Jenny McCartney Jenny McCartney

The power and the glory that was Belfast

Before the Troubles hijacked its reputation, the city was renowned for its linen industry and great shipyards, responsible for an eighth of the global shipbuilding trade

The Titanic on the stocks at the Harland & Woolf shipyard, Belfast. [Getty Images]

What should we make of present-day Belfast and its compelling, fractious backstory? English visitors have long found the city invigorating, confusing or exasperating – often all three – but undeniably characterful. Philip Larkin, who lived there for five years in the 1950s, noted its ‘draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint/Archaic smell of dockland’ and found himself enjoying the ambiance: ‘the salt rebuff of speech/ insisting so on difference, made me welcome’. Not so Sir Reginald Maudling, on his first visit as home secretary amid the escalating sectarian insanity of 1970. He boarded the plane back to London with the words: ‘For God’s sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country!’

Those who grew up there, as I did, have a tendency to absorb its history more by inhalation than education, leaving gaps in the detail. To read Feargal Cochrane’s wide-ranging account of the city, therefore, is to ricochet pleasurably between recognition and surprise. I knew, for example, that the name Belfast derives from the Irish words Béal Feirste, but not that Feirste refers directly to the river Farset, a dwindled tributary of the river Lagan now trapped and hidden underground: ‘The main artery of the Farset still flows up High Street today, contained within large pipes under the road, some of which are so big you could drive a bus through them.’

‘For God’s sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country!’ said Reginald Maudling

The reminder of this subterranean force seems fitting for a place with its own fluid seam of metaphorical darkness: the sectarian tensions that have sporadically burst forth in streets or shipyards to engulf its citizenry. Their origins go back to the man widely regarded as Belfast’s founding father, a wily Elizabethan brute called Sir Arthur Chichester, who built up the city as a bastion of English control while pursuing a scorched- earth policy with regard to the native Catholic Irish.

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