The Industrial City II
In the midst of Industrialisation, Belfast had little time to write
This plethora of societies, wherein the great and the good met to discuss literary and scientific enquiry, had one particularly famous adherent. Dr William Drennan was the man who had written the first declaration of the United Irishmen.
In 1815, Drennan published a collection of verse and prose, Fugitive Pieces, in which he coined the now ubiquitous synonym for Ireland ‘The Emerald Isle’.
'Arm of Erin prove strong, but be gentle as brave,
And, uplifted to strike, be ready to save,
Not one feeling of vengeance presume to defile
The cause of the men of the Emerald Isle.’
Robert Anderson, a pattern-drawer at the Mossley Mill, which is now in Newtownabbey, had a number of poems published in the local press.
Anthony Trollope, the famed English novelist, lived for a short time on the Lisburn Road whilst surveyor for the Post Office of the Northern Counties. As Jonathan Bardon points out, however, Belfast could hardly claim credit for his work after what was only a brief stay.
William Allingham and Sir Samuel Ferguson were two writers who both had an enormous influence on the Irish Revival later in the 19th century.
Allingham was born in Ballyshannon, Donegal, but was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and worked in Belfast’s Custom House for some of his career. His poetry was hugely popular in Victorian England where he eventually settled.
Ferguson came from an intriguing family, one of those who made up the membership of the societies of Belfast. Interestingly, his brother fought with Simon Bolivar in Latin America. Samuel, born at 23 High Street in 1810, however, distinguished himself in the field of poetry and translation.
Taught Irish by the Belfast scholar Patrick Lynch, Ferguson made a career in reclaiming the epic folk poems of Ireland. His writing, published mostly in Dublin, stimulated a tremendous interest in the cultural heritage of Ireland, which would in turn lead to the Celtic Revival of the late 19th century in which Belfast would, slowly, play its part.
At the turn of the 18th century a patriotic newspaper editor named Belfast ‘The Northern Athens’. As ludicrous as the sentiment appears now, it was an attempt to sum up the spirit of inquiry that existed in the city in the early 1800s.
The truth was that, in the 19th century, the city fathers who dreamed of building ships and the poor who had rushed from the country into the city to fill the jobs during Belfast’s industrial boom had little time for literature.
It is probably a piece of social documentary, Walks Among the Poor of Belfast, that is of the best writing of the 19th century. Written by The Reverend WM O’Hanlon in 1853 the following passage strikes at Belfast’s soul, as it was in the 19th century, with little time for dreaming or imagination.
‘It is indeed true that in this Northern Athens of ours, with its seat of learning, its collegiate and academic, its large and elegant temples of worship … is it true, that in this, one of the most flourishing, intellectual and (shall I add?) religious towns of the united empire, we have in our back lanes and alleys, an amount of wretchedness – physical, social and moral – which if not absolutely, is at least relatively, larger and more appalling than may probably be found beside, throughout the length and breadth of the land?’