Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ulster 71


I watched a television programme last night that had originally transmitted on BBC Northern Ireland on the opening day of the now almost forgotten Ulster 71 festival at Stranmillis Embankment in Belfast. In part it was redolent of Telly Savalas' infamous travelogues for Birmingham, Portsmouth and Aberdeen and in regard to one of the most ill-timed public events in history after the 1940 Tokyo Olympics.

Half the population of Northern Ireland attended between May and September 1971 - including the author - but of course it was a controversial decision to go ahead with the exhibition in light of how the security situation at the time was devolving. It was essentially a celebration of Ulster history and its industrial heritage on the fiftieth anniversary of the Northern Ireland state and was the biggest of its ilk in scale since The Festival of Britain. There were demonstrations against its opening by Republican supporters, the introduction of internment without trial took place during August 1971 and Stormont itself was prorogued six months after the exhibition closed.

The theme of the festival was "By Our Skills We Live" and the promotional programme incorporated some of the entertainment on hand such as James Young, Gloria Hunniford and some go-go dancers. A "Tunnel of Hate" section attempted to invert the wall sloganeering of the time with the use of graffiti against sectarianism, poverty and racism and as alongside other positive empowerments such as "Remember The Pensioners". Noises of street conflict and riot provided the soundtrack in the background.

I have seen three other pieces of online footage in the past few days that emphasise the extraordinary scale of social change in Ulster. There was a heartbreaking Northern Ireland Tourist Board clip from the turn of the Fifties into the Sixties which essentially displayed a completely and utterly extinguished cultural and physical landscape. Then an overview of Belfast cinemas of yesteryear that have likewise disappeared in their entirety. The clip showed the long gone ABC and New Vic in Great Victoria Street – once the Hippodrome and the Ritz. In one of these I saw my very first X-rated movie – George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead twinned with The Great British Striptease in support. The latter feature had Bernard Manning as compere. Dear God.

Finally there was cine-footage from the 1974 Twelfth of July Orange Order marches in East and South Belfast. All the usual political qualifications aside it was fascinating by way of the sheer folk spectacle of so many participants and spectators alike -which indeed would be latterly noted by Irish writer Dervla Murphy in her A Place Apart travelogue - and seeing the now extinguished historical fusion of Orange culture and Ulster Protestant identity across the class divide. One public comment attached to the clip would underscore the distance of time itself by noting: "just looking through and seeing some of the faces...dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead...1976 was a long time ago.”

From the perspective of early summer 2011 in turn - and what with the revival of Republican and Loyalist youth intifada in Belfast interface areas this very week - Ulster 71 may seem an awful long time ago too but the echoes from the "Tunnel of Hate" have certainly proved more durable than anything those terribly clever civil servants, PR and marketing men or designers could ever have then imagined.

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