Industrial legacies, division and cultural expression…


Belfast: the industrial revolution made it the Manchester of the North industrially but it appeared to lose the sense of being Athens of the North in cultural and intellectual terms

DURING the recent BBC Radio Ulster programme which I co-presented with Tim McGarry on BBC Radio Ulster on the Act of Union, Dr. Emmet O’Connor of Ulster University made the interesting point that industrialisation in Ulster tended to increase sectarian tensions in urban areas, whereas elsewhere in the United Kingdom the opposite effect took place.

In general terms economic prosperity usually leads to a reduction in tensions in society, but in the context of the northern part of Ireland, the opposite seemed to be the case.

Industrialisation produced the largest shipyards and biggest textile mills in the world in the 19th and early 20th century and created employment for tens of thousands.

The result was a migration from the country into the town, principally Belfast, where there was work in the mills and ‘the yard’.

However what happened was that populations tended to concentrate in sectional areas, with religious enclaves clearly discernible. Belfast had been known as the Athens of the North because it was a centre of political thought and considerable cultural tolerance and acceptance. But in the 19th century it became known as the Manchester of the North and, with no offence to Manchester, this involved a focus more on economics and less on tolerance.

Religious tensions seemed to follow this migration in the 19th century, with the Home Rule issue resulting in communities being at loggerheads with each other. And the divide over the political issue of Home Rule also became largely a religious divide as well. Protestants largely were opposed to Home Rule while Roman Catholics saw it as a means of restoration of the old Irish parliament and of self-government which they hoped would bring a fairer governance.

However the tensions were already evident before the first of the Home Rule bills was proposed.

The Northern Whig of March 1870 details a disturbance on the Crumlin Road when a drumming party paraded up and down the road, near Ardoyne, “to the great annoyance of the inhabitants and also obstructing the roadway”.

The police arrived and cautioned the drummers to desist but were ignored. Two drummers and a fifer were arrested and their instruments were also seized.

The men were George Robinson, Thomas McMeeghan and Samuel Bell and they were charged with being part of a ‘disorderly mob’ which had obstructed the roadway on the Shankill Road and having a large crowd gathered around them.

Police estimated that a crowd of 200 or 300 people were around them and they were proceeding in the direction of Ardoyne when police instructed them to turn back but were ignored.

“…they refused, and, proceeding to Ardoyne, they halted opposite the chapel, beating away. When witness (Constable Furey) saw the way they were going on he went down and arrested the three persons. There were people going into the chapel,” it was reported.

Resident Magistrate O’Donnell told the court that drumming was “a dreadful nuisance in the town.” He castigated those responsible for the incident saying that “Men could not get going to a place of worship for the purpose of annoying those inside, were that place of worship a Roman Catholic chapel, a Presbyterian meeting house or a Jewish synagogue.”

The defence solicitor argued however that “if people are parading up a street with music they are not bound to sink into the earth simply because they have to pass a place of worship.” The magistrate countered that the men had stopped deliberately at the place of worship.

The prisoners were discharged at the end of the case, but were warned by the Mayor that it was a narrow escape.

“The magistrates were determined to put down this foolish practice of drumming along the public roads. It was a great pity that one party should give offence to another by these displays,” the Mayor said, adding that “When one side went out to drum the other party also came out, and the consequences would be, if this practice were continued, that there would be recrimination and fighting all summer.”

The incident was probably not an isolated one. And all the injury would doubtless not have been inflicted on the one side. At the time it occurred, there were disputes and tensions over the Public Processions Act, which Orangemen saw as unfairly falling on them in terms of proscription and the Dis-establishment of the Church of Ireland, which was seen as a disaster by the Anglican Communion in Ireland.

Into this mix agitation for Home Rule was up to start with the formation of the Home Rule Association and subsequent campaigns.

It was clearly potentially a toxic mix.


The tradition of marches in Northern Ireland is part of cultural expression but in interfaces between communities the balance between rights and responsibilities remains a thorny issue

History does not repeat itself in exactly the same ways, but if we do not learn from it, variations can occur.

The modern stand-off over the Orange parade at Ardoyne, which started in July 2013, finally ended in a compromise this summer, whereby Orange lodges were allowed to walk back along the road early on a Saturday morning on condition they not apply to repeat the evening July 12 return parade for an undefined period. Some believe the evening parade is unlikely to happen again.

“Following the completion of this parade (on Saturday) and in a spirit of reconciliation the Ligoniel Orange Lodges undertake to instigate a voluntary moratorium on applying for a return parade,” the agreement said.

Internally both in the Orange Order and the republican community in Ardoyne, divisions had been apparent. There was disagreement within the Order about the strategy of standoff and a clear divergence of opinion on a rural/urban axis – vigorously denied, of course – about the wisdom of the protest. Within republicanism there were two protest groups and when and while agreement was reached with one it was not possible to have the same agreement with the other.

In an article in the Orange Standard newspaper in September, the Orange Order’s Deputy Grand Master Harold Henning welcomed the resolution to the dispute, saying that his organisation remained an integral part of the cultural fabric of Northern Ireland “and will continue to be so in the years ahead.”

“The question is are others willing to share the future?” he asked.

The future will undoubtedly have to involve compromises all around, but indications of greater co-operation between communities at grass roots level and increasing secularism which is numbing old sectarian tensions have brought new variables into the equation.

So too in wider society has a sense of the cost of cultural disputes.

The events of 1870 outside the chapel at Ardoyne can and have happened again. Just as antagonisms and attacks on Orange halls and parades have continued.

There needs to be a growing maturity in order to deal with a past which is littered with battles, skirmishes and wrangles over such cultural manifestations.

In moving forward it is clear that self-regulation of communities may play a part in some areas but it is seldom enough.

The state is a clear stakeholder along with civic society in ensuring that we move away from a past of cultural confrontation.

The future, whatever the difficulties and strains of the past, is there to be shared.