Religion, Politics and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Belfast: The Pound and Sandy Row

Article excerpt

Late Modern European Religion, Politics and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Belfast: The Pound and Sandy Row. By Catherine Hirst. (Dublin: Four Courts Press. Distributed in the U.S.A. by ISBS, Portland, Oregon. 2002. Pp. 223. $39.50.)

This work sets out to challenge some of the by now conventional revisionist interpretations of the politics of Belfast in the nineteenth century. Some historians have argued that Nationalism developed in Belfast only in the 1800's and that Protestant antipathy to Catholics was not of an "ethnic hatred" variety prior to the emergence of Catholic-Nationalism. With admirable clarity and consistency over the period surveyed, 1820-1901, Hirst shows that such ideas are not supported by the evidence.

The study focuses on two working-class areas, the Pound and Sandy Row, respectively Catholic and Protestant sections of the city. From an economic viewpoint both areas were remarkably similar, and Hirst concludes that sectarianism did not originate because of economic conditions. Belfast's sectarianism can be explained by the fact that cross community hostilities were brought to the expanding city by migrants from the Ulster countryside. With the checks and balances of rural life stripped away, the city was poised for the sectarian strife which was a hallmark of much of the nineteenth century and beyond.

Although a working-class phenomenon, the sectarian antipathies of the city were never the less fostered by the local authorities. Time and again Hirst shows how biased the magistrates and the police were against Catholics. In addition to Protestant hostility to Catholicism per se, exacerbated by things such as the great religious 'revival' of 1859, Protestants were also fearful of the politicization of the Catholic working class, a process at work from the early decades of the century. Hirst shows that there was a strong level of support for such radical groups as the Ribbonmen, Young Ireland, and Fenianism, in addition to the constitutionalism of Daniel O'Connell and his Catholic Emancipation movement of the 1820's. …