Belfast The Emerging City

15 academics explain the city's rise to industrial prominence, but author Glenn Patterson's contribution wins out

Belfast: The Emerging Cityy 1850-1914, a collection of essays edited by Queen's University professor Olwen Purdue, appears just in time for yet another centenary, or rather the quadricentennial of the granting of Belfast’s charter in 1613.

In the most imaginative essay here, by Brian Lambkin and others on migration, they take as their starting point John Luke’s vivid 1951 mural in the dome of the City Hall, featuring that founding frontier moment.

In the town’s subsequent trajectory there is no question that the era of breakneck expansion from 1850-1914 was the crucial one, and yet it remains something of a conundrum as to why Belfast became the fastest growing city in the British Isles and eventually outpaced Dublin.

Again Lambkin and friends capture the dynamic by seeing an analogy between Belfast’s development and that of emerging American cities in the mid-West. Once again we are on the frontier and speaking of raw, sometimes brutal societies, seizing economic opportunities as they came to hand.

A fine array of 15 academics, both established and emerging, are on hand here to help us explore further. Yet there are limitations: the book relies on papers from a 2010 conference rather than the more directed editorial approach of Belfast: the Making of the City (1983).

So here we start with an apologia; this book does not cover ‘poverty and welfare, philanthropy, crime, labour and leisure’. Even more glaringly it evades sectarian violence, and after all in this respect too Belfast was outpacing all other British cities.

There is only one essay on our industrial triumphs. Aiken and Royle’s essay on ‘Linenopolis’, which is given lead position, is hugely disappointing.

It can be no surprise to learn that linen manufacturers wanted improved postal and telephone services and kept a close eye on economic developments in their key markets. The key question remains unanswered: how did Belfast achieve its world-wide dominance in linen?

By contrast Sean Connolly provides a workmanlike study of the governance of Belfast, including the transition from the aristocratic power of the Donegalls, who even stole from the poor box, to democratic local government from 1842 onwards.

He offers fair judgement on the Conservatives who soon came to dominate local politics – that they were pragmatic and interventionist in seeking to improve the infrastructure of the town. Yet he does not fall for John Bew’s thesis that they were simply progressive Conservatives in an English mode – their embrace of exclusive and sectarian politics was a key distinction.

Connolly might have made more of the disaster that befell them when the maverick one time Young Irelander, John Rea, successfully took them to court for misappropriation of funds in 1855, and the consequent freezing of all development for a decade.

Nor does he explore the differences between the new Conservative elite and the Liberals, or fully account for the failure of the latter. Temporary beneficiaries of the Rea triumph, they were often laissez-faire opponents of public investment.

Later in the period the once again dominant Conservatives cleared the way for Royal Avenue, municipalised the gasworks and tramways, and paid for the City Hall with the profits. Yet as Connolly points out their record on public health, water supply, sewerage, and slum clearance was dismal. He should have added education, where lack of provision was a late Edwardian scandal.

The adornment of the city was primarily a matter of private enterprise. For Robert Young the town was starting from ground zero in the 1840s as ‘an awful shabby second rate place compared to Glasgow’.

As Paul Herron usefully relates, Young helped change all that as a partner in Young and Mackenzie, who designed many of the city’s most notable commercial buildings, including Robinson and Cleaver’s. Catholics too had their architectural aspirations as Caroline McGee explores at Clonard.

What of culture? The focus here is purely on elite interests. Ruth Bayles doesn’t quite make a case for the unique importance of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, while Pamela Emerson’s essay on the Belfast Reading Club, an obscure north Belfast coterie, is best left as a very small footnote in our experience.

The essay ‘Travel and Tourism in Nineteenth-Century Belfast’ by Éadaoin Agnew does its best for a city which was a point of transit rather than a tourist destination in its own right. He finds the obvious guide books and tries uneasily to fit his narrative into the ‘colonial’ discourse of Irish travel literature generally.

We do have plenty on population statistics though, in essays by Liam Kennedy and others, including Lesley Donaldson, but we see too much of the engine room of statistical analysis without reaching mould breaking conclusions.

Again I prefer Lambkin and friends, from whom I take one useful insight – that the decline in the Catholic proportion of the city’s population in the latter part of the period can principally be explained because inward migration to the city stemmed increasingly from the predominately Protestant neighbouring counties of Antrim and Down.

Those wishing to restore their zest for such explorations should turn to the one non-academic contribution, Glenn Patterson’s essay describing how he teased out the factual basis for his novel The Mill for Grinding Old People Young (2012, see video below).

Belfast: The Emerging City 1850-1914 is out now, published by the Irish Academic Press.