Imagine Belfasts: The Cities of Belfast ed Nicholas Allen and Aaron Kelly

Why the cities of Belfast when Belfast itself is so commonly considered in the media, literature and the arts? This is the question Aaron Kelly and Nicolas Allen pose in the introduction to this timely collection of critical essays – a collection arising, they suggest, from the perceived distance between the city of their lived experience and that of their of their reading. Belfast, as Gerald Dawe puts it here, ‘has been stereotyped to death; a complex history in permafrost; its geocultural life as a port, haven, hellhole, dumbed down before the term was invented’. From beneath the Belfast of these frozen postures – the familiar, troubled Belfast – these essays have been assembled with a view to uncovering other cities: ‘of architecture, women in art, of photography – in new contexts – of global conflict, historical change and radical politics’.  Contributions range from the highly academic to the personal, and are divided, to some extent, between commentary on underwritten aspects of Belfast as it is more or less commonly understood, and attempts, overtly, to theorise or re-think the city’s spaces.  Nothing here, though, falls into the category of naval-gazing local produce or of the last-ditch-Christmas-gift-for-your-father type of Belfast book.  The Cities of Belfast radically seeks to pose Belfast as ‘a site of possibility in Irish culture’, to ‘elude received geography’, to ‘reconstruct imaginative beginnings’ – and, on the whole, this is what it does.

Essays dealing with the forgotten projects of previous generations offer us, then, a Belfast of unexpected pasts.  Nini Rodgers uncovers the city’s role in the Caribbean slave trade during the eighteenth century, while Aodán Mac Póilin’s traces the Irish language in Belfast until 1900, finding, as the editors note, ‘earlier modes of association … loyalists able to converse in Irish mottos’.  Conversely, Catherine Morris’s essay on Alice Milligan and fin de siècle Belfast focuses on the extent of Nationalist cultural activity in the North in the 1890s, challenging the received idea of the Irish revival as a Dublin-based movement.  In an excellent piece on the satires of Gerald MacNamara, Mary Burgess goes some way to redressing the critical neglect of an early twentieth century playwright who, from the material quoted, sounds like a Northern dramatic Flann O’Brien.  Many of the essays further point to the factors that necessitate a collection like this in the first place – to the very difficulties of creatively inscribing Belfast.  Nicholas Allen’s identification of the inability of young writers in the 1940s to reinvent an image of the city (he finds that it took Denis Devlin to ‘recast Belfast, that conflict of loyalties, contradictions, disaffections, as personal experience’) in some ways has its counterpart in Eamon Hughes’ consideration of Belfast, in poetry, as ‘a place of transit’.  Dealing particularly with the work of Seamus Heaney, Hughes argues that more often than not the city appears as a blank space, or in mediated fashion: he concludes that it is ‘in the work of the next generation of poets, most notably in the work of Ciaran Carson, [that] Belfast begins to figure as a place to live rather than to pass through’.  Carson’s work, then, is the subject of Alan Gillis’ analysis, and in tune with the pluralist urban experiences urged by this collection of essays, Gillis writes that Carson’s Belfast poems cast the reader ‘into a dynamically unsettled, vividly rendered, perpetually shifting world’.  In a similar conceptual vein, Aaron Kelly’s rehabilitation of Eoin MacNamee’s Resurrection Man points to its refusal of what he calls (with a proper academic flair for coinage) the ‘rusticative imperative’ of both Irish nationalism and unionism.  By this Kelly refers to a tendency to conceive of place and identity in terms of a rural idealism – and therefore of city spaces ‘as merely the corrupted continuance of the intimate, tribal territories of the tribal imaginary’.  At the back of all this is the intellectual drive to understand the urban as discontinuous and dialectical, a place to live in all its fractures: the city as a city.

Belfast as a place to live, as a city among other cities, is undeniably a new kind of Belfast, and, for all the scholarly reinvestigation of projects past, The Cities of Belfast is situated with one foot firmly in the future.  This is a context which even make tolerable Tom Paulin’s contribution, originally a defence of Belfast’s bid for city of culture.  ‘To argue against Belfast as a city of culture because it has no opera or ballet and has not produced a Belfast Ulysses, is to deny the aspiration of present and future generations: culture pitches itself endlessly forward …’, he begins, before

quickly getting off the point and staying there, mired in certain sentimental notions of Northern Irish speech.  Yet whatever its visions for the future, The Cities of Belfast registers a wariness of quick-fix solutions.  Many contributors comment on what David Brett, in his lyrical evocation of Belfast’s physical and architectural history, calls ‘the propaganda drive to make Belfast appear normal’.  Considering the post- 1990s architectural boom and influx of capital investment transfiguring Belfast’s cityscape, Colin Graham turns to photography for a record of ‘Belfast in its complexity, against the odds’; his essay concludes with commentary on John Duncan’s Boom Town series, some images from which are included here.  Duncan’s photographs of building sites around the city, complete with signs projecting the finished product, reveal how, as Graham puts it ‘the often fatuous and non-indigenous sense of Belfast’s potential spaces rubs visibly against the city as it currently is…’.  If The Cities of Belfast is not simply a reflection on, but part of a process of, re-imagining Belfast, this work, like the best of the essays here, never allow us to lose sight of the responsibilities of such reinvention.

It might still be possible – if you felt like it – to fault Kelly and Allen’s book for a kind of Utopianism: considerations of the distinctive character of, for example, West Belfast, might call into question how the pluralist structures at work here can really accommodate those identities perceptibly at odds with such urban, open characterisations.  You could also be suspicious about a tendency, occasionally in evidence, to conflate ‘new’ and ‘future’ with female.  And, again, it’s possible that the project of re-imagining Belfast is simply too crucial to be entirely objective about all the contributions here (if objectivity were possible when you happen know half the contributors; one of the hazards of living here).  Nevertheless – and, granted, the fact that I don’t read fiction doesn’t allow for stiff competition – The Cities of Belfast is one of the best books I’ve read in ages.  The print, however, is really far too small