Wednesday 22 June 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916)



Fifty years seem an eternity to youth, but only a brief breathing time to age. I have spent the last fifty years of my life (save two) in Belfast, and at times it seems but yesterday since I first set foot on its hospitable streets, and found kindness and friendship from its people. Many of the events and persons of those days are fresher in my memory than those of yester-year, and when I awake from a reverie I almost feel like a Rip Van Winkle among strange scenes and strange people. I remember with what awe and admiration I made my first visit to the town, and contrasted its life, splendour, and activity with that of my dear Derry, where my boyhood had been spent. In those early days we youths of Derry regarded Belfast with respect and reverence, and imagined its streets as paved with gold and its inhabitants going about dressed in purple and fine linen. But when I visited it I did not find any gold in the streets, and discovered that my silver was swallowed up as the Scotchman found his sixpences swallowed up in London.

I propose now, by the favour of my readers, to repay back part of the kindness Belfast has bestowed on me by recalling such of the leading incidents, characteristics, and personages as I can remember, and give the men of the present generation some idea of the life, times, and characteristics of their fathers.

Perhaps nothing could better illustrate the changes of fifty years than Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" and his "Locksley Hall Sixty Years Afterwards." When the poet wrote the first poem the poet was young, ardent, fiery, and his poetry breathed in every line the spirit of youth; when he wrote the second fifty years had passed, and the poet had mellowed and his fire was subdued. The characteristics of the poet were manifested in the characteristics of his hero.

Fifty years ago the first poem was still a favourite reading of all elocutionists, and a gathering of an elocutionary, character was never regarded as complete without it. I remember one elocutionist who was known as "Locksley Hall" from the frequency with which he recited it. The poet and his hero had the fire of youth, and it kept burning. When the sequel was published the old men of the time did not take the poem as their own as the young men of half a century before did, and I do not remember hearing it even once read in public. Whether the fire had died out of the poet or out of the public I cannot say, but the second poem never acquired the popularity of the first.

This came into my mind as I was cogitating about the changes the last fifty years had wrought. To accept the illustration literally would mean that 1866 was full of the fire and ardour of youth, and 1916 was getting cold and mellow, without fire and without spirit. But I am afraid if I made such a suggestion I would have all the youth and all the spirit of the age against me; and, I would admit, with justification. The Belfast of to-day is not a city worn out by age, but one that every year is renewing its strength like the eagle, running without being weary, walking without being faint. It is quite true that when I first set eyes on Belfast and settled down in it I did not think there could be a finer town in the world – it had not risen to the dignity of a city in those days. And I suppose I would not have thought a greater possible if I had never seen other cities.

But that is the worst even of moderate travel. It may improve one's sense of proportion, but it is calculated to lower his self-esteem. I remember about fifty years ago, when the late Mr. W. D. Henderson, one of my earliest and best friends in Belfast, was advising me to see Paris and live – it was at the time of the Exhibition of 1878, the first after the great and desolating war – he said if a man never goes out of Belfast he will think John Macnaughtan's church a great cathedral. I doubt, even without travelling, I would have regarded that church as a great cathedral, but whatever my visit may have done in extending my knowledge of cathedrals, it never modified my opinion as to the excellence of Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church as a centre of vigorous life and power, or my high appreciation of the occupants of the pulpit or of the pew, past and present.

While I am prepared to make the concession to the present that in life and activity, hustle and bustle, go and dash, energy and prosperity, the Belfast of to-day far transcends that of fifty years ago, yet when I look back upon it all I must say that in all that makes for comfort and happiness, and relative prosperity, the Belfast of fifty years ago, for its time and opportunities, was as much deserving of praise and honour as the Belfast of to-day. It had many disadvantages, and when I think of the many things it lacked that it now has, I sometimes wonder how it was able to exist at all. I remember once hearing of a sermon preached by a well-known divine of the last half century on the importance of the study of the Scriptures. He told his hearers that Timothy and Paul had studied the Scriptures, and went over the long line of New and Old Testament saints who, he said, had all studied the Scriptures. At last he reached Abraham, and he told his hearers the limited Scripture he had to be content with – he had only the first eleven chapters of Genesis.

Now when I think of what Belfast had not then that it has now, I imagine that it would have been as ill supplied with the necessaries of life and enjoyment as, according to this divine, Abraham was with the Scriptures. Yet with all his disability Abraham seems to have done very well, and became the father of the faithful. With all its disabilities Belfast of fifty years ago did well, and laid strong and deep the foundations on which the city of the present has been built. We had no trams or motor cars in those old days. Those of us who could not afford a carriage or a ride on a hackney car had to walk to or from our business, a mile or two, be the same more or less. And yet we never grumbled or growled. We felt that feet were made for walking and time for slaves. Now we regard a walk of a mile or two as a Sabbath day's journey, and would regard it almost as a breach of the Sabbath to indulge in it. We must have our tram or our motor to take us to our own street, and grumble when the tram does not take us to our own door. Not only were we willing to tramp home for our meals, but we took time to consume our victuals in a leisurely and rational way, which all medical authorities tell us is the way to health. We were never on the strain or rush as we are now when we gobble up our chop in mid-day, grudging the time that it occupies. We were content to wait in those days, and our patient waiting did not seem to bring much loss, if we consider that at any rate comparative prosperity and content that existed.

We had no telephones or cheap telegrams in those days. Our merchants had to wait on their customers in a double sense, and the customers to wait on the merchants. Then an hour or a day was a mere speck in time; now an hour is an eternity. We were content to possess our souls in patience for forty-eight hours to await a reply to our business communications from London; but now we are in a fidget if we do not get a reply within an hour. In the old days the Commercial Newsroom was the centre of business exchange and activity, and on many a day I have seen the large building filled with merchants and customers, and humming with conversation, and many buyers and sellers crowded out into the street. Now what was the busy newsroom is no more, and its spacious hall is used as an auction mart, in which the periodical cry of "Going, going, gone" of the auctioneer tells the tale in a double sense of the departure of ancient glories.

We had no Royal Avenue in those days, but we had got a Victoria Street brand new, which it was expected would attract the trade from the centre of the city. But it did not, even though one of our leading banks took up its quarters in the new thoroughfare. We had not a City Hall. We had not even a Town Hall, though what was in the interval made into one has now become the old Town Hall, and the centre of a new form of activity that was not dreamed of in those days. We had a building that was called a Town Hall, no doubt in irony, as Mark Twain says St. Paul spoke of the street called Straight in Damascus. No doubt our small band of Corporators met in a building in Victoria Square which had neither dignity nor accommodation, though the officials of the body at the time thought it was much too good for them as many think the City Hall is now for the men who occupy it. That building has now been converted to a better purpose – namely, Messrs. Cantrell & Cochrane's mineral water manufacture. There is just this connection between the two, that the utilisation of gas is a feature of the new as it was of the old possessors.

We had no Lord Mayor; no High Sheriff. We had a Town Clerk, it is true, the late Mr. Joseph Guthrie, who was as particular as the present Town Clerk, Mr. Meyer, is popular, but he managed to drive two horses going in opposite direction as well as any of his successors. We had no Technical Schools, no Free Libraries, no Police Courts or Barracks worthy the name, no electric works to generate strife, and no abattoir to generate sound and safe meat; no Public Baths to promote cleanliness, and no public parks to promote health – and taxes; no palatial hospitals for old or young, no Picture Houses, no golf, no football, no Flag Days, no Rotary Clubs, no Home Rule, and no dirt destroyer.

We could not boast of the greatest shipbuilding yards in the world, the greatest ropeworks in the world, the greatest tobacco factory in the world, the greatest distilleries in the world; but we had, as we still have, and long may it remain, the greatest spinning mill in the world. At that time Harland & Wolff's works were in their infancy, and Workman & Clark's hardly in embryo. I well remember when much of what is now a hive of industry in the Queen's Island was simply a mass of grass and wild wood, and when the affairs of the firm that has removed everything green from the spot were conducted in what was simply a wooden Hut, a shed, instead of now in one of the most palatial set of offices in the kingdom.

We had not as many palatial public-houses as we have now. In those days, though, perhaps we did our share of drinking, but we or the trade were modest at the time, and did not flaunt it. The public-houses of the time were largely in entries or side streets. We had not the attraction of glaring glass and the inevitable barmaids, which seem to draw our young men, and some of our old ones, too, as by an invisible cord. I do not suggest that there was not a good deal of drinking in those old days; but think there was less among the young than in the present. And yet while that is true, the public sentiment is more temperance, I will add more teetotal than it was in those days; and I must say the war and the limitations it has imposed on the trade has led to a more healthful tone. But while I am sure the people are not perishing for lack of liquor, the liquor sellers are not perishing for lack of customers.

Now, when they think of what we lacked fifty years ago, that we have come to regard as necessities now, the young of to-day nay be inclined to wonder how or why their fathers lived. The majority of us today would regard life as hardly worth living if they were deprived of any one of their pleasures or luxuries of which their fathers knew nothing, and for which they would have cared little even if they had them. And yet, on the whole, they lived well and comfortably. If they did not live to work, they worked in those old days to live. It may be that because they had not so many opportunities to spend, they did more to save, and many of the fortunes and businesses that the present generation enjoy were built up under conditions in which the absence of rush did not lead to rust, leisurely movements did not lead to lackadaisical indifference, and the absence of means, if not taste, for spending money prevented waste. So that for myself in beginning my contemplations and recollections of the past, while I am happy to be alive in the present, I look back to the good old times of the past with thankfulness that I lived in them, and with grateful remembrance of the time and the men of the time.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 23rd June 1916.

The "Man in the Street"was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

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