians overseeing machines. The rope making and flax spinning depicted in the City Hall were replaced by the construction industry – the skeleton of scaffolding frames one side of the mural – and transport (there is an early image of Concorde, as well as an incomplete Ulster bus). The City Hall provided a distant backdrop but was dwarfed by a skyscraper.

In 1951 the City Hall mural looked to the past, and Belfast’s foundation story. The BIFHE mural, in progress throughout the 1960s, was future orientated, speaking to viewers of a modern age. It was the piece of art that dominated the rest of Luke’s life, but was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1975. Its fate in some ways mirrored that of the city, whose development ground to a halt in the face of civil unrest.

If traditional artists made only sporadic attempts to depict the changing Belfast of the post-war years, new media had meanwhile become available. The BBC established a station in Belfast in 1924; given the limits of its transmission range, its listeners were largely the population of Greater Belfast. Radio was hugely popular in the city. By 1945 Northern Ireland had 150,000 licence holders, as well as an unknown number of unlicensed sets.

By 1955 the number of licences had risen to 220,000. It is perhaps in broadcasting that Belfast popularly articulated its gritty urban character in the interwar and post-war period. BBC Northern Ireland produced and broadcast some seventy kitchen comedy dramas in the 1930s, many reflecting a Belfast identity through dialect. The post-war embracing of a new regionalist policy meant employing more staff from Northern Ireland in an organization dominated by English and Scottish personnel.

Following the war Andrew Stewart, its director, instructed his staff to cultivate their own garden. This allowed for the commissioning and broadcast in 1948 of Joseph Tomelty’s radio drama The McCooeys, depicting a Belfast family and set in a terrace ‘kitchen house’. Carefully neither Protestant nor Catholic but distinctly reflecting urban Belfast, it ran successfully for seven years. Also of note was the poet W.R. Rodgers’ portrait of his childhood in Belfast, broadcast in 1955 as The Return Room, ‘probably one of the finest feature programmes devised in Northern Ireland after the war’.

Through it Rodgers described his puritan upbringing: ‘Gay goes up and grim comes down. The Puritan pepper and salt, if it looked like granite tasted like drama. It had two sides to it. Everything in Belfast had two sides.’

In literary fiction Brian Moore’s Judith Hearne (1955) offered a vivid depiction of post-war Belfast as a deeply provincial city locked in gloomy stasis. (Moore himself had emigrated to Canada in 1948.) But it was left to a later generation of Belfast writers, emerging in the 1980s and 90s, to articulate the city’s experience in the 1960s and after, and indeed to establish Belfast as ‘a place of contemporary urban experience’ in fiction.

Belfast 400: People, Place and History is out now, published by Liverpool University Press supported by Queen’s University Belfast and Belfast City Council. The book was written by a collection of experts led by Professor Sean Connolly from the School of History and Anthropology at Queen's University.

'Ulster Past and Present'