Historiographical Records of Twentieth-Century Belfast

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Testimony gleaned from autobiographies and oral histories can enrich our understanding of the cultural, social, and economic life of twentieth-century Belfast. Recording the history of any town with a contentious memory can be difficult and this has certainly proven to be the case in the history of Belfast. Great focus has undoubtedly been given to the Troubles in Belfast from 1968 onwards and the possible reasons for its outbreak but what this essay will focus on will be the period before 1968 and it will consider whether or not sectarian divisions existed during this time. To consider this, both the use of oral history and autobiography will be used in either proving or disproving this theory. Furthermore, when looking at this theory of a contentious city and its memory, it is important to note that both the strengths and weaknesses of these forms of recording will need to be studied to allow a full understanding of whether or not there was an absence of sectarian divisions in Belfast pre-1968.

Reevaluating Pre-1968 Belfast: Sectarian Divisions

To say that sectarian divisions did not exist in Belfast pre-1968 is too simplistic but given that much of the historiography of Northern Ireland as a whole has based itself on this, perhaps has also allowed for the over-stating of the role of sectarian divisions and ethnic-religious conflict in Belfast and beyond. Bearing this in mind, it should be noted that there are many factors as to how sectarian divisions may have existed. If we take the dominant historical view that issues such as gerrymandering, electoral representation, and attacks on one community led by the other, then it is very easy to argue that sectarian divisions existed in the pre-Troubles period. However, it would be negligent to ignore the growing voice of those who say that they did not notice any divisions between the two communities and that daily life focused more on getting by and helping one another, regardless of ethnic or religious backgrounds. If we take these assertions at face value, then it would be very easy to argue that sectarian divisions did not exist at all pre-1968 in Belfast. However, given that the history of Belfast and Northern Ireland is undoubtedly extremely complex, the use of oral testimonies and autobiography must be looked at with an objective mindset. Some discussion must also be given to the day-to-day life of these people and how in turn, this reveals a lot more about Belfast than just the stereotype of a city besieged by sectarian tension and violence as the historical focus on political conflict has left the social history of Belfast sketchily understood.

Oral Testimonies and Autobiographies in Belfast's History

Oral historians such as Anna Bryson have attempted to bring issues that plagued Belfast and Northern Ireland, pre-1968 into the forefront of public awareness as there has been very little written about the pre-Troubles period. While a number of general histories span the period between the Second World War and the outbreak of widespread violence in 1969, there have been few micro-studies to account for the intense levels of sub-regional variations. The historiography of Belfast has tended to focus on a deeply divided society on the basis of ethnic and religion differences giving little regard to the chance to highlight that there have been times of peace and cohesiveness in a city that is often defined by violence and sectarian tensions/aggression. Many of the studies that have been conducted on this period appear to suggest that there was a golden age of relationships between the two communities with little to no sign of sectarian divisions. If we take this at face value, this certainly allows for a refreshing change to the historiography of Belfast and Northern Ireland in the twentieth century.

When using oral history as a means to gain insight into different historical events, there are many benefits of it that must be noted in order to understand why historians may use it when looking at the existence of sectarian divisions pre-1968. At its most basic definition, oral history is a method of collecting narratives from individuals for the purpose of research. However, most importantly, oral history is a unique, qualitative method of interview that follows an inductive and open-ended interview model which in turn, involves a process of storytelling where the researcher guides each participant into narrating their story. By using Leavey’s definition of oral history and what it means for the historian, it can be argued that oral testimonies provide a whole new dimension as it provides an opportunity for perspectives of history to be considered that have previously largely been ignored or forgotten about. Oral sources no doubt provide the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of often greatly challenged historical perspectives that can exist in a person’s memory. Oral history is not often deployed by historians but when it is used, it certainly provides evidence in a new way allowing historians to look at different events, memories, and history in a way that often forms of history may lack.

Similarly, the use of autobiographies in historical research does not seem to have been seriously considered as a form of historical writing in its own right. The use of autobiographical sources have grown in recent years and this can be attributed to the growth of literacy within society and an increasing awareness of recording their own experiences in life, their own reactions, their own ideas and behaviour just as worthy of recording as those of the most outstanding persons of their time. This consequently highlights a growing awareness amongst a section of society, who may not have had the opportunity to record their version of history before, that there is a need to record their innermost thoughts and assessments of different events which in turn, like oral history, adds a new element to historical research. This growth has most certainly allowed for history to be told from the bottom up by giving a voice to those, whose part to play in history may have otherwise gone unnoticed. There is no doubt that autobiography can enhance historical research as it provides a perspective to history that can otherwise be forgotten about.

Furthermore, both historians and public figures such as Marianne Elliott and Baroness May Blood have provided excellent examples of auto-biography that take into account this time period. Elliot’s work has been praised for acting as a timely and welcome reminder that there are other, perhaps less well-known stories that deserve expression. Both women’s work highlights an absence or at least a decline of sectarian tensions before 1968 which undoubtedly, serves to paint a positive picture of pre-Troubles Belfast, even though community had to be chiseled out of adversity. However, to base the history of pre-Troubles Belfast of these testimonies would not allow for a well-informed decision to be made on whether or not sectarian divisions existed.

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In his chapter in of S.J Connolly’s Belfast 400, Sean O’Connell makes excellent use of oral testimonies from a variety of people, all of whom appear to recall the pre Troubles era with a positive outlook. One such example is that of Kathy, a Catholic from Ardoyne who remembered attending the twelfth of July celebrations, ‘…Him and I-on the Twelfth Day-would have went out and looked at the Orangemen…there was no fighting in them days…’ Similarly, Helen a Protestant from East Belfast remembered relations between the communities fondly in the aftermath of the Second World War during the Twelfth celebrations, ‘…it was just a day out. Times have changed terrible…’

An excellent attempt that has been made in looking closely at the period post 1945 to pre 1968 has been conducted in a study by Queen’s University Belfast undergraduate students led by Professor Sean O’Connell. The undergraduate students made use of oral testimonies to examine the dockland district of Sailortown whilst looking at the impact of deindustrialisation and urban redevelopment. For O’Connell, oral history can play a significant role in writing a more nuanced history of Belfast in the second half of the twentieth century. Like many oral sources, the testimony collected by the students often provides new evidence through which to re-evaluate the historiographical literature in the research area the students focus upon.

Memory and History in Belfast

Undoubtedly, memory in Northern Ireland is a tricky business as there are two distinct, opposing, communal social memories and heritages exist. Up until now, the focus on memories of sectarian tensions pre 1968 in Belfast have largely been positive. Some consideration must be given to the more negative aspects of this. Hodson’s work, Titanic struggle: memory, heritage and shipyard deindustrialization, reveals a more negative memory of Belfast especially in regards to time of deindustrialization. Sectarianism lies at the core of the Titanic struggle over memory with Sectarian discrimination at H&W shipyard – both real and imagined – having deep historical roots, and strong contemporary cultural resonance.

Oral history and autobiography as sources of history in the Northern Irish context is complex as there are two communities who claim to hold legitimacy in a contested city and hold a diverse range of opinions and memories that tell very different tales in the memory of Belfast. Consequently, it is important to remember this dynamic when looking autobiographies and oral testimonies as it highlights the possibility that those making such powerful statements about how they remember the pre Troubles could either be looking at the past through rose tinted glasses or with a severely embittered mind-set. Bryson argues that where there used to be an ‘instinct to say nothing’ which had been reinforced by dynamics of violence, repression and fear that comes from attitudes held from the period of the Troubles. Moreover, most studies that have been conducted regarding the relationship between the two communities and whether or not sectarian divisions existed have been conducted in the post conflict era. This produces many issues for the historian interested in this period as there is every chance that the subjects of their study may remember events differently which can obscure the truth, hindering any chance of an objective and balanced study. This can be done as the subject may omit certain details and over emphasise others. Consequently, it is important to note that memory is thus simply recollection. This analysis can easily acknowledge that often memory is repressed; given that, the task of recollection often requires excavation and careful interpretation.

Many issues that come with oral history arose during the study. One such issue that manifested itself was that of representation in a city where the history is so greatly contested. Out of the seventeen Sailortown interviewees, only two were with Protestant narrators which in hindsight led to the idea that approaches to Protestant community groups and churches using a different term for the area may have been more productive. The work carried out by the undergraduates in O’Connell’s study faced the issue of dealing with life-stories in a city beset by ethno-sectarian tensions. Therefore, the opportunity for cultural misunderstandings taking place in the interview encounter is heightened because most Northern Irish students have limited experience of those outside their own ‘community’ due to cultural, educational and residential segregation.

Exploring Pre-1968 Belfast's Complex Past

The historiography that does exist on pre 1968 Belfast appears to focus on the role of urbanization and de-industrialization and the impact that it had on the city. Bearing this in mind, it is evidently important to consider this when looking at the wider issue of whether or not sectarian conflict existed. From 1914 to 1968, there were many sweeping cultural and economic changes which transformed Belfast. This period was one of great transition as it saw the development of suburban areas, the re-planning of inner city districts and most crucially, the change in the economy as once booming industries went into long term decline. Some commentary has been given to the relationship between the Catholic and Protestant communities of Belfast during this period and at first glance, it is evident that many remember the period fondly where there was little to no division and tension between the two communities. One such belief can be seen May Blood’s Watch My Lips, I’m Speaking noting that she was not raised to believe that Catholics were the enemy.

As previously noted, the use of oral history in historical research has been limited. Therefore, when considering the above question, it is important to give some discussion to the strengths and weaknesses of oral testimonies when recording history. While there is no doubt that oral testimony adds a new dimension to historical research and therefore, can enhance the research of the historian, it is not without its faults. When looking at the history of a contentious city like Belfast, it is evident that the issue of memory must be considered when looking at whether or not oral sources are the best source to use. Raleigh Yow advocates that as historians we should consider different aspects when relying on memory as a piece of historical evidence such as whether the memory and evidence produced is accurate, how the historian can differentiate the truth from any inaccuracies and how the historian can use memory as evidence.

Like oral testimonies, when dealing with autobiographies it is important to be concerned with problems of self-knowledge, self-awareness, memory, personal identity. In spite of the fact that the use of autobiography in historical research has not been given as much attention as other sources, it is evident that one can apply similar advantages and disadvantages as oral testimonies. Given that autobiographies are written by the person themselves, there are many benefits and limitations of autobiographies in historical research. Forguson notes that as a rough definition, an autobiography is a historical self-portrait, composed retrospectively. From this it is evident that many issues are posed. One major issue that should be considered is similar to that of memory in oral testimonies. For oral historians, a narrator may describe the memory differently with different cues or, in other words, reconstruct it differently when responding to different needs. When writing an autobiography, the author may easily write what they think they remember but as memories can be reconstructed over time, it should be argued that how the author remembers a certain event may not accurately reflect what happened and therefore, this can hinder historical research. When placing this in the context of looking at the existence of sectarian divisions pre-1968 in Belfast, this can hide the truth as the author may place a more positive spin on events that are deemed controversial or are at the very least, contested for Kammen notes memory is more likely to be activated by contestation and amnesia is more likely to be induced by the desire for reconciliation.


When using oral testimonies and autobiography as a means of looking at the existence of sectarian divisions in pre Troubles Belfast, it is obvious that there are ethical issues that must be considered. Given that much of Northern Irish historiography tells us of two very different and contested backgrounds, as well as writing this in a post-conflict period, it is important that consideration is given to what information is collated and collected from these sources. One excellent example where by ethical standards, should have been dealt. Exploring experiences of and testimony about these processes not only enriches historical understanding of the city’s social history, it ultimately enables a deeper understanding of ethno-sectarian cultural politics.   

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