We’ve been in Belfast for nearly two months now and I’m afraid I’m getting almost fond of it. Don’t get me wrong, its bad press is well deserved. Even in mid-summer it’s rainy, surly, and redolent of chip oil. The badly painted paramilitary murals, the damp Victorian brick, the predominance of the word ‘wee’—it all gets to you after a while. Even the seagulls are abnormal. I’m from Dunedin, where gulls are unusually aggressive and screechy but even they don’t compare with these mussel-cracking hippogriffs, which are enormous and scream as if they are murderously angry at you personally. I don’t particularly like any of that. Nor did I appreciate the way a bystander completely ignored my bellyflop onto concrete earlier this week, even though it happened right next to him! I told him so too, haughtily thanking him for his concern as I winced away. And yet, the strange truth is that this city has a proud history of conscientious kindness totally at odds with its appearance and reputation. And that strain of humanity is still there, even if it’s not necessarily the first thing that you notice.
Possibly the main thing that struck me after moving here from Portland, Oregon, is that I haven’t yet seen anyone sleeping rough. In Portland, every riverbank and bridge and slope of highway is populated by human flotsam. Confined to rare public spaces, they subsist where they can forming a straggling alternative city along bike lanes and rivers, half-invisible until respectable people complain about their unsightly existence. Actually, in Vancouver, Auckland, Rome, Bueños Aires and London you also see people sleeping on the streets, the same official irritation with their despair. Maybe there is a tent city Belfast and I just haven’t seen it, I shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but it’s a noticeable difference for a visitor.
As you can see from the map, Belfast is bluntly divided into the four compass directions. The downtown area, fitting into the white D shape, is densely commercial, with the predictable global franchises, gift shops and a few prominent expensive sculptural reminders of the Good Friday Peace Agreement plonked down where tourists can’t miss them. This one, standing over the River Lagan, is ‘The Beacon of Hope’ by Andy Scott, otherwise known as ‘Nuala with the Hula’.
A little further along the river bank you see ‘The Big Fish’ by John Kindness, a representation of the Salmon of Knowledge bradán feasa, a figure of Irish legend that got smart by eating hazelnuts.
Then in Arthur Square, a popular spot for street preachers, we have ‘The Spirit of Belfast’ by Dan George. It is supposed to represent the twin industries of linen and ship-building on which the city was built, but locals call it ‘Onion Rings’.
The main shopping center, Victoria Square Shopping Center is topped with a dome that allegedly offers a 360-degree view of the city, though it has been closed for several months due to covid-19 precautions.
Despite these splashy and fairly unconvincing modernities, the great heart of Old Belfast remains in evidence, particularly in the narrow alleys known entries that connect the main streets. In the eighteenth century, when Belfast was known as ‘Linenopolis’, this area was packed with the people who worked in the factories, drank in the pubs and worshipped at various churches (Catholic, Anglican, Church of Ireland, Free Presbyterian…). According to many people, it was in the entries were where modern Belfast really began.
Joy’s Entry holds a particularly honored position as it is named for Henry Joy McCracken, a founding member of the remarkable Society of United Irishmen. Founded in 1798 and inspired by the French and American Revolutions and Scottish Enlightenment, this was a sworn society committed to equal representation of all men (no matter what their religion) in a national government. In doing this, they were rebelling against the British Crown’s policy of repressing and dispossessing Ireland’s Catholic majority. Interestingly, the Society of United Irishmen were almost all wealthy Presbyterians. Himself the son of two industrialist families, McCracken helped organize a nation-wide rebellion, for which he was swiftly arrested. In 1798, refusing to give up the names of other United Irishmen leaders, he was court martialled and hanged in Corn Market at the age of 30.
Henry Joy’s sister Mary Ann (1770-1866) was just as impressive. She fought all her life for political equality for women and for women’s rights in general. She campaigned for children’s welfare and for prison and social reform. Passionate about abolition, she refused to eat sugar and as an elderly woman stood on the docks at Belfast Harbor handing out pamphlets detailing the evils of slavery. As the co-owner of a Muslin factory, she refused to lay off staff during an economic downturn, preferring to eat the costs herself because she knew the workers had nowhere else to go.
Thomas McCabe (1739-1820), another member of the Society of United Urishmen, was also a strong proponent of abolition. He opposed the plans of Waddell Cunningham, the founding President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and owner of sugar estates in the West Indies, who wished to form a slave-trading company based in Belfast. In 1786, when Cunningham held a meeting in the Exchange to establish the Belfast Slave-Ship company, McCabe walked there from his shop and made a fiery speech, famously declaring, “May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man who will sign that document.” And he had enough influence to sink the venture before it began.
Speaking of local heroes, almost daily I pass by a Victorian-era water fountain erected by public subscription to the memory of Francis Anderson Calder (1787-1855). Although he was a Commander of the Royal Navy and saw some ‘warm conflicts’ , that’s not why the city built a funny-shaped fountain to his memory. His real claim to fame is his involvement in the Belfast Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Thanks to his efforts, water troughs were built throughout the city for the refreshment of horses, a measure that was later adopted throughout the United Kingdom.
Finally, a taxi driver wised me up to Professor Frank Pantridge. I was in the taxi on my way to the dentist saying (lying) that I didn’t know anything about Belfast. Helpfully my driver (who coincidentally had the same dentist) explained that this was the home of Van Morrison, C.S. Lewis, George Best, the Titanic and Defibrillator.
“Is that a band?” I asked.
“No, the defibrillator,” he explained helpfully and left it at that.
After some research, I have divined that Professor Frank Pantridge did not actually invent the defibrillator, but he did come up with the idea of making a portable version that could be used as soon as possible after a cardiac arrest, when it would be most effective. The first version, which was able to run off a car’s batteries, was produced in 1965.
The funny thing is, this is not even the most remarkable thing about Pantridge’s life. As it happens, he was a Prisoner of War in World War II and was forced to work on the Burmese/Thailand railway. He developed a severe thiamin deficiency called beriberi and was extremely weak on his return to Belfast. In spite of this, he managed to complete his medical degree and to study the heart, partly motivated by his own experience of beriberi, which (among other nasty things) weakens the cardiac system. Thanks to him, we have a piece of equipment that has saved thousands of lives.
I guess the point of this post is that a lot of great people have lived here. The next time Belfast’s rain gets up my nose, I will clench my teeth, look to the sky and murmur the names of these five paragons of the Prickly City, “Henry, Mary Ann, Thomas, Francis and Frank, remembered be thy names!”