For a couple of weeks now we’ve been in the seaside town of Bangor, Northern Ireland. The winter weather here is not infrequently ‘manky’, a word that The Free Dictionary defines as ‘dirty, filthy, or bad’, and it has been particularly so this weekend. Wind at high speeds, rain at high volume, rough seas, anemic sun and the early encroachment of deepest darkness all create the atmosphere of a grossly unsubtle horror film. The wind is especially dramatic near the marina, where it produces various spooky FX on the masts and ropes and other yacht paraphernalia—clanking, howling, whirring. It puts the gulls in a bad mood, too. They’ve been mewling, keening and caterwauling like banshees.
Aside from the sound effects, there’s a wealth of visual interest—the movements of the tide, the activities of various species of bird and the parade of people and dogs along the esplanade. The other day, for example, I saw a man on a bicycle pulled by six huskies in tight formation. Was he training for the Iditarod? I asked myself.
One of the things we like to do is go to through downtown Bangor to the ASDA supermarket and see what all is going on.
This is the Covid-19 era, of course, so the hustle and bustle is subdued. Most of the shops are closed, some of them permanently, unfortunately, with plenty of boarded up doors, emptied interiors and dusty lightless windows. Other establishments are all dealing in their own way with restrictions. For the past couple of weeks Northern Ireland has banned indoor and outdoor seating in restaurants and cafes. Other shops have posted mask requirements and a few are even restricting the number of customers in the store. These restrictions are due to be relaxed this Friday, which is a little worrying seeing that local hospitals are already operating at 101% capacity.
We’ve made the trip enough times by now that we’ve picked up a bit of trivia about the area, including the names of famous sons and daughters of Bangor from days of yore. The very street we live on, Seacliff Road, was home to LAM Priestly, pen name of author and suffragette Elizabeth McCracken who wrote The Feminine in Fiction and once invited Sylvia Pankhurst to Belfast as part of a campaign to support equal pay for women doing work for the Great War. Just a few blocks away is the former residence (marked with a plaque) of the artist Colin Middleton (1910-1983).
Colin Middleton’s house is very close to a fancy cafe and deli named Guillemot, a bird that looks like something halfway between an auk and a cormorant but is known locally as the Bangor Penguin. We still haven’t seen one here, though they are eagerly anticipated here after their moulting season in Belfast Lough. This place does an excellent espresso and almost daily there is a gaggle of people clustered in the rainy street waiting for the waitress to come out and take orders or to bring them their paper cup of coping.
Opposite the cafe is the ‘Long Hole’, which seems to have originally been a little sheltered harbor for small boats in the early twentieth century. Nowadays it’s an excellent place for dogs to jump in and fetch tennis balls, expending plenty of energy while their accompanying humans sip coffee and take in the sea view. This Long Hole is next door to Eisenhower Pier, which, yes, is named after that Eisenhower. General Dwight D. stood on this pier in May 1944, inspecting ships as the Allies prepared to storm Normandy. It was known simply as North Pier until 2005, when Mary Eisenhower (the former president’s granddaughter) came to Bangor for a renaming ceremony.
Very near the pier is an old stone tower that was built in 1639 to serve as a Customs House by James Hamilton, 1st Viscount Claneboyne (1560-1644), one of the first landowners in Ulster to bring workers over from Scotland a few years before the Plantations began. Hamilton was a beneficiary of the Nine Years War. It is the oldest building to have been in constant use in Northern Ireland.
Moving inland, we pass establishments that have been closed for several months: The Salty Dog, The Rabbit Room, The Royal, Brian’s Fish and Chips and others. Funland seems to be open still. I’m not sure what goes on in there and nor am I completely convinced that it’s really fun. There’s also a mural of John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten with a subversion of his famous quote, “Anger is an energy.”
To the left is a little park with a clock tower, benches and pigeons. On non-rainy days it’s full of people sipping coffee, chatting and wandering aimlessly. There is a little fountain there and signs to something called Pickie Fun Park, which is apparently a big attraction for families. Crossing the road, we come to the main commercial cluster, heading up the hill past a few cafes and bakeries, a TJ Maxx, a bank and some goodwill stores.
One of my favorite things is a display window for a local art collective. I quite like some of the artwork on display, especially the bust of the nurse taking off (or putting on?) her scrubs. Unfortunately it has since been removed from the window and I didn’t see the sculptor’s name. But Jane Irving does a good rhino!
By this time we are about halfway up the hill and veering here and there to keep the requisite two metres between ourselves and other pedestrians, who are generally queuing up outside stores or ATMs. At the top of the hill we reach a large church, the First Bangor Presbyterian Church, completed in 1880, though a Presbyterian congregation has worshipped in the town since 1623.
Then it’s just a short walk across the street and we are at our destination, ASDA. Time to gel-blitz hands and grab groceries!
This week we moved to an apartment by the sea in Bangor, Northern Ireland (i.e. not Wales or Maine). The first thing we noticed is the high concentration of luxury cars in the area. In a ten-minute walk I saw two Ferraris, a Mini convertible, a Maserati SUV and several Audis, BMWs and Mercedes. It’s not that I’m interested in cars, either, it’s just quite a big change from the city, where if a family owns a car at all it tends to be a pretty nondescript vehicle.
Though only 12 miles from Belfast, Bangor is in another sense very far away. There are no more brick row-houses decorated with moss and creeping damp, no more Union Jacks and political banners, no more Strongbow beer and bookies. Here the houses are painted primary colors and decorated with tasteful fake-antique signs. The dogs are groomed and dressed in quilted coats. There’s even a gift shop on the main street called Boodle and Doodle (or something like that) selling cutesy items like silver cork-holders and signs making a claim for ‘Poshest House in Bangor’.
Our front window is large and everyone who passes by on the promenade can (and does) look in, but the obverse of that is we have a great view. From the sofa we can see across Belfast Lough all the way to Carrickfergus, the town of the eponymous song, which boasts its own Norman Castle. Throughout the day, depending on the angle and intensity of the sun, the lough adjusts its colour from aquamarine to turquoise to slate. Skirting the coast, sharp rocks stick up, slick with brine and decorated with the occasional vein of quartz. Gulls hover, bob on the sea or roost on the rocks depending on their mood and little fluff-bellied shore birds poke about among the rocks. They’re some kind of small sandpiper, maybe little stints or red knots, which cluster together and seem almost invisible against the rocks.
Yesterday I went for my first run in the area, not knowing exactly what I’d see but ready to be socked with a heavy dose of negative ions. It was about 8 degrees Celsius and blowing a gale, so I put on my woollen hat and raincoat and hoped for the best.Almost immediately I was glad I did because the immersion of senses
About half a mile along the road I got to Ballyholme Bay, site of a small yacht club and also a popular place to swim . Although it’s most popular in the summer, there are a few groups that swim all year round and the local Baptist church even dips its new recruits here when the time comes to baptise a member. Today there was no one swimming that I could see, but there were plenty of dog walkers. At the far end of the curve of the bay was a stretch of sandy beach, covered with slippery kelp that smelled fresh and salty, reminding me of the New Zealand beaches I used to walk on in the weekends. On one side of the beach was a rocky wall artfully constructed with giant flintheads on top.
Where the sandy stretched stopped there was a stile leading to a wild muddy path. A sign enjoining dog walkers to restrain their dogs suggested that it was a public access path so I decided to see where it led. The coast here was very pretty, with grass growing right to the shore, the black rocks patched with bright yellow lichen and the invisible birds whose presence I didn’t guess until I heard their warning cry, occasioned by my feet slopping through the mud.
Retreating from the coast I found the path went through a tunnel of gorse, another reminder of New Zealand. A native European plant, some early settlers brought it to New Zealand to use it as a wind-breaking hedges. Unfortunately it did a little bit too well in that fragile island ecosystem and has long been considered a pest there.
Rounding the bend, I found myself in Groomsport, whose name in Irish is Port an Ghiolla Ghruama(Port of the Gloomy Servant).Intriguingly, it may have once been a Viking settlementas pieces of jewelry have been found in the area.Groomsport has its own little bay and on a clear day you can see Scotland across the sea. As I jogged past the little park by the shore, I saw a man making his way slowly along the path as his dog scampered around with an orange ball in its mouth.
At this point I decided it was time to go back to Bangor but I didn’t want to get my feet cold and muddy again so instead of returning around the coast I took the road, which luckily had a sidewalk. I have had some regrettable experiences on Irish roads that have nothing in the way of a verge so that once I had to climb a tree to get out of the way to avoid traffic. This road was unexpectedly pretty and I had one of those great moments that come to you when you stumble on something beautiful.Now that it is November, the trees are either yellow or bare and either way they look very striking.
After this it got pretty suburbanand I didn’t take many pictures.To make a long story short, I ended up back in Bangor in a high wind ready for a hot beverage.
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.
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.
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 ).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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, 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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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, it‘s 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.