How 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.