14 August 2010

Belfast Rivers on the Rise

I do not mean to say Belfast’s rivers are physically rising, although come autumn we may witness that too. They are rising in the culture of the city, seeping up through concrete and reminding us to remember them. We all know the Lagan of course, but what of the Farset, the Clowney and the Blackstaff? They have been buried under the city but now some artists and cartographers are bringing them back up.

This is a section of the map only. Visit PLACE’s website here. I like their blog too.

PLACE, the Architecture and Built Environment Centre for Northern Ireland, ran a project recently called Resounding Rivers. It was by Matt Green. It featured a series of sound installations around the city and a map of “Belfast’s forgotten rivers.” Once, we learn from the map, there was a reservoir where the BBC are now located on Ormeau Avenue. Kelly’s Cellars, when it first opened in 1720, stood on a riverbank.

Clues to Belfast’s watery past can still be found in street names. Bank Street was once by a river. Now the river runs under it. Skipper Street was once much closer to the sea and was lined with boarding houses for sailors. PLACE itself is on fountain street. As the name indicates, this is where fresh water was made available via public taps. The water had to be piped in from the hills despite the fact that the Blackstaff river flowed along the end of the street. This was because the all of Belfast’s rivers were tidal, therefore salty and therefore undrinkable. Belfast was not just placed among a network of rivers, it was entangled with the sea.

“It’s like fucking Venice except nobody’s letting on!” says Dermy in Jimmy McAleavey’s play The Sign of the Whale. It had a run in Belfast’s Baby Grand theatre lately. In this drama both the whale and the water flowing under Belfast operate as contrast to violence on the streets. It is set in 1977. Dermy finds a map of Belfast’s forgotten rivers and sets off to follow their routes. During one monologue he becomes enraptured by the possibilities of free water rolling under the troubled city, unpolluted. “You can feel it rushing along. Overcoming obstacles. Clearing the arteries. Flushing the streets a man could say … All the clots and the shit and the impasses. The sticking points ands the standoffs and the stumbling blocks … and … yes, the bodies.”

The Sign of the Whale was a Tinderbox production. The poster image for the play mingles cartography and a whale. There is a certain sense of discovery in the way the whale is being peeled open to expose a map on its bones. There is also a certain amount of horror.

This is a detail only. Belfast c. 1600 to c. 1900. The Making of the Modern City covers the city extensively.

Raymond Gillespie and Stephen A. Royle have produced a fascinating map of Belfast’s development, Belfast c. 1600 to c. 1900. The Making of the Modern City. It can be mined for all sorts of information but perhaps the most immediately striking thing is just how much more blue there used to be. From the map we learn that the Lagan was much wider (up to 1833) the Markets were muddy water (until about 1700). The map also shows us the Blackstaff flowing straight through Donegal Square.