Hidden Belfast

A flawed but elegant companion to worthier volumes, writes John Gray

Hidden Belfast: Benevolence, Blackguards and Balloon Heads is a companion volume to Mercier’s Hidden Dublin and Hidden Cork. For locals it must call to mind Cathal O’Byrne’s enduringly popular As I Roved Out, first published in 1946 and subsequently reprinted by Blackstaff Press. The format is similar, offering tasty snippets of no more than five pages, and without claims to systematic history.

O’Byrne was a consummate storyteller, and to those who have enjoyed tours of our historic First Presbyterian Church with O’Regan (and it deservedly features here) hopes must be high. Yes, we find our Chichesters and Donegalls, our Sovereigns, clergy, merchants, inventors, and writers. We explore our castles, our benevolent institutions, and the less benevolent ones such as the House of Correction. There are pieces on our early infrastructure; our customs house, our gas works, our graveyards, our hospitals, the postal service, schools, and the water supply.

Presbyterian vicissitudes feature strongly, most colourfully when an arresting party failed to find the Rev. John McBride and slashed his portrait instead, as can still be seen in the First Presbyterian Church. Radicals and United Irishmen earn their place, though this is already a well tilled field. So also does Henry Cooke, the most influential Presbyterian in setting his flock on a very different and more loyal course in the 19th century. The sectarian riots of 1864 are covered, though not the even more serious ones of 1886.

Industrial triumphs are a must, starting with the essentials of cotton and linen. The colossal output of our distilleries was news to me and their collapse is left as something of a mystery – I was not aware that the thirst had left us!

Inevitably we major here on the shipyards, from Ritchie’s dock to Harland and Wolff. The Titanic is centre stage on the eve of the centenary of its sinking. Belfast patriots will be relieved to hear that it was not our fault. As a reminder that all was not perfection in the Edwardian industrial city, the mill workers strike of 1911 features.

Claims for Belfast’s benevolent record are hardly ‘hidden history’, as we have tended to make much of it. In a book like this, one is hoping to hear more of the ‘blackguards and balloon heads’, or at least the downright quirky. Belle Martin, the informer who betrayed the United Irishmen, certainly qualifies, and is the only woman to earn her own section. In this respect Mary Anne McCracken could have offered a very different and more virtuous focus. Edward May is deservedly ‘infamous’, but otherwise worthiness largely prevails.

I prefer the description of how United Irishman and poet, William Drennan, woke up to find his head on fire – the tassel on his night cap had caught light, to the news that Alexander Carlisle was awarded a gold watch for unbroken attendance as a Harland and Wolff apprentice!

Too many stories tend to be overburdened by the lumber of family origins and detailed funeral arrangements. Institutional history too can be dry and miss the main dramas, thus in telling us of our water supply O’Regan doesn’t make use of the moment when it finally dried up in the ‘water famine’ of 1865.

Some descriptions seem inadequate or odd. What does O’Regan mean when he describes the town’s real founder, Sir Arthur Chichester, as ‘colourful’? Perhaps it applies to his career as an English military adventurer before his arrival in Ireland. How might it apply to his savage extermination of the Irish in the environs of Belfast? It is curious to suggest that William Pirrie, arguably the single most important figure in the history of Harland and Wolff, is relatively unknown.

We miss points of real interest, thus William Hamilton Drummond indeed made his name with his patriotic poem 'The Battle of Trafalgar' (1806), but we are not told that he was redeeming himself from earlier United Irish associations. O’Regan is good on Henry Cooke, but does not notice that the erection of his statue in place of that of the Earl of Belfast symbolised the victory of Conservatism and Orangeism over the old Whig elite.

All this is very 19th century, and, like O’Byrne, O’Regan can’t carry us beyond the Edwardian era. I know that we are still transfixed by the roseate hue of our hey-day, but in 2010 we should be able to explore beyond it. Yet there is much here to dip in and out of with pleasure and interest. Hidden Belfast is elegantly produced and illustrated and will make a good Christmas present for natives and exiles alike.

Hidden Belfast: Benevolence, Blackguards and Balloon Heads is published by Mercier Press.