Belfast Telegraph

Why we must not forget our cultural and historical icons who left us an enduring legacy

Physicist John Stewart Bell is the latest in a long line who have not been given credit for their work, writes Gail Walker

John Stewart Bell was one of the 20th century's most important physicists. I did not know that. Bell's Theorem - you'll know it better as 'On the Einstein-Poldolsky-Rosen Paradox', of course - found conflicts with the predictions of quantum theory.

Whatever that means, it was enough to catapult this Ulsterman into the front rank of physicists in history and shower him with honours across the world. And he was born in Belfast.

Now, for all the talk that we in Northern Ireland are always bigging up our own tiny triumphs, if it wasn't for the kerfuffle about whether Belfast City Council should recognise Bell's achievements by naming a street after him, I suspect that most of us would have remained totally ignorant of this great thinker's achievements. He would have remained a prize-winning answer on Pointless.

True, a street in Belfast was named Bell's Theorem Crescent in 2015 and a student accommodation block in the old Tech building down at the Black Man was named John Bell House last year. But the council can't bear the idea of naming a street after a person, saying - when it first rejected the idea in 2014 - that it wasn't something it did.

While one can understand underlying fears of potential controversy over Bobby Sands Road and Gusty Spence Way, we have to find a way of civically celebrating our cultural, artistic, scientific and technological heritage.

The truth is that for a city that likes to portray itself as steeped in history, we hesitate about commemorating anything outside the tried and tested. Bar a statue at City Hall to commemorate the dead, it took us almost 100 years to make the most of our Titanic heritage. In the face of achievement, we hesitate. Let the dust settle. Give it, er, 50 years and see where we are - when, probably, the legacy in question is obscured by the dust of history.

Or, perversely, there's a bit of begrudgery in our attitudes - 'We've always punched above our weight, there'll be another along soon - why recognise him or her in particular?'

Just consider a few of these names, chosen at random: singer Ruby Murray, inventor John Boyd Dunlop, boxer Rinty Monaghan, traditional musician Derek Bell, artist Sir John Lavery, novelist Brian Moore (whose centenary comes up in 2020), Eileen Percy, silent movie goddess from Vernon Street, short story writer Michael McLaverty (born in Co Monaghan, but the emotional heart of his work is set in Belfast), film pioneer and director of Scrooge, Brian Desmond Hurst, the great soprano Heather Harper, who is happily still with us, Oscar-winner Greer Garson and Moyna MacGill, movie actress mother of Angela Lansbury (doyenne of daytime TV in Murder She Wrote and a movie star in her own right). Talking of actresses, let's not forget that Siobhan McKenna was born in the city.

And, of course, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the astrophysicist, is also happily thriving.

Who could possibly object to having streets named after them?

Their legacy is indisputable and, while many reputations will survive no matter what Belfast does, all of them deserve to have their achievements registered in our streets.

But our response is anything but indisputable.

It seems vague, half-hearted and comes far too late. Not for those listed you understand but for us to claim our share of glory.

Look at CS Lewis, a huge literary figure but until very recently we were happy to let England claim him, his Belfast childhood little more than an interesting footnote for pedants.

While Lewis has belated local recognition, what of Ruby Murray? No street name. No statue. Just some kind of mosaic/community painting in Sandy Row. And this for a Belfast woman who held the top five positions in the British charts at the same time. The civic indifference is not just imprudent as regards being able to stamp the cultural legacy of people of the city on the fabric of its streets. That's bad enough. We've heard murmurings of a monument to Mary Ann McCracken, noted philanthropist, anti-slaver and egalitarian; and there has been some talk about a statue of Winifred Carney, whose personal story reaches across our traditional sectarian and political divide.

It is also lamentable and insidious. Because if people aren't reminded, they tend to forget. Who now recalls James Johnston, the great Belfast tenor, the son of a Belfast butcher? Or Albert Sharpe, who played Darby O'Gill?

Remembering isn't accidental. It is a deliberate act. People whose achievements are momentous can't rely on that alone to secure their reputations. World history is full of forgotten pioneers. It takes determination to remember. It means someone or some culture decides that a particular individual represents something indispensable to the sense of history or wellbeing of a place or people. That's how schools, parks, scholarships, avenues, bursaries, buildings, prizes are raised in their name. And it's effective. It is about aspiration, standards and celebration.

Forgetting isn't accidental, either. In most cases, you can find reasons why this inventor or that medic has slipped quietly into the shadows, even though their contributions to our lives were enduring.

It'll be because some misguided perception - based on morals or sense of scandal or some example of outdated opinion held by the hero or heroine - will have provided an excuse for envious, resentful people to sponge the name off the blackboards.

There are a few recent examples of giants of our time from Northern Ireland whose politically incorrect opinions or behaviour almost have led to complete oblivion in their native place. And that would be our loss, a wilful amnesia designed to make us forget who - and what - we are. It's a peculiar characteristic of the city we live in.

But I'm not advocating statues. And not that we should name streets after famous people. Certainly not that we should re-name streets as some of the extremists in our midst would have us do in some act of one-sided atonement for the appalling history we've had to share here.

It's just a plea for our elected representatives to show more imagination when they think about what we are. It's not that hard, really. Take the best of us, and start from there.

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