Seminar to show alternative history of 20th century Belfast

Sean O’Connell (pictured left), from Queen’s University, Belfast, will lead the next oral history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on Thursday February 15. The paper, The troubles with a lower case ‘t’: memory, deindustrialisation and urban redevelopment in Belfast, is part of a much wider project that seeks to open up the social history of Belfast via oral history.

The city’s historians have – not surprisingly – focused on the violence and sectarianism (the ‘Troubles’) that soaked it in blood for much of the late 20th century. But there are important aspects of Belfast’s history that remain untold because of this focus. O’Connell will present a detailed example of one of those previously submerged narratives. Moreover, he will argue that the ‘Troubles’ can only be understood fully if historians take due cognisance of everyday life in 20th century Belfast.

Like many other cities in the United Kingdom, post-Second World War Belfast underwent extensive ‘slum clearances’ and redevelopment that dramatically re-shaped numerous inner city working class districts. Social historians in the UK have debated the nature of the impact of this traumatic experience on working class social memory in oral history testimonies and autobiographies. 

O’Connell will argue that inner city Belfast underwent two sets of ‘Troubles’ from the late 1960s to the 1980s. The first was the sectarian violence most associated with the term, which broke down the uneasy social relations established between Catholic and Protestant workmates and neighbours.

The second was the process of urban redevelopment, which alongside accelerating deindustrialisation, features as traumatic memory in popular representations of Belfast’s working class past.  Examining oral testimony, short stories and novels, photographs, and street art, O’Connell will explore how the former residents of Sailortown have attempted to come to terms with the impact of urban redevelopment and deindustrialisation on their lives. This dockside district was one of Belfast’s most cosmopolitan communities.

The Sailortown area prided itself on being ‘mixed’: meaning that unlike most Belfast working class districts, Catholics and Protestants co-existed in large numbers. The fracturing of those relationships by sectarian violence adds – potentially – an interesting gloss to the urban pastoral dynamic (associated by some historians with working class memory of urban redevelopment). This paper will investigate that issue as well as identifying the themes that feature most prominently (or are omitted) in the social memory of Sailortown.

  • The seminar takes place at 6pm on Thursday February 15 in the John S Cohen room (203), Senate House, North Block, Malet St, London WC1E 7HU. The seminar is free and open to all. There is no need to book in advance.