The intertwining of fate, people, and time: Voices and views of 20th century Belfast @ImagineBelfast
by Raquel GOMEZ for Shared Future News
14 March 2018
Photography, cinema, and immigration. It would seem that they have nothing in common, but the event “Voices and views of 20th Century Belfast”, as part of the Imagine Festival of Ideas and Politics, explored the past of Belfast city from these diverse perspectives.
Through three different speakers — Lucy Wray (collaborator with Ulster Museum), Sam Manning (PhD in “History of popular cinema in Belfast” at Queen’s University) and Jack Crangle (PhD in “Immigrant Communities during the 20th Century”) — it was possible to discover three diverse views of 20th century Belfast.
Lucy Wray illustrated the streets of the city from the early beginning of the century through the work of Alexander Hogg, who was one of the noted photographers of this time and captured and reported the social conditions of the lowest social classes.
Many recognisable places of Belfast. Providing a window into the city past. Connecting the past with the present.
The second speaker was Sam Manning, who explained the importance of cinema in Belfast, especially during the first half of the 20th century.
The 1940s and 1950s were the peaks of the cinema in Belfast city. Then, Belfast had around 40 cinemas, such as the Apollo, Ritz, or Curzon. But when television arrived, many cinemas closed.
Yet the buildings have remained. Some of them, like Apollo Cinema, is today a Chinese supermarket.
Jack Crangle was the last speaker, who spoke about how immigrants lived in Belfast in the 20th century and how they have become a part of Belfast in our time.
If we talk about the 20th century in Northern Ireland, probably the first thing that arrives in our heads is the conflict. As Crangle explained: “During The Troubles, and even today, we are used to talking about two communities living in Northern Ireland — Catholics and nationalist, and Protestants and unionist — but this excludes any other groups like Hindu, Italian or Chinese communities”. These communities arrived in a divided society and they tried to stay neutral with local residents.
“You see we had no problem with anybody. In the country we dealt with both communities, and we had no problem. Because when we went to a customer we didn’t ask who the person was, or what faith they belong to,” said Somnath Aggarwal, a first generation of the Hindu community in Belfast, on a record that Crangle played.
Immigrants couldn’t avoid becoming a part of The Troubles. The Troubles affected them, sometimes with really tragic consequences, like destroyed businesses or personal injury or death.
Meanwhile, immigrants also deal with racism. But, as Crangle said: “It is really difficult to obtain any concrete conclusions. Different people said different things. There are two perspectives. The first perspective is that during the sectarian conflict, people were just caring about their own conflict.
“The other vision is that a climate of sectarianism, division and conflict creates the sense of outsiders and insiders, and actually increases the severity of racism.”
In this sense, Prem Tohani, one of the people who was interviewed by Crangle, remembered that someone asked her: “Are you a Catholic Hindu or a Protestant Hindu?”
This division between Catholics and Protestants didn’t accommodate any other religion.
There is no doubt that The Troubles and the social division of Northern Ireland was a particular situation for immigrants’ integration.
The third generation of these immigrants has been turned into part of the city. As Crangle confirmed: “This generation believes that China, India or Italy may be places with emotional attachment and really nice holiday destinations as well, but Belfast is still home.”
Through Hogg’s photographs we can look out the past, as a window. Through the intertwining of fate, people, and time, now, we can buy Chinese food at the Apollo Cinema and meet these immigrants in Belfast, who call this city home.
More images available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/proni/sets/72157633602250250/