Changing Times

Peter Smyth fails to confront the political inequalities that characterised our wee country during the 1950s

When Batchelor’s chicken noodle soup was introduced in 1951 it was described as ‘the most thrilling food news for years’, a potent reminder that war time rationing wasn’t abolished until 1954.

Going back to the beginning of the 1950s in Peter Smyth's new book Changing Times: Life in 1950s Northern Ireland, we are literally plunged into the dark ages. Most streets were still lit by gaslight and electricity had not reached the countryside.

There is the romance of long forgotten times when Belfast trams still ran, and steam trains thundered to Derry, Enniskillen and Newcastle while, the Fintona horse tram was still in operation. There were only 60,000 phones so the telegram, letter and postcard remained crucial to communication.

There were still 50,000 horses on Ulster farms and they remained a significant element in urban transport and outnumbered the 54,000 cars. In the home central heating and double glazing were almost unheard of, and very few households possessed a fridge.

For home entertainment we were still glued to the radio. It was only in 1950 that the Belfast Telegraph foreshadowed ‘an object… with an oblong glass eye forming most of one side’ – television was coming!

Yet the 1950s were the decade in which, at least in British terms, society passed from an age of austerity to times when Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, proclaimed, ‘You have never had it so good'.

That’s a thesis that Smyth broadly endorses, and he has mined newspapers and official records extensively in the course of doing so, though no references are given.

Such labour doesn’t guarantee liveliness and we certainly miss personal voices as we plough through a narrative that at times lacks clarity. Meanwhile the author’s own judgements often seem questionable.

He rightly recognises how the introduction of the welfare state ‘relieved the misery of thousands of the poorest members of society’, yet laments how ‘it also undermined the sense of self-reliance which had once held communities together’.

He attempts ‘to steer clear of the minefield that is Northern Ireland politics’, though he concedes that ‘it is impossible to do so'. Certainly if one is to advance a thesis that Northern Ireland modernised in the 1950s evidence of change, and in particular within the unionist leadership, would have been useful.

Smyth’s 1950s are then a blissful era in which there is no Orange Order and there are no contested parades. We are re-assured to find that decent ordinary crime continued at a modest level. The introduction of interment without trial in 1956, to deal with a new IRA campaign, is merely an exceptional factor requiring no further discussion.

The most obvious failure of the period was in the provision of social housing, and yet Smyth can offer no analysis of this. How far did it arise because of the needs of political gerrymandering, or because of a lack of finance and the social conservatism of government and local authorities?

In the field of education the restriction of government funding to the voluntary (Catholic) sector has been well rehearsed, but Smyth does well to remind us of the common support for the selective model, and the slow progress in providing decent intermediate schools for those who failed the 11-plus.

His handling of that other revolution, the arrival of the National Health Service, is perfunctory. Some of us may have continued to rely on Bile Beans to make ‘life worth living’, but surely there was more to it than that. From the mid 1950s onwards teenagers arrived, and, worse still, Teddy Boys. The moral panic in Northern Ireland seems to have taken a particularly exaggerated form.

Smyth surely gets one thing wrong – the hugely active film censorship committee in Derry was hardly made up of Nationalist councillors, when the council remained resolutely in Unionist hands. Dances were universally popular and especially in Limavady, where the Council banned jiving and jitterbugging because the Town Hall ceilings were cracking.

We are left with the question: did Northern Ireland advance step by step with Britain? At the beginning of the decade wages in Northern Ireland were 60% of those in Britain. They may have advanced to 70% during the decade, but progress was difficult to sustain.

Smyth rightly emphasises how far Northern Ireland in 1950 was a rural community dependent on farming, but, as one third of the farms were in the non-viable 1-15 acre category, there was a continued tide away from the land. Could industry take up the slack? Smyth simply fails to discuss it, beyond referring to the fanciful schemes of Harry Ferguson and then Cyril Lord to manufacture cars here.

In fact, there was a major downswing in the traditional industries in the late 1950s. Those losing their jobs were hardly taking to the air on new package holidays, an aspect of development that Smyth explores in some detail.

They were more likely to leave by the cross-channel ferries or with the help of assisted passages to Australia. In doing so they were leaving a community that could still boast of 350 chip shops in the year in which our first Chinese restaurant was licensed.