Remembrance of Empire in the Nomenclature of Belfast Streets
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Belfast is Northern Ireland’s principal city and at times its centre of government. Its size and past prosperity can be attribute to its role as a major seaport in the former British Empire. In administrative terms at least the city remains “British” today. A clear result of its history is the present demographic pattern of the city and the nomenclature that accompanies it. I intend to discuss an aspect of this nomenclature — the names of Belfast streets, which are evocative of an Imperial past. Such titles should be seen in respect of the political implications and literary function of naming.
It is safe to assert that a name is a construct and therein has a degree of fictionality. To place this in context one could suggest that the naming of an object is less tangible than say its design, naming is governed by few substantial constraints, design by many; physical, financial and so on. However, it would be incorrect to suggest naming is pure fiction; indeed names can be seen as the bridge between the actual object that exists and our ethereal mental image of said object. In light of this a useful definition of fiction would be to see it as “groups of signs” often extremely large groups if one considers the average novel. Thus names in their smallest form would be best seen as individual signs. it would then be possible to theorise that up to a certain point the more signs collected in a single group the broader the fictional and communicative possibilities are.
Consider then if the collector of a group of signs — in literary terms the author — were to bring certain signs together with a thematic intent based upon, for example, an ideological belief. What would be the effect of street names that could be collocated in the same semantic field? A fine working example is a part of Belfast referred to as “The Holy Land” this moniker not being a reflection of the devout nature of its residents but an acknowledgement of the area’s street names, prefixes being “Jerusalem”, “Palestine”, “Damascus” and “Cairo.” Such groupings of street names are certainly noticed, but do they have the power to shape public attitudes? This is doubtful, for example merely renaming the streets of Britain after famous poets would not change its public’s apathy towards the art form single-handedly, it would probably only have an effect in support of say an authoritarian campaign of enforced poetry appreciation.
A street name is a reflection of the prevailing ideology in both public and administrative terms. Titles are an honour bestowed, they are a celebration of that which belongs to the particular noun, which should then results in prolonged remembrance. A thematic grouping would indicate extreme conviction in such celebrations. So in the small Welsh border town I grew up in the anodyne is cherished; Ash Grove, Elm Grove, Beechwood Road, Moss Grove and Belgrave Avenue. These were names given in 1948 in a Britain returned to peace yet still under large scale disruption due to reconstruction and rationing, I feel that the names are representative of a strivance towards a civic normality that had not yet been re-established. For a moment consider the possibility of these roads having been named after say Nazi war leaders a Himmler Close or a Rommel Grove, this could never have happened the very idea would have been anathema to British public and administrative ideologies. Of course if the Second World War had ended differently such naming may have been to varying degrees, enforced.
The central question I wish to raise is thus: Is it possible to read some of Belfast’s street names as a form of Imperial imposition or “fiction” ? The examples of Empire related naming are manifold. The city centre contains “Great” and “Little Victoria Street,” an “Albert Bridge” and an “Albertbridge Road” a “King’s Bridge” and an “Albert Clock.” There is also a “Queen’s Street”, “King’s Street”, “Ann Street”, “Trafalgar Street” and a “Queen Elizabeth Road.” The backbone of the main shopping area is “Royal Avenue” which leads to Victoria’s statue guarding a Union Jack betopped city hall, the latter detail found on few such buildings in Britain itself. The city also boasts a “Royal Victoria Hospital” which contains as Ciaran Carson notes in his excellent text on Belfast The Star Factory, a “twice life sized” statue of Queen Victoria complete with orb and sceptre ( p.95). In fact Belfast has eleven streets alone that are prefixed “Victoria”. Indeed this very website originates from “The Queen’s University of Belfast” named over one hundred and fifty years ago, again in honour of Victoria.
Such blatant nomenclature of Empire is supplemented by secondary naming which one supposes is as a result of Belfast’s place as a seaport. Many centres of the former Empire are celebrated on the map of Belfast: “Canada”, “Vancouver” and “Ottawa”. “Delhi” , “Bombay” and “India.” There is also “Jamaica” and “Adelaide”, “Sydney”, “Melbourne”, “Queensland”, and “Tasmania.” I would suggest that such naming does amount to a fiction of Empire, an offshoot of the colonial pattern of infrastructure and governance. They imply that Victoria and the diverse Empire was mighty and to be celebrated. However, I would also argue that the names are not an imposition as such. Their presence is to some extent validated by the primacy of a majority in favour of union with Britain, to begin with in the North East of Ireland and latterly in Northern Ireland as a Province. To name a street “Victoria” may well celebrate her accession, coronation, jubilee or even death but in Belfast it carried the subtext of celebrating the city’s Empire status. Today many of the names cited are at best cliched or at worst relics. What they certainly do not do is serve to assimilate Belfast into being a British city. Belfast may have the same shops, infrastructure and street furniture as Liverpool or London but through its more “British” than Britain nomenclature it exudes the self-consciousness and fragility of a colonial outpost.
Perhaps now in a Northern Ireland where the balance of power has shifted and British colonial interested has waned, tentatively a time of peace and reconciliation a new non-ideological nomenclature will evolve. Fine heralds of this could be the “Castlecourt” shopping centre of the early 1990’s and the “Waterfront Hall” built in the middle of the same decade significantly in a time of cease-fire, both developments have admittedly benign but also non-ideological names. Their titles exclude no one, a point well illustrated by the rally held in the Waterfront Hall by political parties from either side of the “divide” during 1998’s referendum campaign, such names may foreshadow a future of complete civic normality.
Street and building names can have a function beyond their two dimensional place upon a map. These may have an unconscious effect or may be more blatantly seen. It is worth noting that such effects must be finite. Signs and symbols have little permanence, words gain and lose meanings. As the British Empire falls back into history each new generation will have less of a conception of say “Victoria” and that which she symbolised. The semantic field that indicates Empire is breaking up. The terms that bound one in are becoming more disparate. Connecting Melbourne and Delhi may become a difficult task, four thousand miles in real terms yet only inches away on a Belfast Street map. In light of such decay one can suggest that the Post-colonial has greater connections with the Post-modern, one wonders if a time will come when Belfast’s streets will tell a “great story” whose universalist overtones we will have forgotten how to read.
Carson, Ciaran The Star Factory London: Granta 1998
Ordinance Survey Guide to Belfast Streets 1994