Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Pictures archives: Northern Ireland in the 1920s

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They called them the Roaring Twenties. It was the decade of jazz clubs and cocktail bars, when daring young women wore their skirts short and their hair shorter; daring young men straddled motorbikes or, if they could afford it, got behind the wheel of a private motor car for the first time.



Society was emerging from the horror of World War I, shaking off the misery and deprivation of four awful years and trying to come to terms with the huge social change the conflict had brought about. Class barriers were tumbling, though they still had a long way to fall.

Domestic service was no longer a major source of employment. Women had joined the labour force and were reluctant to leave it. They wanted their opinions heard and their views valued. They wanted the vote on the same terms as men.

Above all, what people wanted was change, a new beginning. They had been promised a land fit for heroes to live in. It never arrived and, as the decade progressed, it became mired, more and more, in industrial strife and class division, storm crows for the depression yet to come.

But in its early years, at least, this was a decade of hope, when flappers shook a leg and a man flew the Atlantic non-stop, when the pictures in the cinema started talking, when women smoked in public, when radio -- 'the wireless' -- arrived in homes and people gathered round their sets to hear the latest incredible news from America about Al Capone and the gangs of Chicago and New York.

For a time the Twenties really did roar. Although in Ireland the roar often came from Thompson sub-machine guns as the fault lines which had opened over Home Rule, and were temporarily closed by World War I, emerged again, wider than ever.

Home Rule for Ireland, which had been passed and then suspended by the UK Government in 1914, no longer seemed feasible. The Rising of 1916 changed nationalist ambitions in the direction of complete independence, anathema to northern unionists who had threatened armed opposition to even a limited devolved government in Dublin.

In 1920, Westminster passed the Government of Ireland Act, allowing for two separate Home Rule governments, one in Belfast, overseeing the territory that is now Northern Ireland and one in Dublin, governing what is now the Republic of Ireland.

There was to be a Council of Ireland to deal with common issues and final responsibility would still rest with London.

The Dublin Home Rule government was never formed. Nationalists went to war with British forces, ending in the contested treaty of 1922 and the birth of the Irish Free State, which was followed by civil war between supporters of the new state and its republican opponents.

Home Rule went ahead in the north and the first parliament of Northern Ireland took its seats in Belfast City Hall. Ulster Unionists won the election with 67% of the vote and James Craig became the first prime minister.

Nationalists opposed partition and the new government but were divided on whether to boycott it or fight it from the inside. This hesitancy weakened their influence as did the tactics of the Nationalist Party, which emerged as the main opposition force in the election of 1925.

Then, and in all future elections, it fought only seats it felt confident of winning and so never escaped from a base that was overwhelmingly Catholic and largely rural. The Nationalist Party ran 11 candidates in 1925 and had 10 elected. The Ulster Unionist vote fell to 55% but they still had a comfortable majority although the proportional representation system of voting was perceived as working against them.

The Unionist Government abolished PR and, although the Ulster Unionist vote dropped to just over 50% in the election of 1929, they won five extra seats, bringing their total to 37. The Nationalist Party's share of the vote was also down but in the safe seats it fought it too benefitted from the first past the post system. All its 11 candidates were successful and took their seats in the parliament which was still based in the City Hall. The Stormont building was not opened until 1932.

The 1929 election was the first in which all men and women over the age of 21 could vote. In the previous elections women under 30 were denied the vote.

olitical division spilled over into many walks of life. Soccer's governing body split in 1921 and the Irish League was henceforth a Northern Ireland league.

Linfield won the league and cup double in 1923. Their chief rivals then, as now, were Glentoran. They beat the east Belfast side 2-0 in the cup final.

But Linfield also had a rival on the west side of town. Belfast Celtic won the league and cup double in 1926 and the next year opened Ireland's first greyhound stadium at their ground on the Donegall Road.

It was a lean period for northern followers of the GAA.

No Ulster county got their hands on an all-Ireland medal for hurling or the trophy for Gaelic football, which became the Sam Maguire Cup in 1928 in commemoration of the County Cork Protestant, footballer and noted republican, who had died the year before.

Some of these events were no doubt reported by the BBC which made its first broadcast from Belfast in 1924.

Not being gifted with foresight, they missed the birthdays of two of the greatest sportsmen Northern Ireland has produced.

The legendary half-back Danny Blanchflower and the magical fly-half Jackie Kyle were born a month apart in 1926, the rugby star on January 10 and the footballer on February 10.

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