Hey Belfast: how old do you think you are?


imagesHow old is Belfast?  A tweet by Good Morning Ulster this morning suggested it was straightforward:  ‘Belfast is 400 years old, we’re talking to presenter Dick Strawbridge about a programme documenting the city’s growth’.  If you go into St Anne’s Square in Belfast and venture down an alley-way leading to the car park, you’ll see in big writing on the wall a reinforcement of that notion of Belfast’s emergence. But in response to the BBC tweet, former Belfast Lord Mayor Niall Ó Donnghaile tweeted ‘Belfast is much, much older than 400 years old, folks’.

But maybe he’s wrong and the BBC are right?  Maybe nobody lived in this particular part of Ireland until the seventeenth century? Uh-uh. Even the most rudimentary research shows this to be historically inaccurate.  (No, Virginia, I did not say anyone told a lie; I said it was historically inaccurate.)

I can see room for a claim that the emergence of Belfast as a big maritime/industrial city began four hundred years ago, but that’s not quite the same as saying its history began 400 years ago. We get an almost identical line when people talk about other countries. American was discovered by Christopher Columbus, Australia was discovered by Captain James Cook,  Africa was discovered by Bartholomeu Diaz. And yet we all know there were Americans living in America, Australians living in Australia, Africans living in Africa long, long before any of these individuals were so much as a twinkle in their da’s eye.

So what’s this late-dating of places all about? Why present a history that says they came into existence only when the colonial power arrived? Well you see, it’s really a way of writing history. It suggests that what was there before the arrival of the imperial power was nothing to speak of, not really in existence at all. Only when the colonial powers came along was progress made that’s worth talking about. Look at Armagh, for example. You don’t imagine the Irish would have dreamed up, let alone created such lovely orchards, if left to themselves?

One thing that the original Americans and Australians  and Africans have in common is that they’re a broken people. OK, OK, maybe not so markedly in Africa, but try telling that to a shanty-dweller in Soweto. Or to an Aborigine living a life where social progress is next to impossible. Or to a Native American who has been failed by the education system and is struggling with unemployment and alcoholism.

It’s a sad fact but true: when you can convince the people you’ve subjugated that you did them a big favour by arriving and taking over, you’ve won the game. Despite the evidence of their own eyes and lives, they learn to accept their place at the bottom of the social scale and their history as non-existent. Statements like ‘Belfast is 400 years old’ do a little swerve around the Giant’s Ring, which dates from the Bronze Age, and McArt’s Fort which dates from the Iron Age. These were built by people living in what we now call the Belfast area.  And neither the Bronze Age nor the Iron Age started 400 years ago.

Still, let’s not be too bloody-minded. So a wee bit of our history  got rubbed out – big deal. Compared to Australia’s aborigines, America’s Native People and Africa’s indigenous inhabitants, being second-class citizens without a history ain’t so bad.


12 Responses to Hey Belfast: how old do you think you are?

  1. neill January 27, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    If you want to study the history read “history of ulster” J Bardon

  2. Paddy Finucane January 27, 2014 at 1:45 pm #

    Hey Jude!

    This reminds me of the old (but not too old!) colonial maps where the geographical sizes of those colonial countries were massively exagerrated.

    PS – I know its early in the week, but Niall is a former Lord Mayor. Unless, like the American President they are called Lord Mayor for life?


    A Pedant

    • Jude Collins January 27, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

      Thank you Paddy – I have corrected error. I had ‘former’ in an earlier draft, but clearly a devil has been appointed to excise such details to make me look foolish…

  3. Optical Illusion January 27, 2014 at 5:30 pm #

    How many people realise that the oldest known settlement in Ireland was in Coleraine? (well excluding yourself Jude!). I would hazard a lot less people than should know.

    There is no visitors centre, tourism initiatives or really any effort by the local authority to highlight this historical gem. Why? Because history in Coleraine started with the plantation of Ulster of course, same as Belfast. Many people who live in Coleraine don’t even know this fact!

    “Mount Sandel Mesolithic site is situated in Coleraine, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, just to the east of the iron age Mount Sandel Fort. It is the oldest archaeological site in Ireland with carbon dating indicating an age of 9,000 years old (7,000BC)”
    (Wikis London, not mine!)

    William Crawley on Mount Sandel:

    • Jude Collins January 27, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

      Thanks for that, OI. Maybe it’s the creationists have the handbrake on: it’d be a bit embarrassing to have a site that was 1,000 years older than the earth itself…

  4. Jude Collins January 27, 2014 at 6:58 pm #

    Oops = make that 4,000 years. And isn’t William Crawley a true gem? What a pity we haven’t more broadcasters like him.

    • Optical Illusion January 28, 2014 at 12:57 am #

      hmmm, a conundrum to be sure! ….Coleraine the site of the garden of eden perhaps…….. that made me shudder! (and not in a good way)

      I’ve always found William Crawley to come across as a very affable chap, I could watch/listen to him for a thousand hours more easily than 1min of Nolan to be brutally honest.

  5. Virginia January 28, 2014 at 3:07 am #

    Scotland is a Colonial power, brilliant. Someone text Alex and tell him to add that fact to the independence campaign adverts.

  6. giordanobruno January 28, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    I suspect you may be making a bit too much of this and imagining a meaning that was not there. Belfast was a pretty small settlement, no more than a village really before the 1600s.
    As someone has mentioned Scotland I noticed the bookies are giving 1/6 on a no vote for independence, which surprises me. They don’t usually get it wrong.
    Any thoughts?

  7. Jude Collins January 28, 2014 at 12:37 pm #

    My mind is bursting with thoughts – this blog is my safety valve, Gio….

    I accept what you’ve said is one way of looking at it; but it links into a bigger pattern which I firmly believe is the case: the colonial power always works to diminish the worth of the colonised, so that subjugation is sold as emancipation.

    I think you may be right about the Scots – but fair play to them for putting it up so the facts can be known. I think the same should happen here, then we’d know rather than trying to pin tails on donkeys in the dark (old game, well before your time).

  8. NorthMunsterman January 28, 2014 at 10:10 pm #

    We did….and won hands down in 1918……as you know only too well, I’m sure. Nationalists know a Re-United Ireland is inevitable……biding time until a Nationalist majority from 2020 onwards……with each subsequent year, the unionist position becomes even weaker.

    It’s all good.