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.