Writing the experience of the urban working class

By Adrian Grant 

The experience of the urban working class during and after the ‘Troubles’ has been largely neglected by historians. This may seem like a ridiculous statement given that the street violence from 1969 onwards began in the most identifiably working class neighbourhoods of Belfast and Derry. It is also indisputable that urban working class communities were disproportionately affected by violence during the ‘Troubles’, and the urban working class certainly forms the most left behind demographic in contemporary Northern Ireland. It should come as no surprise then, that the vast majority of history writing about the ‘Troubles’ interacts with the urban working class to some extent. Accounts of the civil rights movement, of escalations of violence, books about paramilitary groups, and general histories must inevitably concentrate on the urban working class communities that form a central part of any narrative or analysis of the period.

To treat the urban working class experience as part of a study of paramilitarism, to take one example, is not the same as writing the history of that section of the population in its own right. Hence my argument that it is a largely neglected topic. A full academic history of public housing in Northern Ireland has yet to be produced, regardless of the hugely important role of housing as an issue before and during the ‘Troubles’, and in sustaining division in the present. This is symptomatic of the underdevelopment of ‘Troubles’ historiography generally, but it also points to a concentration on elite politics, patterns of violence and analysis of key events by historians. Admittedly, the events of the ‘Troubles’ are still within the memory of most professional historians working today, and arguments can be made to justify the lack of academic historical research being carried out, such as the unavailability of some governmental and private source material. However, as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the Duke Street civil rights march, the time has surely come to produce an audit of what has been written thus far, and by whom.[1] Such a process could ensure that what will essentially be the first sustained period of history writing about the ‘Troubles’ can address significant blind spots at the outset.

It is a major cause for concern that there is not a single member of permanent academic staff within the history departments at Northern Ireland’s universities working mainly on the ‘Troubles’. This situation impacts on early career researchers who can struggle to find mentors and develop their work and ideas in the usual way. Conversely, the situation presents emerging historians with an opportunity to carve out innovative and niche approaches to the study of the recent past. This can be achieved by combining historical research methods with those of other disciplines to produce experimental histories with the potential to raise questions and stir others to either follow the path of innovation or react by producing much needed traditionalist historical accounts. Either way, the historiography will benefit.

One such innovation is the development of a ‘meso-history’ approach that combines the benefits of micro-history (researching at the level of the street or the neighbourhood, for instance), with the grand global narratives of macro-history. The study of urban working class experience during the ‘Troubles’ lends itself perfectly to such an approach. Two issues, deindustrialisation and urban regeneration, provide the perfect portal through which the meso-history approach can be tested using an interdisciplinary methodology. Both phenomena had massive impact at the micro-level and can also be used to explore the history of Northern Ireland in global terms. Belfast, for instance, may have been central to news headlines throughout the world at the end of the twentieth century, but its experience was not entirely particularistic. There is scope to examine urban morphology in tandem with violence in Belfast and other deindustrialising cities across the western world in the same period. This can be achieved by using traditional historical research methods, particularly oral history, but also by considering the spatial dimensions of change and their impacts on human experience and behaviour over time. Developments in technology have allowed for more effective spatial representation of historical process to become easily attainable. GIS mapping, drone and 3D camera technology can all be used to improve representations of history, but they also have the potential to revolutionise the historical method by forcing historians to think in spatial terms and to contribute to the spatialisation of history generally.

As the current and future generations of historians move towards the development of a robust historiography of the ‘Troubles’, spatial considerations and the incorporation of methods from other disciplines are essential if we are to reach a thorough understanding of the subject. Considering the urban working class experience specifically through a spatialised methodology can contribute immensely to our knowledge of the ‘Troubles’ and promote the idea of looking at Britain and Ireland during the late twentieth century in new ways generally.

Image: Commons Wikimedia 

[1] Journalists, political scientists, anthropologists and others have been prolific in writing historical accounts of the Troubles. It would be interesting to see how the output of historians compares.

Adrian Grant is a historian and researcher at Ulster University. He currently splits his time between the School of Architecture and the Built Environment, and INCORE (the International Conflict Research Institute). He is the author of Irish Socialist Republicanism, 1909-36 (2012) and the forthcoming The Irish Revolution: Derry, 1912-23 (2018). He is currently preparing articles for publication arising from an interdisciplinary research project focusing on the impacts of residential design and planning in Belfast during the Troubles.    

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