History, Modern, Travel

Would You Like to Go to Phoenix Park?

Thunder and lightning is no lark
When Dublin City is in the dark.
So if you have any money go up to the park
And view the zoological gardens.

“The Zoological Gardens”, lyrics by Dominic Behan

We’ve been in Dublin for a couple of weeks and one of the biggest surprises has been the massive green space close to the city, Phoenix Park (the name is an anglicization of fionn uisce, which means ‘clear water’). It’s a patch of land whose history mirrors that of Ireland itself, in the sense that it has passed from one ruling party to another and retains the scars of battle and souvenirs of different eras. Like a phoenix, it has repeatedly risen from the ashes.

Some idea of the size of the park

In the twelfth century, Anglo Normans started getting an eye for Irish real estate. This all started when the King of Leinster Diarmait Mac Murchada was dispossessed of his kingdom and called for some outside help. The one who answered the call was Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (now popularly known as ‘Strongbow’). Together, they raised a large army and got the the kingdom back. Diarmat died shortly afterwards, probably of grief, and Strongbow lost no time in claiming the kingship for himself, much to the displeasure of both the Gaelic kings and Henry II. Henry invaded Ireland and brokered the Treaty of Windsor, which stated he would become overlord of all existing Norman territory within Ireland and Rory O’Connor would be High-King of all the rest. Unfortunately for Rory, and for the Gaels, the Normans interpreted this as a bit of a free for all, their territory expanded rapidly, and by the mid-thirteenth century, Ireland looked like this:

Stormin’ Normans. Map taken from here

So how does the Park come in? Well, after the invasion, the Norman knights who’d helped Henry received land and titles as a reward. Hugh Tyrell was one of these and he received land later known as Castleknock, gifting the area that is now Phoenix Park to the Knights Templar. They built the Abbey of St. Brigid’s on the ground and held it until 1308, when Edward II had the order condemned and suppressed (probably under the influence of his father-in-law Philip IV of France). The land and abbey subsequently passed to the Knights Hospitaller, who kept it until Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-sixteenth century. The land went the king’s representatives in Ireland.

James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, by William Wissing

When the Irish Rebellion of 1641 broke out, one James Butler was chosen as commander of the Royal Irish Army, charged with defending Dublin from local Catholics who wanted self-rule and an end to anti-Catholic discrimination. A staunch Royalist in the ensuing English Civil War and Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland, Butler lost his troops and went into exile with Charles II and lived with him and his retinue in Paris. After the Restoration, Butler was made Duke of Ormond in the Irish peerage and recovered his extensive estates in Ireland. In 1662, the Duke of Ormond established a royal hunting park, stuffing it full of deer and pheasants so that it required a wall to keep them in. Fallow deer are there to this day, wandering about, though I haven’t seen any pheasants.

Incidentally but entertainingly, in 1680 the Duke of Ormond was kidnapped by a bravo named Thomas Blood, the same ruffian who tried to steal the Crown jewels the following year. Ormonde escaped in the nick of time before being lynched. Blood, meanwhile, was inexplicably pardoned for both outrages. John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, wrote a scurrilous poem about it:

Blood, that wears treason in his face,
Villain complete in parson's gown,
How much he is at court in grace
For stealing Ormond and the crown!
Since loyalty does no man good,
Let's steal the King, and outdo Blood!


The park was opened up to the public in 1745 by Lord Chesterfield (1699-1773), during his eight-month viceroyalty in Ireland. Chesterfield is probably best known as the author of Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (1774). These were collected and published by his son’s impoverished widow, Eugenia Stanhope, after Lord Chesterfield unkindly left her out of his will. Samuel Johnson was scathing on the subject of the letters, saying “they teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master.”

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield

Well, notwithstanding his dubious literary legacy, Chesterfield left a lasting memento of himself in the park itself and in the neo-classical monument of a Phoenix on top of a Corinthian column. This now stands in the middle of a roundabout in the road that runs through the park.

Decimus Burton

When the nineteenth century rolled around, the park was getting a little dishevelled. The man hired to give it a makeover was one Decimus Burton, famous as the architect of a large number of Victorian public projects including Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, St. James’s Park and the seaside resort of Queenstown. Not only did he redesign Phoenix Park, but he was also the architect of Dublin Zoo, which still stands today.

Escapee elephant in Phoenix Park, 2002

Part of the spruce up involved putting a honking great obelisk on the grounds, a testimonial to the achievements of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, particularly his achievement in defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. At 62 meters high, it is the tallest obelisk in Europe and was funded by public subscription. This is kind of ironic because although Wellington was born in Dublin, he considered himself British and despised the Irish.

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, by Goya (1812–14). This painting was stolen from the National Gallery in London in 1961. Five years later, elderly pensioner Kempton Bunton confessed to the crime.

The mid-nineteenth century was pretty busy for Ireland. Great Britain’s laissez-faire, not to say brutally callous, attitude to the Great Famine of 1845-49 increased Irish desire for Home Rule and calls for an end to the vampirical system in which absentee landlords profited from the labor of tenant farmers. When these farmers, who often lived at subsistence level, could not afford to pay rent, they were generally evicted. One of the most effective advocates for land reform and Home Rule was Charles Stewart Parnell. In 1879, at a time when popular anger was growing, Parnell was elected president of the Irish National Land League. Over the next year both evictions and retaliatory violence against landlords and enforcers increased. On October 13 1881, Parnell and his colleagues were arrested and imprisoned in Kilmainham jail in Dublin under ‘reasonable suspicion’ for inciting violence. Together they issued the No Rent Manifesto, a fiery call to tenant farmers “to pay no rents under any circumstances to their landlords until Government relinquishes the existing system of terrorism and restores the constitutional rights of the people”. He was released on May 6, 1882 after signing the Kilmainham Treaty, in which he agreed to withdraw the manifesto and discourage agrarian crime provided that the Government would allow 100,000 tenants to appeal for fair rent before the land courts.

Charles Stewart Parnell

Only four days after Parnell’s release, there was a politically motivated fatal stabbing at Phoenix Park. The victims were Chief Secretary of Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and Permanent Undersecretary Thomas Henry Burke. Parnell was shocked. He offered to resign his position as MP and made a speech condemning the murders. As it turned out the killers were Joe Brady and Tim Kelly, members of the Irish National Invincibles, a militant breakaway movement. They got away in a cab driven by James Fitzharris, nicknamed Skin-the-Goat, and subsequently fled to the US. In the end, the incident allowed Parnell to make a break from more radical elements in the Land League and so to increase his political influence.

Memorial to the victims in Phoenix Park

Another feature of this park is the magazine store, a military fort built in 1735, when the country was quite poor, which prompted Jonathan Swift to write a satirical ditty about it:

Now’s here’s a proof of Irish sense,
Here Irish wit is seen,
When nothing’s left that’s worth defence,
We build a Magazine.

This fort was kept in use for 250 years and was raided twice. The first time was during the Easter Rising in 1916, when members of Fianna Éirann unsuccessfully tried to blow it up. The second was on December 23, 1939, when IRA members took weapons and more than one million rounds of ammunition. The materiel was recovered shortly afterwards. Since 1988 it has been owned by the Office of Public Works.

The fort from a path

Probably the most notable thing to have happened at the park in the last fifty years is the visit of Pope John Paul II in September 1979, the first ever visit to Ireland by any Pope. He helicoptered in to Phoenix Park and celebrated mass with 1,250,000 people–one third of the country’s population at the time. His visit came at the height of the Troubles and he had wanted to visit Armagh but they were having a particularly violent year of it. Such was the importance of the occasion, that nine months later the country had a baby boom–people born around July 1980 are still called the Pope’s Children.

A crowd gathers in Phoenix Park to celebrate mass under Pope John Paul II

The Papal Cross erected for the mass still stands in the park. The simple white cross stands 116 feet high. Something about the scene, with the graceful deer and trees and mist (and cars). I found it quite affecting, it reminded me of old poems like “The Dream of the Rood:

Many years have gone–yet still I have it in remembrance–since I was felled upon a forest’s edge and wakened from my slumbers. Strange foes seized hold on me and wrought me to a pageant and bade me lift aloft their wretched men. Men bore me on their shoulders, till that they set me on a hill; enough of foes, forsooth, fastened me there. Then I beheld the Lord of men hasting with mighty, steadfast heart, for He would fain ascend upon me. Yet might I not bow down nor break, against the world of God, what time I saw the compass of the earth tremble and shake. All those foes might I lay low; yet firm I stood.

I had a few more things I was going to say but it’s soo late so here are just a few more pictures.

History, Modern, Travel

Me and You and SARS-CoV-2: A Year in Review

Historians will look back at 2020 with the same fascination as arborists looking at one of those tree-ring anomalies that signal something cataclysmic—a wildfire, a rare atmospheric event, a rampant disease. It is something grandchildren are likely to ask their elders about and that people will build unwieldy monuments to. So for this week’s post I thought I’d do something I’ve been avoiding for a whole year, which is to talk about the pandemic and the year we’ve all just scraped through. Thinking about the virus and virus-related events tends to inspire feelings of dread, denial, depression, anxiety, shock, anger, grief and dislocation, so I try to ignore it as much as possible. On the other hand, sometimes looking at things squarely can have a bracing effect, and somehow it’s easier to think about now that some vaccines are ready, so here goes.

December 2019: Wuhan & the Tsunami Omen

It is believed to have started in Hubei Province. Some studies show that people in Lombardy, Italy, had it as early as September but it wasn’t until the final days of December 2019 that anyone recognized the virus as something new. On December 26, an elderly couple visited a Wuhan hospital complaining of fever, coughing and fatigue. The next day, examining their CT scans, Dr. Zhang Jixian noticed features different from flu or common pneumonia. Zhang had worked as a medical expert during the 2003 SARS outbreak and was alive to the possibility of another epidemic. She ordered tests that confirmed the couple’s illness was a viral infection but not influenza. She ordered a CT scan for their healthy-seeming son; sure enough, his lungs were similarly affected. Another patient showed the same signs. Zhang filed a report to the hospital directors declaring the discovery of a viral disease that was probably infectious.

WUHAN, April 16, 2020 (Xinhua) — Zhang Jixian, director of the respiratory and critical care medicine department of Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, receives an interview at the hospital in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, March 2, 2020. (Xinhua/Shen Bohan)

By the end of the 2019, Wuhan was on high alert. On December 31, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission released a briefing on its website about early signs of a pneumonia outbreak in the city. It advised the public to seek hospital care when having persistent fever while showing signs of pneumonia, and to wear face masks and avoid enclosed public places and crowded areas. Meanwhile, Zhang instructed her staff to wear face masks at all times and to take extra precautions.

At this time John and I were in Sri Lanka, in Hikkaduwa, a beach town. We were not yet aware of any virus in Hubei. Actually, the biggest disaster news was that Australia was burning. Around us, there were reminders of a local disaster—the tsunami of 2004 that devastated many families in the region. Near Hikkaduwa was Tsunami Honganji Viharaya , a Buddhist temple built by the Japanese dedicated to the victims of the tsunami.

Peraliya Buddha near Hikkaduwa

On New Year’s Day I went swimming on the beach, out to where the water was waist high, when the tallest, most powerful wave I’ve ever experienced knocked me head over heels. I decided to get out quickly. A Russian swimmer had the same idea—the Indian Ocean was taking no prisoners. I couldn’t help wondering if this slap on the very first morning of 2020 was some kind of omen…

January 2020: Thailand & the Chinese New Year

The very first confirmed COVID-19 patient outside of China popped up in Thailand. A 61-year-old Chinese woman, a resident of Wuhan, entered Bangkok on January 8. On January 13 she was diagnosed as having the new coronavirus. By January 28, at least 14 people in Thailand had been infected and the Thai Health Minister said the government was unable to stop the spread of the disease. Cases started appearing in dozens of other countries.

We arrived in Thailand at about the same time as Covid. Our ultra-modern Chinese hotel had an infinity pool (yay!) but also facial-recognition instead of entry keys and we got stuck in a dystopian nightmare (the stairwell) for an hour (boo!).

One day a screen in the elevator lobby alerted us to the need to take precautions against something called COVID-19. Overnight, everything was different. Everyone seemed to know where to get face masks, every building entrance had a little table with hand-sanitizer. In the metro, two friendly public officials supervised the use of hand-sanitizer and, confusingly, made everyone pass through a metal-detector.

It was just at this time that shops in Bangkok were gearing up for Chinese New Year. It was the Year of the Rat and everything was branded with cute mouse images. The supermarkets and special New Years’ markets were very crowded. For the first time, when doing my grocery shopping, I felt heavy claustrophobic dread. This would become a familiar feeling over the following months.

February: Tokyo & the Diamond Princess

By February 10, the COVID-19 death toll in China had already surpassed the total number of Chinese deaths in the SARS crisis of 2003. In America, the case of Trisha Dowd, the first person in the US to die of COVID-19 and someone who had not travelled recently, suggested that the disease had already been spreading by community transmission, maybe even as early as December 2019.

On February 5, a cruise ship called the Diamond Princess was quarantined near Yokohama when several passengers tested positive. Confirmed cases on board would eventually total 712 (of 3,711 people). In early February, the ship accounted for over half of reported cases outside of mainland China. Since then, more than 40 cruise ships have had confirmed positive cases of coronavirus on board.

Like the virus, we ended up in Japan in late February, for a week-long stopover. The train ride from the airport to the city was dreamily quiet and, again, everyone was wearing masks except us and other Americans/Europeans/Australasians. The streets were eerily quiet. We visited the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden just as the cherry trees were starting to flower and saw a couple get their wedding photos in traditional kimonos. We ate ramen and spicy fries in a little bar where Japanese country music was playing. We were roughly handled by a real sushi chef. In short, it was everything we’d hoped!

March: Seattle & the Elderly

On March 2, a woman living at a nursing facility in King County, Washington State, died of coronavirus. Eventually 81 residents, 34 staff members and 14 visitors at the same facility would become infected and 23 people would die—the first outbreak in a nursing home. By the end of November, more than 100,000 long-term care facility residents and staff would die of the coronavirus in the US. Disturbing reports of neglect and lethally irresponsible decisions would emerge from carehomes in Canada, the UK , Europe, Australia and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Italy was becoming the Wuhan of Europe. By March 9, 9,172 cases had been confirmed and the entire nation was in lockdown. There, too, the elderly of Bergamo died in staggering numbers.

Message in the window of a nursing home

In Japan, the airport had been a little chaotic but there was definitely a sense of emergency and people were required to wear masks at least. Prior to boarding, an airline official had come around with a clipboard asking if we’d visited China within the last 14 days. When we arrived at SeaTac airport, no one was wearing masks or acting like anything was different. I was interrogated for 15 minutes by border guards about why I wanted to enter the US. They did not wear masks nor mention the virus at all— I suppose they were worried I was a potential ‘illegal’.

April: New York & Emily

On March 1, the first patient in New York had tested positive for the virus. By April, there were 83,713 total cases and 1,957 deaths in the state. On April 10, New York State had recorded more COVID 19 cases than any single country other than the US. Some New Yorkers fled their apartments to seek safety in the country. Schools, restaurants, workplaces shut down and residents were required to stay at home except for essential activities, where they had to wear masks. Scenes emerged of temporary graves being dug in public parks, of exhausted healthcare workers, of makeshift disaster morgues.

Statue in Kenton, Oregon

We’d arrived in Portland, Oregon, but my thoughts often went to New York, where so many of our friends live. A couple we know were expecting their first child and I was extremely worried for them. Jasmine said her experience of labor in the middle of a pandemic was like a hell, and she is not someone who exaggerates. She’d been whisked away to a hotel that had been hastily adapted to function as a maternity hospital, the hospital staff were exhausted and grumpy and it was very daunting for a first-time mother. But Emily was born healthy and beautiful.

May:  Portland & Black Lives Shattered

In the USA (and elsewhere), COVID-19 was not just a virus, it was a political issue. The one time we used a taxi in Portland, the driver was not wearing a mask. He saw that we were masked up and told us that we shouldn’t believe what we hear on the ‘mainstream media’. He said that the virus was no different from the flu. Conspiracy theories about the virus gained traction.

Meanwhile, anger was growing about cases of white cops targeting and killing innocent black people. In March, three plainclothes police forced entry into a Kentucky apartment and shot young ER technician Breonna Taylor in her sleep. On May 25 Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Mural in West Belfast, 2020

By now we’d been in Portland for a couple of months. The neighborhood where we lived was characterized mainly by beautifully tended gardens designed to attract birds and bees, and chalked messages on the sidewalk saying things like ‘I Love You’ and ‘Hope’ decorated with hearts and rainbows. Mt. Hood stood serenely in the distance and the huge forest park cooled the whole city with its fragrant shadow.

On the news, though, Portland was portrayed as an apocalyptic firefight. Starting from May 29, there were protests in Portland demanding police reform, but they tended to be focussed on one point: the Justice Center downtown. Even after police used teargas and militarized federal law enforcement officers invaded the city in July, seizing protestors off the streets in unmarked minivans, protests continued.

Portland, hotbed of unrest

June: New Zealand & Felipe

In New Zealand, Jacinda Adern’s Labour Government put the country into full lockdown on March 25. By June 8, after a couple of quickly contained flare-ups, there were no active cases of Covid-19 in the country. This was a comfort to me primarily because my family lives there but also because it demonstrated that it was entirely possible for a political leader to deal effectively with an infectious outbreak.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a post cabinet press conference at Parliament on June 08, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

In the US, our nieces graduated so we had a little get together on Zoom, the conferencing app that 2020 made famous. Like many students across the globe, they were deprived of the official graduation ceremonies. This was a problem that Japan solved with robots.

The end of June brought a huge loss when our friend Felipe Gutteriez passed away. I will always miss his good humour, elegance and quiet humanity.

Rose in Portland

July: Migration & Belfast

One thing that happened in 2020 was that borders closed fast and hard and there were many travel and transport restrictions. This was an essential part of stemming the spread of a deadly infectious disease. For many people looking forward to a summer holiday, it was an inconvenience. One lovesick Scottish man crossed the Irish Sea on a jet ski to see his girlfriend. For migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, though, it was a life-threatening nightmare. In the Asia Pacific region, migrants faced a higher risk of covid thanks to not being included in social security provisions. Indian migrant workers suddenly left without work were forced to walk or cycle thousands of kilometers to return to their home villages, and many of them had no money for food . There was a huge drop in people applying for asylum in the EU due to constraints on international travel and hardline border policies. In the UK, anti-immigrant sentiment increased . An enormous migrant camp appeared on the US border and government contractors in the US detained hundreds of migrant kids in black sites.

Fifteen-year-old Jyoti Kumari cycled 700km from New Delhi to her family’s village with her injured father, a migrant laborer, on the back of the bike. Read the story here.

Concerned by lost profits, American airlines resumed booking flights to 100% capacity at the start of July. Unfortunately, this was exactly when we were due to leave the US. The first thing that US border authorities had told me was that I was not welcome to overstay, and I was not about to call their bluff. So we took the scary step of flying from Portland to Seattle to Denver. From Denver we were going to fly to Iceland, which at that time was accepting foreign visitors. Unfortunately, the day we were supposed to go, Iceland closed its borders to most non-EU foreign nationals and that plan was scrapped. We spent a night in Denver figuring out what to do and decided to go to Belfast instead because the UK’s border was open. We arrived a few days before July 12, the beginning of the Orange Parade season.

Near Denver airport

August: Americas & Eating Out to Help the Spread

In August, COVID-19 was hitting the Americas hard. On July 29, Brazil set new COVID-19 records for a single day, reporting 70,869 cases and 1,554 deaths,  bringing the country’s totals to 2.5 million cases and 90,000 total deaths. Mexico had the third highest number of deaths from coronavirus in the world, with more than 62,000 fatalities. Argentina, Bolivia and Panama were hit by waves of protests against the combination of covid restrictions and economic recession. By the end of August, Peru had reported the highest number of deaths per capita from the coronavirus and had also posted the world’s deepest economic contraction in the second quarter.

I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t get my health and wellbeing advice from this character

At this time we were living in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, a relatively new district near the port. The UK government introduced a scheme called Eat Out to Help Out, an ill conceived plan designed to help resuscitate the restaurant industry. Dozens of people in the city centre flocked to dining establishments and spent many maskless minutes indoors with strangers. Not surprisingly, this was probably responsible for eight to 17% of newly detected COVID-19 clusters in the UK in August and early September.

Sign outside a Northern Irish restaurant during an easing of restrictions

September: Spreading like Wildfire

India topped four million cases, the US seven million. In Europe, daily cases reach a record high on September 20. In the UK, 7,143 new cases were recorded in a single day, the country’s highest single-day jump since the beginning of the pandemic. Indonesia recorded several daily case records on five consecutive days.

Meanwhile, California experienced 13 large wildfires. One of these, nicknamed Bobcat, was one of the largest recorded in the history of Los Angeles County.

We took a taxi tour of Belfast, a highlight of which were the political murals on the Peace Walls, many of them dealing with contemporary issues such as racial injustice in the US, the importance of the National Health Service in the UK and the pressing issue of Climate Change.

Pictorial tribute to the NHS on Divis Street (the Falls)

October: In Sickness & In Obscene Wealth

Spain declared a national state of emergency, and the French and UK governments both announced a nationwide lockdown. In the UN’s COVID-19 and Universal Health Coverage policy brief, UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted that “inadequate” global health care systems had contributed to the millions of deaths from the pandemic so far. He stressed that universal health care was a key recommendation.

Meanwhile, in Belfast, we moved to a house near the Falls Road, famous for its Republican sympathies in the sectarian strife of the Troubles. We visited Milltown cemetery, where many Republican partisans are buried. It was an area with a strong Socialist presence and every second lampost had stickers announcing the failure of Capitalism and pointing out the huge profits that billionaires have been raking in since the beginning of the pandemic.

November: A Sea Change

The US elections on November 3 were won by Joe Biden and his running mate Kemala Harris. Trump refused to concede and later claimed that the elections were rigged. On November 8 scientists at Pfizer and BioNTech announced that a new coronavirus vaccine stopped 90% of cases.

In its final trial it has been shown to be 95% effective.

In November we moved to a house in Bangor, by the sea, and spent the days trying to spot eider ducks and guillemots. John tried cold-water swimming and decided it was a bit too cold.

A turnstone in Bangor

December: Dublin & Brexit

On December 16, the US passed 19 million cases. About one in every 22 North Americans had tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began. By December 26, one of every 1,000 North Americans had died from the disease. In late December it became clear that a new, more transmissible strain of the virus had appeared in UK. Macron closed the French-UK border just a few days before the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020.

Thousands of trucks were motionless at the Port of Dover on December 24

On December 30, with our time in the UK nearly up, John and I took a taxi from Belfast to Dublin. We didn’t know where the border is and there were no checks on the way. When we got to town it was very cold. Ireland had lockdown restrictions in place so we walked up and down the street until it was time to meet our new landlord.

The New Year

And so we come to 2021, which lacks the fearful symmetry of 2020 and hopefully will be lopsidedly gentle on everyone. Happy New Year!

Statue in Belfast outside Carlisle Memorial Church, just down the road from Mater Hospital

History, Modern, Poetry, Reviews, UK

MacNeice in Ireland: A Prism of Delight and Pain

Until recently, I knew three things about Louis MacNeice (1907-1963): that he was from Ireland, that he was friends with Auden and that he wrote “The Sunlight on the Garden” . Then last year our friend Gabriel gave us a copy of Autumn Journal (1940), a long poem written in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War Two. It’s a book that sketches History as it is experienced personally, in real time, in a dance of daily impressions, emotions, opinions, memories, hopes and doubts. Although it’s written in quatrains, it easily conveys the sense of genuine internal dialogue. He questions the use of being an “impresario of the ancient Greeks” at a college; he decides it’s right to vote in a by-election; he fondly remembers a holiday in Spain; he regrets the loss of his wife. The book provides intimate access to Louis MacNeice’s mental reality.

Portrait of Louis MacNeice by his lover Nancy Sharp

Now that I’ve lived in Belfast for a few months and have read his Selected Poems (edited by Belfast poet Michael Longley), another aspect of MacNeice has crystallized for me, and that the importance of his Irishness in his poetry. It’s a topic that has irritated critics on both sides of the Irish Sea, partly because he evades categorization and is maddeningly ambivalent about his loyalties. Once when asked where he lived, he replied jokingly that he had “a foot in both graves”.  Historically, English critics have almost accepted him as an honorary Englishman, being Auden’s pal, while Irish critics view his membership as a fellow national as problematic. The fact is, though, that Louis MacNeice is an Irishman: he was born to parents originally from western Ireland and he spent the first nine years of his life in the North East, in Carrickfergus and Belfast:

I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries
         To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams:
Thence to Smoky Carrick in County Antrim
         Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud which jams

The little boats beneath the Norman castle,
          The pier shining with lumps of crystal salt;
The Scotch Quarter was a line of residential houses
          But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the blind and halt.
“Like crucifixes the gantries stand” in “Belfast”

At nine, he left the country and spent the rest of his life in England (minus a brief teaching stint in the USA) but he never stopped writing about his childhood in Ireland. While it is tempting to read his childhood poems (“Autobiography” and “Carrickfergus”) simply as lyrics to his youth, or therapeutic examinations of formative trauma, they are also subtle but serious reflections on the turbulent history and politics of the country of his birth. Just as the overlay of internal experience on shared historical reality is a feature of Autumn Journal, his Irish poems are enriched by their historical context; they are snapshots of a figure in a particular time and place. MacNeice’s ideal poet, remember, is “a reader of the newspapers”, “informed in economics” and “actively interested in politics” (Modern Poetry [1938]).

What’s more, the uncomfortable ambivalence that characterizes all of MacNeice’s poetry, his insistence on the essential and dynamic variety, a world where things are “incorrigibly plural” may partly be the effect of growing up in a country that constantly pulls in two opposite directions:

And if the world were black or white entirely
        And all of the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
         A prism of delight and pain,

We might be surer where we wished to go
        Or again we might be merely
Bored but in brute reality there is no
        Road that is right entirely.

What is most immediately striking about MacNeice’s attitude to his childhood home is a sense of disconnection. It seems, in spite of the vividness of his memories, that the north never felt like home to him, even when he was in it. In “Carrick Revisited” (1945) he describes it as an accidental ‘interlude’.

Torn before birth from where my father’s dwelt,
Schooled from the age of ten in a foreign voice,
Yet neither western Ireland nor southern England
Cancels this interlude; what chance misspelt
May never now be righted by any choice.

Whatever then my inherited or acquired
Affinities, such remains my childhood’s frame
Like a belated rock in the red Antrim clay
That cannot at this era change its pitch or name—
And the pre-natal mountain is far away.
“Carrick Revisited”

This disconnection is built into the history of Ulster itself. Originally Irish, like MacNeice, it is has not been fully Irish nor quite English for a long time. The events that created this state (the Plantations, the Battle of the Boyne, Partition, as you like) “may never now be righted by any choice” even in 2020.

The Norman castle at Carrickfergus

Louis’ father John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942) was a rector for the anglican Church of Ireland, and he would later become a bishop. John MacNeice was a man of conscience who sought interfaith cooperation and peace. In 1912, for example, he supported Home Rule and refused to sign the Ulster Covenant, a brave (though hopeless) stance, considering the Ulster Volunteer Force was founded that very year and marched the streets in their thousands against ‘Rome Rule’.  In 1936, when officiating at the funeral of Sir Edward Carson (the architect of Irish Partition), John MacNeice refused to allow the Union Jack to hang over Carson’s tomb. (Interesting side note: Carson was also the prosecutor whose cross-examination of Oscar Wilde put the latter in gaol for homosexuality).

While John MacNeice was personally on the side of interfaith cooperation, he must have been aware that the Church of Ireland owed its existence to the repression of the country’s Catholic majority. It was the church of English colonists, for centuries the only church acceptable to the Crown (in spite of its dearth of adherents). In 1704, for example, the Test Act restricted public office to members of the Church of Ireland, a law that remained in place until 1829.  And from the 16th to the 19th centuries, all Irish regardless of their true faith, were compelled to pay a tithe to the Church of Ireland, a practice that only ended after the Tithe War (1830-1836) .

 “Carrickfergus”, an apparently simple poem about MacNeice’s childhood, implies this history, the jarring juxtapositions and sad complexities of a society shaped by colonial interests:

I was the rector’s son, born to the anglican order,
Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor;
The Chichesters knelt in marble at the end of a transept
With ruffs about their necks, their portion sure.

Patrons of St. Nicholas’ Parish Church where Louis’ father preached, the Chichesters had a huge amount to do with the poverty of the Catholic population. Sir Arthur Chichester (1563-1625) arrived in Ireland to assist Elizabeth I in the Nine Years War, a conflict that started when Irish Gaelic earls Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell rebelled against English rule. In 1600, Chichester was appointed head of the English garrison at Carrickfergus and he immediately resorted to scorched-earth tactics in the area not only to deprive O’Neill’s army of food but also to starve and murder local civilians. In his own description of the campaign, he boasted, “I burned along the lough within four miles of Dungannon and killed one hundred people, sparing none, of what quality, age or sex so ever, besides many burned to death; we kill man, woman and child, horse, beast and whatsoever we find…” It sounds as if he was pleased with himself and indeed he was handsomely rewarded for his service; under James I, Chichester was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland. He served in this role from 1605 to 1616, during which time he oversaw widespread persecution of Catholics and engineered the Plantation of Ulster, uprooting Catholics and awarding their land to wealthy Scottish and English landowners. Biographer David Lloyd (1635-1692) praised him for being “effectually assistant, first to plough and break up that barbarous nation by conquest, and then to sow it with seeds of civilty.”

Portrait of a Psycho (c) Belfast Harbour Commissioners; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When he arrived in Ireland, Chichester had been on the verge of bankruptcy; by the time he was removed from Irish affairs, he held title to 100,000 acres of land.  MacNeice’s ironic “their portion sure” conceivably refers to Chichester’s “cut” rather than to any special nook in Heaven.

Louis MacNeice’s parents are seen dimly. His father is always shown in his official capacity, an anglican churchman, and his mother Elizabeth (Lily) a soft ghost. The poem “Autobiography” describes her with painful vagueness, “My mother wore a yellow dress, / Gently, gently, gentleness.”. Sadly, Lily contracted uterine cancer when Louis was still very young. After a hysterectomy she fell into a bout of depression and left their home for a psychiatric facility in Dublin. A year later, she contracted tuberculosis and died. MacNeice writes simply, “When I was five the black dreams came; / Nothing after was quite the same.” (“Autobiography”).

It is perhaps stretching a point to say that “Autobiography” is a political poem, but it is still a notable coincidence that two things of historic significance happened in 1914 so that “Nothing after was quite the same”. The first was the “black dream” of World War One, a bloody debacle that caused a whole generation to lose its taste for war. The second was an amendment to the Home Rule Act that would exclude Ulster counties from impending Home Rule, effectively cutting the country in two. The amendment was powerfully argued for by Sir Edward Carson, the Irish Unionist and first signatory to the Ulster Covenant of 1912, which had vowed to resist Home Rule using “all means necessary.” Before this Home Rule Act was put into law, the Great War started but Partition was now practically certain: Northern Ireland would be separated, traumatically, from its motherland.


MacNeice dramatizes the building conflict between Unionists and Catholics mainly through details caught by a child’s eye, snatches of conversation gleaned from the domestic circle. “The Gardener” from Novelettes is the portrait of a gardener “With a finch in a cage and a framed/ certificate of admission/Into the Orange order” who becomes increasingly senile and decrepit until he can no longer even attend the Twelfth of July parades:

At ten o’clock or later
You could hear him mowing the lawn,
The mower moving forward,
And backward, forward and backward
For he moved while standing still;
He was not quite up to the job.
The Orange Parade of 1920

In “Belfast” he glimpses wretched Catholic women briefly and feels a mixture of pity and shame:

In the porch of the chapel before the garish Virgin
A shawled factory-woman as if shipwrecked there
Lies a bunch of limbs glimpsed in the cave of gloom
By us who walk in the street so buoyantly and glib.
Belfast Linen mill 1918
And in Autumn Journal (Canto xvi) he recalls an atmosphere of fear heightened by rumour and ignorance:

And I remember, when I was little, the fear
Bandied among the servants
That Casement would land at the pier
With a sword and a horde of rebels;
And how we used to expect, at a later date,
When the wind blew from the west, the noise of shooting
Starting in the evening at eight
In Belfast in the York Street district
(Autumn Journal canto xvi)

This vignette evokes two incidents related to the future Irish Civil War: the gun running of Roger Casement and the bloody Belfast riots of 1920-22.

Roger Casement

In the lead up to the Easter Rising, Irish Nationalist Sir Roger Casement arranged for shipment of guns from the German government, for delivery in April 1916. The weapons were carried in a Norwegian vessel Aud-Norge, while Casement and his comrades travelled to Ireland in a German U-boat. The British managed to scuttle Aud before it landed but the U-boat put Casement ashore at Banna Strand, 21 April 1916 (three days before the Easter Rising). He was discovered there and arrested on charges of high treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown. His was a cause célèbre due to his fame as a humanitarian activist in the Congo and Peru, for which he had been knighted in 1911. The British Government used (possibly forged) diaries detailing his homosexual liaisons to dissuade supporters from advocating clemency. Despite high-profile intercessors and a United States Senate appeal against the death sentence, he was hanged on 3 August 1916.

Gun-running at that time was something of a national sport. In April 1914, in the Larne gun-running, Major Frederick H. Crawford and Captain Wilfrid Spender had managed to smuggle almost 25,000 rifles and between 3 and 5 million rounds of ammunition from the German Empire for the use of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Shipments landed in Larne, Donaghadee and Bangor with no police intervention. The Howth gun-running incident  occurred that same year, in July, when 1,500 Mauser rifles were delivered to Irish Volunteers from a private yacht in broad daylight. Scottish troops intervened ineffectually and, when baited by the crowd, attacked the protesters with rifle fire and bayonets, killing four civilians and wounding 30 more.

As for the “shooting in the York Street district”, even if MacNeice cannot have personally witnessed it since he was at school in England, it suggests the “carnival of terrorism”  that rocked the city between 1920 and 1922 and claimed the lives of at least 455 people, 58% of them Catholic–in a city where Catholics were only 25% of the population. The Irish Government estimated that 50,000 Catholics left the north permanently in response to violence and intimidation in this period . Neither the British Government nor the local Unionist leadership made any effort to reinstate these displaced people:

When my silent terror cried;
Nobody, nobody replied.

Checking the roll call of the dead, 1920

Inevitably, there are echoes and tributes in MacNeice, to Yeats and Joyce. In Ulysses, Stephen Daedalus utters that famous statement of despair, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Canto XVI of MacNeice’s Autumn Journal follows directly from that thought:

Nightmare leaves fatigue:
We envy men of action
Who sleep and wake, murder and intrigue
Without being doubtful, without being haunted.

This canto, as well as “Valediction” (1934), is one of MacNeice’s most direct comments on his attitude to Ireland. Both poems express a reluctant connection and an agonizing frustration with its problems. In “Valediction” he burns his bridges with the Old Country in a somewhat priggishly elegiac tone:

…being ordinary too I must in course discuss
What we mean to Ireland or Ireland to us;
I have to observe milestone and curio
The beaten buried gold of an old king’s bravado,
Falsetto antiquities, I have to gesture,
Take part in, or renounce, each imposture;
Therefore I resign, goodbye, the chequered and the quiet hills
The gaudily-striped Atlantic, the linen-mills
That swallow the shawled file, the black moor where half
A turf-stake stands like a ruined cenotaph;

Canto xvi of Autumn Journal is comparatively unhinged, an exhilarating philippic that lashes out against all of it:

I hate your grandiose airs,
Your sob-stuff, your laugh and your swagger,
Your assumption that everyone cares
Who is the king of your castle.
Castles are out of date,
The tide flows round the children’s sandy fancy;
Put up what flag you like, it is too late
To save your soul with bunting.
Odi atque amo:
Shall we cut this name on trees with a rusty dagger?

Brian Boru, legendary King of Munster

The quote from from Catullus 85 (“I hate and I love. How can I do that you might ask./I don’t know, but I feel it and I am tortured.”) exposes this is as a love poem: Catullus’ extensive cursing of Lesbia was only a sign of his wounded love, and MacNeice’s rage is belied by exhausted admissions and entreaties:

Such was my country and I thought I was well
Out of it, educated and domiciled in England,
Though yet her name keeps ringing like a bell
In an underwater belfry.

 “Why should I want to go back/ To you, Ireland, my Ireland?” he asks, and the question answers itself but ultimately solves nothing.

History, Modern, Nonfiction, UK

The DeLorean in Dunmurry

I’ve been wondering about the DeLorean for a couple of months because this space-aged car of stainless steel played a big (albeit brief) part in the recent history of Belfast. Several locals have mentioned it as important to the city’s psyche, part wound and part triumph.

Ron Cobb’s design for the movie car, a DeLorean converted into a time machine.

When Ron Cobb died last week, it seemed like a good time to investigate. Cobb had a hand in making many of the movies I loved growing up: Sleeping Beauty, ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Alien, Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian. A self-taught designer, he also drew cartoons and designed the ecology flag.  Judging by headlines to his obituaries, though, he is perhaps most famous for converting a DeLorean into a time-machine in Back to the Future.

The story of the DeLorean starts with an extremely charismatic figure in the American auto industry, John Z. DeLorean (1925-2005). In the early 1970’s, Delorean was on his way to becoming a top executive at General Motors. At 40 he’d already become their youngest division head and was known (among other things) for creating one of the most popular muscle cars of the time, the Pontiac Gran Turismo Omologato. He was also responsible for the new look Pontiac Gran Prix and the Chevrolet Vega. Thanks to his snazzy dressing, longish hair, beautiful wives and jet-setting ways, he gained a reputation for being a corporate maverick. As The New York Times put it in 1984:

“As the golden boy of General Motors, he wore long sideburns that violated the company’s unwritten dress code, chided his superiors, and , at the second of his three marriages, had as his best man the president of the Ford Motor Company at that time. He loved race cars, sculpted, owned a tenth of the San Diego Chargers, played a jazz saxophone and survived on four hours of sleep a night.”

John DeLorean and his wife of the time Cristine Ferrare

For some reason, he left General Motors in 1973, soon after being promoted. His story was that he couldn’t imagine spending the rest of his working life in a rather stultifying atmosphere. On the other hand, some of the people in the company didn’t much like him so perhaps he was invited to leave. For whatever reason, he decided to go solo and formed the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC).

In 1974, DeLorean and DMC’s Chief Engineer Bill Collins went to the Turin Auto Show to scout designers. In the end, they went with Ital Design’s Giorgetto Giugiaro . The design they chose, the famous gull-winged, sharp-nosed sports car, was heavily based on the Tapiro, a 1970 concept car Giugiario had designed for Porsche.

The Tapiro

Receiving business loans from the Bank of America, from forming partnerships and seed capital from various celebrity friends, DeLorean looked around for somewhere to base his new company. Hoping for lucrative government investments, he searched the world for unlikely but promising places. Eventually he settled on Northern Ireland. The British Government, at that time a Labour Government led by James Callaghan, was keen to reduce violence in Northern Ireland (then in the throes of The Troubles) by reducing unemployment. They offered to pay $120 million of the company’s $200 million startup costs.  


In 1978, construction of the new factory began in The Cutts, an area between Republican Twinbrook and Unionist Dunmurry. The workforce would be drawn equally from both communities—each one having a separate gate. This area of West Belfast had the highest levels of unemployment in Europe at that time—about 50% of men were out of work. In fact, many of them had never worked at all. What’s more, violence was a constant fear. In 1978, the year the factory started being built, a PIRA bomb at Le Mons restaurant killed 11 civilians and an RUC officer and wounded thirty more. Kidnappings, shootings, bombs and riots were a depressing fact of life.

In his book The DeLorean Story: The Car, The People, The Scandal, Nick Sutton describes the excitement and hopefulness of local people for the project:

“In late 1978, in a magnificent splash of Technicolor and glamour, John DeLorean came to Belfast, complete with his entourage. The scene could have been lifted from a Hollywood blockbuster, his glamorous wife Cristina the leading lady. The main player in the drama was, of course, the magnificent stainless steel gull wing sports car, then just a photograph and a couple of prototypes. Most important of all was the pocketful of money John DeLorean had been given by the UK government to spend in the area. This had not gone unnoticed by the locals; the British government had finally done something sensible.

“Who could ask for more? The dream had landed. Everyone was going to work.

“And for a wonderful few years, they did.”

There is a some touching video footage from that time that shows DeLorean and the crew showcasing the first few cars for the benefit of the press and for the families of the workers. The excitement and pride among people interviewed is palpable. And DeLorean, who was 6’4, looms among them like a kindly giant, persuasive with his air of quiet confidence:

Reporter: Your super car, of course, is going to be a super dream for a lot of people who live in West Belfast. They really are placing an awful lot of hope in the DeLorean car, aren’t they?

DeLorean: Well I think it’s mutual. I think originally we came up here we were just businessmen doing a business deal. Now all of us have become so infected with the absolute mandatory requirement that this project be successful, that we’re really more interested in making it successful from the standpoint of the people than we are from any personal standpoint. And by God it’s going to be successful.

But it wasn’t.

Assembly lines only started in early 1981 after delays and budget overruns. There were some quality control issues that were costly to fix and the Delorean didn’t reach the consumer market until January 1981. By that time, the new car market had slumped due to the 1980 economic recession. The car itself attracted lukewarm reviews and by February 1982, more than half of the 7,000 DeLoreans produced remained unsold. DMC was US$175 million in debt and the Dunmurry factory was placed in receivership.

Margaret Thatcher and Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus cars, who was involved in developing the DeLorean

Margaret Thatcher, who’d been elected in 1979, had never been very impressed with the large government investment in DMC. Official files show that she was reluctant to provide the company with loans. In this television interview, DeLorean says that Thatcher’s government refused to honor a contract he’d drawn up previously with Callaghan’s government:

“We started the project under Roy Mason, who was the Secretary of State under the Labour government. When the Conservatives were elected, they decided not to honor the contract signed by Labour.… we never got the last part of the contract, which was 93 million under the working-capital clause and that put us out of business.”

Belfast workers with one of their cars


In 1981, the company failed to break even and in January 1982 the company was in dire straits. DeLorean lobbied the British government for aid but was refused unless he could find a matching amount from other investors. What happened next is something quite odd. As DeLorean went about seeking new investors, he became the target of an FBI sting operation in which federal agents and informants posed as bankers and wealthy investors. On October 19, an informant picked up at LAX, drove him to a hotel room and presented him with a suitcase full of cocaine before federal agents burst in on him and arrested him on charges of drug trafficking. That same day, the British government shut down the Dunmurry factor.

On October 2 1982, Ronald Reagan announced a bold new plan to combat drug abuse and trafficking.

After a long trial, a federal jury found him not guilty because of clear evidence that the government was trying to entrap him. Two years later, he was charged with fraud and tax evasion but also judged not guilty. Although the British government was convinced that he had embezzled millions of British taxpayer money for his personal use, they never got around to extraditing him. However, as Nick Sutton says, “In an act of unbelievable spite the UK sequestrated ₤990,000 from what they described as ‘surplus’ from the DeLorean Motor Cars Ltd pension for Belfast employees.”  

There are a couple of recent films about DeLorean. One is called Framing John Delorean  (2019) and the other is Driven (2018) starring Jason Sudeikis and Judy Greer and written by a Bangor-county native named Colin Bateman.

Alec Baldwin stars in Framing John DeLorean

As fascinating as DeLorean’s character is, though, as Nick Sutton says, “The losers in this saga….were not John DeLorean, who was declared bankrupt in 1999, or the management team, many of whom found other jobs. It was the 2,500 employees at Dunmurry. Many of them never worked again.”

Barrie Willis, who was director of purchasing at the Dunmurry plant, believes that there should be a museum or interactive center built in the city, similar to the one built for Titanic Belfast.

“The ship and the car were both failures but they were both glorious failures.

A cluster of doomed DeLoreans outside the Titanic Belfast

History, Modern, Museum, Travel, UK

Risking a Trip to Titanic Belfast

It seems kind of weird that Belfast would capitalize on its links to a terrible shipping disaster, but that’s what it has gone and done. The city’s harbor area has been remodeled as the Titanic Quarter, a snazzy residential, shopping and entertainment district. The main attraction of this district is Titanic Belfast, a museum devoted to the construction, launch and loss of the RMS Titanic.

Der Untergang der Titanic

For a long time, the fact that Belfast begat the Titanic was practically a source of local shame. For decades, no one was super eager to claim responsibility for the world’s largest sea-borne coffin. That started to change in the early twenty-first century, after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, when the city started looking for a way to rebrand itself to appeal to international tourists. And when you consider that the city’s biggest tourist attraction before that was the Hotel Europa, ‘Europe’s most-bombed hotel’, choosing to focus on the Titanic doesn’t seem such a bad idea.

Besides, there’s no denying the sensational appeal of the disaster. Since 1912 it has inspired hundreds of books, plays, artworks, musicals and films. Saved from the Titanic, starring survivor Dorothy Gibson, was released just a month after the sinking. And in 1997 there was James Cameron’s Titanic, the world’s highest-grossing film until 2010. Even now, 118 years later, scientists are still busy investigating the causes of the disaster, the latest hypothesis being that a sudden solar flare zapped the navigational equipment . Since Titanic Belfast opened in 2012, it has drawn more than four million visitors from over 145 different countries.

Dorothy Gibson

So, seeing as we’re here in Belfast, I decided we should check out the museum. John was not keen, for three reasons:

“One, it’s civilian technology. Two, there is a pandemic. Three, the British Empire.”

 Not to be dissuaded, I checked out the museum’s website and saw that it seemed to be taking Covid-19 into consideration.

“Look,” I pointed out sweetly, “You can only book online, which means they’re monitoring crowd numbers, and you have to wear a mask. And they’re thanking the NHS, which means they believe in health care! Plus, if we go on a Tuesday morning I bet there won’t be anyone else there.”

“Oh, all right,” he grumbled.

So it was that on the next Tuesday we put our masks on and headed off to the Titanic Quarter, wandering along something called the Maritime Mile. This skirts the river’s edge and is dotted with informative signs explaining aspects of the city’s shipping history. For those who are less than thrilled by maritime trivia, the are also numerous stained-glass sculptures commemorating the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, much of which was filmed nearby in the nearby Titanic Studios and scenic spots of Northern Ireland.

As we passed the huge empty-thanks-to-Covid Odyssey complex, we saw Titanic Belfast, our destination.  It loomed hugely and expensively over Abercorn Basin. According to the architects, its supposed to recall the giant prows of the three Olympic class steamships built for White Star Line: RMS Titanic, RMS Olympic (retired as a service ship in 1937) and HMHS Britannic (converted to a hospital ship for WWI, it sank after hitting a German mine on November 21, 1916). It reminds me more of a digitized iceberg.


Once through the door, we anointed ourselves with hand sanitizer at the gel-squirting station and paused to admire the high ceilings and fancy lobby. Reassuringly, it didn’t seem busy. We went over to the self-vending ticket machine and then proceeded to pick up audioguides and a souvenir guide book.

A smiling woman wearing a plastic face shield looked at our tickets and sent us up an escalator to the start of the exhibition. A man at the entrance pointed to a scanning machine and we scanned the tickets for entry into a cave-like room called Boomtown Belfast.

The first thing I noticed were shadows flitting across the wall, to the clamor of voices, shouts and whistles. My first impression was that the room was full of people. On closer inspection, they were shadows of flat-capped dock workers produced by magic lanterns. I suppose it was meant to evoke the hustle and bustle of Belfast’s back in docks in 1912 but it made the room seem crowded and I hated it. I wanted to tell all the flitting phantoms to get the hell away from me and put masks on.

Time to take a deep breath.

We moved to the next room. Here there were racketty echoing clanks and the murmur of female voices.

This section was devoted to linen mills. Up until the Industrial Revolution, linen production had long been a cottage industry in Northern Ireland. Rural families grew the flax, harvested it, prepared and spun it, then wove the yarn into cloth. They brought the brown cloth to market and bleachers whiten the cloth in ‘bleaching greens’—big grounds where the treated cloth was laid out to dry in the sun. Starting from about 1830, Belfast manufacturers started looking into flax spinning machines comparable to the ones already used for spinning cotton. Women and children worked in the factories for long hours. By 1914, Belfast was the biggest linen-producing center in the world.

a bleaching green

And it wasn’t just linen for which Belfast became famous. It contained the largest tobacco factory and ropeworks in the world. Whiskey was distilled, sugar was refined, paper was made. The city produced tea-leaf-drying fans that facilitated tea-drinking habits across the British Empire. And, of course, Belfast made ships. Harland & Wolff was the city’s most famous ship-building firm, making a name for itself for constructing most of White Star’s ocean liners including the Titanic.

A museum that largely confines itself to the topic of shipbuilding cannot include everything. Even so it is interesting the ‘Boomtown Belfast’ gallery omitted any mention of three of Ireland’s most significant events relevant to that period: the Great Famine (1801-1879), sectarian conflict related to the Irish nationalist movement and the 1907 Belfast Dock Strike. Of course, there are a lot of reasons the museum’s curators would want to avoid discussing hot topics, especially when most visitors honestly just want to imagine themselves as Leonardo di Caprio or Kate Winslet jigging in steerage. But that doesn’t mean I can’t mention them, so I will!  

First of all, to be completely honest, there was a kind of nod to An Droschshaol in an old-fashioned sandwich board featuring the word ‘Famine’. I suppose it was put there to add to the sense you were strolling down a jolly old Victorian street. Right next to this sandwich board, much more attractively presented, was an interactive computer display emitting an excited announcement in plummy tones about the extensive reach of the British Empire.

That was an interesting juxtaposition. While Belfast was busy producing ships and merchandise for Empire, the British government was exacerbating the effects of a famine through laissez faire policies that hinged on anti-Catholic bigotry. The British government refused to ban grain exports from Ireland, failed to distribute aid to rural families in greatest need, scuppered a soup-kitchen scheme after just six months and looked on with psychopathic calm as landlords evicted starving paupers en masse. Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to Her Majesty’s Treasury and directly in charge of relief works in Ireland 1845-47, described the Great Famine as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence.” As a result of it, the general population of Ireland fell by 20-25% due to death and emigration. And Belfast, though predominantly Protestant, was affected by the Famine as much as the rest of the country. By 1846 one in five people in the city had suffered some sort of contagion linked to the famine (especially typhus and cholera).

As for sectarianism and the nascent struggle between Republicans and Loyalists, I totally get why Belfast natives would want to keep it in the background. But Boomtown Belfast was, in some ways, the birthplace of tensions that would shake Ireland for the next century, that are shaking it even now that a hard border is on the cards with Brexit. In the 1800s, Belfast was the only city in the country where sectarian fighting was frequent and ugly; there were serious riots in 1829, 1843, 1857, 1864 and 1874 and most of the fighting (if not all) involved shipyard workers. Belfast even had his own proto-Paisley, ‘Roaring Hugh Hanna,’ an evangelical preacher so vituperatively anti-Catholic that even Punch made fun of him.  

One of the factors driving this conflict was the very success of Belfast business. The Industrial Revolution brought a flood of poor rural families—both Catholic and Protestant–to the city to work in the factories or on the docks; in 1800 Belfast had a population of about 20,000 people, by 1901 it had grown to 349,000. In a pretty short time, a large number of working-class people of different faiths were occupying different parts of the same city competing for jobs.

Atmospheric sandwich board in the museum’s ‘Boomtown Belfast’ section

And it wasn’t just about religious rivalry, either; there was a strong political angle. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Daniel O’Connell, an Irish MP, was steadily gathering support for Irish Home Rule through the political mobilization of Irish Catholics. Incidentally, the 1798 rebellion against British Rule had been inspired by the French Revolution and led by Belfast. But thanks to O’Connell’s efforts, and to his success in achieving Catholic emancipation in 1829, the nationalist movement became known as a Catholic movement. Because of colonization in the 17th century (‘Plantations’), the six counties of Ulster had a Protestant majority that enjoyed legally enshrined political and economic advantages. Seeing their interests threatened, many Protestants in Belfast reacted against the Irish nationalist movement and its supporters, their Catholic neighbors and colleagues. In 1829, the same year as the Catholic emancipation, for example, a riot broke out over the banning of Orange parades. As historian John Dorney says :

…[A]lready by the mid 19th century, two prominent features of Belfast rioting were in place – clashes in west and central Belfast along the sectarian ‘frontier’,  often sparked by political controversies over Irish independence and flare ups in July in and around the parades of the Orange Order. To this must also be added, by the late 19th century, economic competition between the Catholic and Protestant working class – particularly in [the] city’s shipyards.

All of these elements were present in Belfast’s bloodiest riot in 1886. On June 8, the first Home Rule Bill (which would have granted Ireland a devolved parliament) came before the House of Commons. In the event, it was defeated, but that did not stop as many as 50 people losing their lives in Belfast over the coming weeks. Trouble reportedly started with a Protestant worker being expelled from his job at the shipyards by Catholic Home Rule supporters on June 4.  Protestant workers, led by a preacher named ‘Roaring’ Hugh Hanna in retaliation beat ten Catholic workers so badly they were put in hospital and drowned another in the River Lagan, with another 200 Catholic shipyard workers being forced from their jobs.

The only time dock workers held hands across the sectarian divide was the Belfast Dock strike of 1907 from 26 April to 28 August. At that time, unskilled dock workers labored up to 75 hours a week in very dangerous, unsanitary conditions. Their employment was erratic and uncertain and they had no trade union to look after their interests. In January 1907 James Larkin came over from Liverpool to Belfast with the aim of bringing dock workers and carters into the National Union of Dock Workers. He won the support of both Protestant and Catholic dock workers and on July 12th, instead of Orange parades and sectarian clashes, the city saw strike leaders giving public speeches defending the workers’ interests against sectarianism. Unfortunately, the strike failed but it was an important step in growing the trade union movement in Ireland.

Jim Larkin

Incidentally, one of the best known plays about Belfast, Over the Bridge, describes sectarian divide in a shipyard and the way the employers cynically exploited this divide for their own purposes. This play was by Sam Thompson, who started working at Harland & Wolff at the age of 14 and who said he based much of his work on his experiences there.

As John and I moved from room to room, I noticed that museum attendants had been replaced by smiling, uniformed figures cut out of cardboard. I also noticed that the rooms were getting worryingly crowded. John prudently sought out a relatively isolated place to sit down and I hugged the walls, to trying to evade other visitors whose movements were surprisingly erratic.

The focus of the museum moved from Belfast industry in general to the importance of the harbor and shipping. Interestingly, Belfast’s harbor was not initially a very good one and has been continually modified since the 19th century, when boats started getting really big. Between 1839 and 1841, workers straightened and dredged the river Lagan to form the Victoria Channel . The dredged-up mud formed an island named Queen’s Island for Queen Victoria, who visited the city in 1841.

Belfast in 1791. Image taken from the Irish News.
The harbor in 2012. The Titanic Quarter (formerly Queen’s Island) on the right was formed with mud from dredging the Victoria Channel.

Once Belfast had a decent port, it could really let itself go with the ship-building, and it did. The Belfast Harbour Commissioners laid out a new shipyard on the man-made Queen’s Island and in 1867 this became the property of Harland & Wolff Ltd., a company consisting at first of two young and energetic men. They made a success of it. There was a growing demand for ships considering an increase in international migration and trade. And they were quick to adopt innovative design features such as replacing wooden upper decks with steel ones, giving hulls a flatter bottom and squarer cross-section.

In 1868 Thomas Henry Ismay, the new owner of British shipping company White Star Line, commissioned Harland & Wolff to build a steam ship and this was the beginning of a happy partnership, as Harland & Wolff ended up making more than 70 ships for the company. One of these would be the Titanic.

By 1900, Harland & Wolff employed 9,000 to 10,000 people and their site covered 80 acres. Some time that decade, the company’s leader William James Pirrie got the idea, over dinner with White Star Line’s Joseph Bruce Ismay (Thomas Henry’s son), of building the biggest luxury cruisers the world had ever seen. The museum dramatized this decision by having a recording of a couple of butlers with RADA accents ‘gossiping’ about the momentous conversation they had just witnessed.

Knock-off at the Belfast docks in 1911, with the Arrol gantry surrounding one of the Olympic class ships in the distance.

Before these giant ships could be built, the shipyard needed to be ready. For one thing, they required a bigger gantry than any the shipyard had used before. A gantry is a sort of scaffolding-and-crane system that surrounds a ship as it is being constructed; it supports the ship in place and allows workers to move up and down the sides of the ship. This was designed by Sir Arrol & Company and so was dubbed Arrol Gantry. Then they needed a ginormous dry dock, a place where you put a ship when it needs to be built or repaired below the usual water line. As I understand it, it’s like a bathtub that you can flood and empty at will. For these ships they built the largest in the world, named the Thompson Dry Dock. Designs were perfected in huge drawing offices and plans were adjusted at larger scale in a Mould Loft, where the plans were drawn on the floor in chalk to check for any mistakes that hadn’t been caught in the smaller scale drawings.

Drafting room at Harland & Wolff

When everything was ready, construction began on the Olympic and Titanic in September 1908. Just over two years later, on 31 May 1911, the Titanic was ready to launch. About 100,000 people gathered on the shores of the Lagan to see her off. At that point, however, she was still an empty shell and needed to be fitted with all the accommodation, equipment and machinery including engines, boilers, funnels and propellers. So within an hour of the ceremonial launch, the ship was towed by tugs to the deepwater wharf for fitting out. This process took more than 3,000 men ten months to complete.

The Titanic was fitted sumptuously for first-class passengers with a choice of interior decorating style (Georgian, Italian Renaissance and French), oak bedsteads, fine bone china, private bathrooms, walk-in wardrobes, fans, heaters, fresh-water showers and a lounge settee. First-class passengers had access to a private banqueting hall, a gym, a (men only) Turkish bath, a swimming pool and squash courts. There was also Marconi wireless equipment on board transmitting the latest international news so you could keep up with the stock market. The second-class cabins were like first-class cabins on other ships. Even the third-class passengers had a better deal than usual. On other ships they had to sleep in huge dormitories; here they could sleep in rooms with up to ten berths, each room with a washbasin.

On April 2, 1912, after completing sea trials, Titanic left Belfast for good. She headed to Southampton to prepare for her maiden voyage. And unfortunately we all know how that went. After more than five years of preparation, the Titanic took less than two hours to sink and 1,503 people were lost. And at that point in the museum visit, knowing the ending, we left by the elevators because the crowds were starting to freak us out. I’m sure the rest was interesting but I think I’ll wait until the pandemic’s over to see the rest of it.