Jude Collins

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Street names and mind games

I don’t normally read The Belfast Telegraph but I see from the BBC’s online newspaper review that it – the BT – reports today that five major streets of Belfast are going to get a name change. For example, Royal Avenue is to be renamed Mary Anne McCracken Avenue (Mary Anne was Henry Joy McCracken’s sister, and if you don’t know who Henry Joy McCracken was, go and google him and I’ll pretend I didn’t notice you slip away). The idea is to celebrate women’s contribution to the life of Belfast. That’s the good news. The bad news is, the new street names are strictly temporary – they’ll be used for one week only.

Does it matter what they’re called? If the answer is ‘No’, then somebody went to a lot of trouble a while back for nothing. Royal Avenue, Bedford Street, Victoria Square, Albertbridge Road, Queen Street, not to mention the King’s Hall, the Queen’s University and the Royal Victoria Hospital. The intent is obvious: saturate this colonial place in names evocative of King/Queen and Country (our country England, not theirs Ireland) to the point where the words filter into everyday speech and it’s those who would resist the anglicisation of their city who look manipulative and stupid.

Given that Belfast is now a largely nationalist city, is there a case for street and place name-change to reflect their values and aspirations? What about Padraig Pearse Parade - that has a ring; or Connolly Avenue; or Sands Street. If those sound daft to you, ask yourself why. Is it because they are daft names for Belfast streets (as daft as Cairo Street, for example?) or because like the rest of us, the colonial names have been burned into your consciousness until you can’t bring yourself to seriously consider any alternative?

So yes, it’s great that neglected women will have their names applied to the streets of Belfast, even for a week. But if they or any other suppressed group here is dreaming of permanent change, they may dream on. Those who hold power know the power of language. The thousand little flags that flutter in our street and building names will go on fluttering, and their colour will be strictly red, white and blue.

1 comment:

  1. Féilim Ó hAdhmaill8 March 2011 at 16:53

    I think you have a point, Jude. Most street names were created to commemorate people and events felt important by the ruling classes of the time. The names of the streets around the lower Falls were often named after battles the Empire had won. Albert Street appears to be named after Prince Albert. I think that people themselves have to decide whether in the new dispensation such names should be continued to be used in veneration of past ideas of what was deemed glorious. I wouldn't want anyone from Belfast to feel that they didn't have ownership of Belfast City Centre. It is therefore important that names reflect the aspirations and identities of all, if possible. However, I do think there is an argument that the Gaelic tradition and the Irish tradition in general have been neglected in naming streets, buildings and place names in Belfast. I also think there should be a general debate about whether it is appropriate in this day and age to be naming street after royalty (but that is a political position). I certainly don't think it should be considered anti-protestant, or anti-Ulster Scots to challenge the view that just because someone was born into a particular family they should have a road named after them! I think there is a rich Planter/Ulster Scot/Protestant history which all of us would be happy to commemorate in street names - counting the scientific,industrial, charitable, educational, revolutionary and religious contributions to our society as examples. However do we really need to commemorate royalty and Lords? Maybe we need to provide alternatives however before we propose changes. Personally I'd start with Albert Street and work my way down.

    Féilim Ó hAdhmaill