Books: The battle of the working classes

The book investigates why Catholics' Ulster identity has withered so dramatically

A PAST APART: Studies in the History of Catholic Belfast 1850-1950 by A C Hepburn, Ulster Historical Foundation pounds 9.99

On 17 June the Northern Ireland government banned all marches in Belfast. Ten days later the order was revoked. On 12 July 40,000 Orangemen marched through the city. There were scuffles as they passed Catholic areas. In York Street Catholics prepared to defend their enclave with piles of paving stones. Over the next nine days rioting continued, with Protestants and Catholics in mixed-religion areas taking the brunt of the attack. Three hundred and forty Catholic and 64 Protestant families were intimidated out of their homes. Ten people were killed, 83 injured and the sectarian geography of Belfast was reinforced with waves of refugees.

But this is not July 1996, or the aftermath of the Drumcree episode this summer. It is 1935, and since the records of this particular marching season are still under lock and key, it is unlikely that those faced with the same problem today will learn anything from it.

At first sight this excellent book seems to confirm the sickening inevitability of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. The main theme is a detailed analysis of how the sectarian geography of Belfast materialised. Belfast developed as a Protestant town in the 17th century, with Catholics only beginning to arrive in significant numbers in the 19th century. By then its economic expansion - it had the fastest growing urban economy in the British Isles - was already at the centre of Protestant regional pride. The arrival of Catholics to man the textile mills began to threaten Protestant working- class dominance. Most of the riots and attacks thereafter (and they start in 1813) had a territorial element, as minorities were driven from mixed areas. Thereafter a "ratchet effect" comes into play, where segregation increases more in troubled times than it decreases in calm times, and so the trend was steadily upwards.

Of all the Catholic enclaves, West Belfast and the Falls Road alone retained the potential to expand, and so became the dominant Catholic area in the city, accounting for 41 per cent of its Catholic population by 1901. It was this certainty about the religious make-up of given areas which accounted for the frightening escalation of random killings in the years prior to the 1994 ceasefires. It was working class on working class, just as it had been from the outset.

There was an inevitability about the development of separate enclaves in Belfast, for both Protestants and Catholics had well-developed ethnic religious identities prior to the latter's arrival. Some of the most fascinating parts of this book tackle the problematic issue of identity, particularly the enigma of why Catholics' regional Ulster identity (evident two centuries ago) should have withered so dramatically in modern times. Again the explanation lies in the pre-existing religious identity. As Protestantism increasingly identified Ulster as its homeland, and Protestant unity became focused on Orangeism, so Catholics' identification with the region declined. The political expression of this division came late in the day, a veneer almost, and in the Catholics' case nationalist politics were an importation from the south. Ulster Catholicism had stood apart from the politics of the rest of the country, a tendency still encouraged by the Catholic bishops late into the 19th century. Things changed rapidly after the importation of the Christian Brothers, with their "Faith and Fatherland" ethos and their exclusively southern teaching staff. The outcome was that Catholic politics had lost any identification with the northern region well before it became the Northern Ireland state in 1921.

There is plenty of statistical evidence in this book to support the picture of the Catholic community in Belfast as particularly disadvantaged. But once again the trend predated the foundation of the Northern Ireland state. The new industries which created the city in the 19th century were predominantly Protestant and retained a Protestant ethos. Catholics came late, entered at a lower level and stayed there. Upward mobility only happened within the different cultural enclaves, segregation perversely opening up careers in segregated education, retailing and social and cultural organisations. Both communities pursued separation with a will, and, as Tony Hepburn concludes, "political structures within which they might remain truly `Separate but equal' have been as elusive in recent years as they were a century ago."

The story may be bleak, but the message is not. Ethnic separation and conflict long predated ethnic politics. Such longstanding tribalism and sectarianism is unlikely to wither away, even if new political structures are on offer. But, as Hepburn argues persuasively, acceptance of them, warts and all, while granting each group total equality, offers a way forward. Then perhaps we can build on that unique and very rich Belfast humour, which thrives on religious rivalries and peculiarities and often develops far more honest relationships than the other side of the sectarian coin: that awful fancy footwork around divisive issues which so characterised polite society in Northern Ireland in the past and disguised a sectarianism far more intractable than the raw working-class variety highlighted in this stimulating and important book.

Marianne Elliott is Professor of Modern History at Liverpool University and is writing a history of the Catholics of Ulster.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas