Remembrance of Empire in the Nomenclature of Belfast Streets

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Remembrance of Empire in the Nomenclature of Belfast Streets


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.

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