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Sunday, 26 August 2018


Six writers and me reflect on Belfast:

Sean O’Faolain in An Irish Journey (1940) wrote: ‘Walk up Donegall Place any night about seven, passing the strolling poor, factory hands, clerks, mill-workers, shipyard workers, domestics, and go into the big hotel a few hundred yards up, where you find the higher executives and employers enjoying themselves in the best eat-and-swill manner of an English industrial town. You have before you an outline of Belfast’s social structure. There is no aristocracy – no culture – no grace – no leisure worthy of the name. It all boils down to mixed grills, double whiskeys, dividends, movies, and these strolling, homeless, hate-filled poor. It is brutal.’

In 1983’s The Kingdom of the Sea, travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux wrote: ‘I knew at once that Belfast was an awful city. It had a bad face – mouldering buildings, tough-looking people, a visible smell, too many fences.’

The writer and critic V. S. Pritchett in Midnight Oil (1971) wrote: ‘Belfast was detestable. The only decent hotel at that time was grubby. The city is the most dreadful in Ireland. The Ulster accent, a bastard lowland Scots, is harsh and is given a sort of comic bluster by the glottal stop imported from Glasgow. The humour is boisterous, the fanaticism is brutal and relations between Ulster employers and workers is rough.’

The dramatist and poet, Frank Frankfort Moore wrote in 1914: ‘Belfast is really a wonder. It has been growing within the past seventy years as few towns in the world have been, but it has not outgrown its strength. It has been well looked after, morally as well as physically, and the result is that today it can do what few other cities can do. It can launch the largest ships that the world has ever seen; it can spend nearly a quarter of a million making a dock that will enable the biggest ships in the world to be repaired; it has the largest rope works in existence; and the largest spinning mill. There is no city in the kingdom that can compete with Belfast.’

Denis O’D. Hanna offered this from an architect’s point of view (slightly paraphrased by me) in The Face of Ulster (1952): ‘What shall I say of Belfast? First of all it is a beautifully set city, the best in the British Isles. Belfast is alert, efficient and dependable. What it sets its hand to it will ultimately do well.’

In 1843, writer William Makepeace Thackeray found ‘the town of Belfast to be really as neat, prosperous and handsome a city as need be seen.’

And this is what I wrote in an exile piece for the Belfast Telegraph in 2015: 'It is a city to shake a fist at and to embrace seconds later. It is stuffed full of creative people and more than a smattering of political slabber. Belfast is in my blood. It is where I began.'

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