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Left Belfast Festival

April 25, 2011

I am newly returned from the first event in the Left Belfast Festival calender: labour historian John Gray’s talk on historic responses to capitalist crisis.

I have enormous respect for John Gray, who as well as being an historian and community activist, was formerly Librarian of the Linen Hall Library.

I first encountered him through his pamphlet The Sans Culottes of Belfast: the United Irishmen and the men of no property (1998), which offered a worms-eye view of the 1798 uprising. To my mind it was also an important alternative to the Ulster Museums’ ‘defining’ and ‘authoritative’ Up in Arms exhibition that marked the bicentennial of the United Irish rebellion.

Up in Arms presented the period as a tragedy for liberal, bourgeois ambitions, manifesting the past through the spectacular artifacts left for posterity by the political elites of the period. John Gray, on the other hand, recalled and gave centre-stage to the poor and lower classes, whose contribution to the United Irishmen was crucial although scarcely remembered by the Ulster Museum.

John Gray

If, with The Sans Culottes of Belfast, Gray rescued from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ Ulster’s working class, in today’s talk he situated Northern Ireland in a broader history of global capitalism. It seems to me that too often the ‘wee six’ are presented as some sort of historical anomaly; somewhere outside of the historical forces that have shaped the modern world; too introverted and caught up in its own atavistic goings-on to be touched by or pay any mind to such things as the great depression of the 1930s. Gray’s contribution today offered an important corrective to such thinking.

The Left Belfast Festival carries on for the rest of this week.

A couple of dates you may want to put in your diary are tomorrow night’s talk (26th April) by Stephen Baker in Belfast Exposed, Donegal Street at 7pm and Daniel Dewesbury’s on Thursday evening (28th April) in the same venue, same time.

Stephen and Daniel are two of the most urbane and handsome men of my acquaintance.

Stephen will address the question: is there anything the Left can learn from Northern Ireland about the media? Daniel will consider the politics of identity and the role of culture in the peace process.

Full details of all the Left Belfast Festival events are here.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2011 10:00 am

    Did you get to any of these other events? How did they go?

  2. Rab permalink*
    April 30, 2011 12:27 pm

    Hi Garibaldy,
    Got to the John Gray event. Small audience. Great talk from John. I think the other events were all fairly small crowds but enjoyable. I hope Tomas does it again next year. There really is something to build on.

    • April 30, 2011 2:27 pm

      I was interested because we in the WP used to hold the workers’ festival in early May, and there has been talk of getting it up and running again, although obviously things like elections get in the way. Providing an outlet for working class culture is important. If you go somewhere like France or Portugal, you can see what working class culture means, and contributes to sustaining political struggle.

      Hopefully some cooperation will be possible over the next number of years on this front, not just in Belfast but across the island.

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