I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Before The Fall

Andy Pollak
Hearthlands: a memoir of the White City housing estate in Belfast, by Marianne Elliott, Blackstaff Press, 260 pp, £12.99, ISBN 978-0856409974 Marianne Elliott is one of Ireland’s outstanding historians and socially committed academics, best known for her books on Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and the Catholics of Ulster, her membership of the Opsahl Commission in the 1990s and her leadership of Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies. In this latest book she returns to her roots in the religiously mixed housing estate where she grew up, on the northern edge of Belfast. Elliott is that relatively unusual Northern Irish person: somebody from a working class background, passionately middle ground in her politics, without a sectarian bone in her body. This book goes a long way towards explaining why. When her young mother and father – she from Kerry, he from Belfast, both of them Catholics – became tenants of a brand new council house in the White City in north Belfast in the late 1940s, they were part of an experiment in exporting the British Labour government’s welfare state concept of good housing for working people to the UK’s most socially backward and politically reactionary province. Belfast Corporation’s housing record until then had been a disgrace. “There was no city in England, Wales or Scotland,” commented future Northern Ireland Housing Executive chairman Charles Brett, himself a Labour man, “whose house-building record in the inter-war years, whether in the public or private sector, or taking the two together, was worse than that of Belfast.” Fear of socialism, the stranglehold of moneyed interests, the pusillanimity and prejudice of local councils, and class snobbery – the power of the ratepayers – made Belfast a city of slums. It was estimated that a complete programme of slum clearance and ending overcrowding would probably involve the building of at least two hundred thousand houses, nearly two-thirds of the entire existing stock. Amazingly, that was about to start to happen. When he introduced his 1944 Housing Bill, William Grant, the new minister for health and local government and a working class unionist with Labour sympathies, set himself the huge task of building at least half that number. One of his tools for achieving this was a new body separate from the corrupt and right-wing local councils, the Northern Ireland Housing Trust. Grant countered unionist accusations that he wanted to create some kind of socialist utopia by…

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