Essay Band Shop Belfast

Writing in The Linen Hall Review in 1988, Wesley McCann explores Wilde's visit of 1884

The Northern Whig in contrast confined itself to the observation that 'a very large audience, which embraced many ladies, assembled to hear Mr Wilde's exposition', and 'the stage was fitted up as a very artistically furnished apartment, in the centre of which stood the lecturer at the side of a little table. He was provided with no notes or manuscript of any kind.'

The BelfastNewsletter even went as far as to express some criticism of the speaker: 'The moderately cultured amonthe audience listened to Mr Wilde's lecture feeling that it is extremely charming in every way, but feeling also, it must be confessed, that it teaches them nothing they did not know long ago.'

The theme of Wilde's lecture was essentially practical rather than an attempt at a philosophy of beauty. What his listeners wanted, said Wilde (as reported by the Northern Whig) 'was to be able to surround themselves and their children with beautiful things', and in the lecture he described what it was that he considered beautiful and what he emphatically did not.

He quoted William Morris: 'have nothing in your house that you do not either know to be useful or think to be beautiful'. And on this dictum Wilde commented: 'If that rule were followed out, what a lot would be got rid of. Stuffed birds, wax peach under the glass shade, and endless linen macassars, reminding one of an eternal washing day'. Following this remark the Northern Whig's man parenthetically reported for the first time 'laughter'.

To Morris' second rule 'have nothing in your house that you do not feel must have been a joy to the man who made it' Wilde added another of his own, 'not to have any imitation of one material with another'. In this context he turned to consider architecture, preferring the Gothic to the classical spirit and urging the use of simple and beautiful decoration with bands of coloured stone in the Venetian style.

In the manner of an experienced visiting lecturer Wilde at this point brought in his first local reference when he praised Messrs Richardson Sons and Owden's building which he described as 'beautiful in colour and very beautiful in design'.

Designed by WH Lynn and built in 1868-9 this remains in the opinion of Charles Brett 'one of the best buildings in Belfast; a massive palazzo in rich brown stone' (Buildings of Belfast, p.44). First built as a linen warehouse it later became the offices of the Water Commissioners and is now a part of Marks & Spencer.

Given Wilde's admiration of things Venetian it is perhaps surprising that he did not also mention the Church of Ireland offices in May Street, an even more vigorous example of the style by the same architect.

Having by now no doubt completely won over his audience Wilde went on to deal with other aspects of 'The House Beautiful'. He preferred, he said, a well-polished brass doorknob to the 'large black-leaded iron monstrosity which a person was so often called upon to knock with'.

As for lighting, 'the light of candles and lamps was far better than gas', and when it came to windows Wilde preferred them to be small and had this to say of large plate-glass windows: 'the people in the street had nothing to do but look into the house, and the people in the house had nothing to do but look into the street - both being of course extremely bad habits. Such windows did not give light; they gave glare'.

Wilde even had something to say on the subject of coal scuttles. His listeners, he said, 'did not want those horrible papier-mache coal scuttles which were in use for some time, and which bore upon the front of them 'Tintern Abbey by Moonlight' and kindred pictures. A plain brass scuttle was sufficiently beautiful.'

When choosing a mirror Wilde urged a pretty, circular one, and not a large plate-glass example, as, he said, was extremely bad for people's vanity to be always looking at themselves in these gigantic looking-glasses.'

When it came to furniture Wilde offered his listeners a choice. He preferred again the Gothic, but admitted that it was often too large for the average house. Louis Quatorze he emphatically did not approve of, but of the furniture he recommended as most suitable was that which then went by the name of Queen Anne.

At this point Wilde introduced his second local reference when he complemented the furniture on the stage which had been made in Belfast and lent by Mr Campbell. 'It was,' said Wilde, 'furniture of which any town might be proud, and was perfectly well-made in every respect.' A sentiment which his audience warmly applauded.

The manufacturer referred to was the firm of NH Campbell & Co, general drapers and house furnishers of Donegall Place, one of the leading Belfast furnishing shops of the time.

Wilde then went on to deal with pictures. By now he had his audience firmly in the palm of his hand, and the breathless reporter of the Northern Whig could scarcely get it all down: 'as to photographs of one's relations, of course if one's relations were decorative - (laughter) - as he was quite sure was always the case in Ireland - (laughter) - there was every reason for hanging them on the wall.'

Wilde concluded his lecture with several remarks on the subject of education. The Northern Whig's man reported him thus:

"If, instead of teaching little boys and girls the latitude and longitude of countries that nobody wanted to go to - (laughter) - which was called geography - and all that criminal calendar of Europe, which was termed history - instead of wearying children with these two so-called sciences, they were to teach them the simple decorative arts, how much better they would make them and what a source of knowledge and delighting afterlife they would be giving to them. 

"This meant in the first place, opening the child's eyes to the wonder and beauty of the world around it, and by training his hand so that he could transfer to others all the joy that he himself felt. So he should like to see in every school the children of rich and poor alike taught carpentry or carving in wood making pottery, working in metal or the beating out of brass or silver. 

"Their school should be the most beautiful place in every town or village, not whitewashed walls with everything around dull. It should be so beautiful that the greatest punishment for a little boy would not be allowing him to go to school next day."

So ended Wilde's first lecture, and as the Newsletter commented, 'the lecture was full of interest, and by no means wanting in humour. It was delivered with an entire freedom from affectation, and it evidently produced a highly favourable impression upon the audience.' 

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Punk music’s role in overcoming sectarian divides during one of the bloodiest chapters in northern Irish history isn’t a topic we hear much about. But that’s the subject of the film Good Vibrations, currently screening in Australia, as its subject, Belfast music legend Terri Hooley, explained to me recently.

During the 1970s and 1980s Belfast was associated with the sectarian conflict known as the Troubles which largely ceased with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Since then the city has since transformed itself into a vibrant hub for the entertainment industry. Belfast is now home to the production wing of the HBO television program Game of Thrones – which has brought 900 full-time and 5,700 part-time jobs to the city.

Good Vibrations tells the true story of Terri Hooley, who took Northern Irish punk music to the world when few were prepared to travel to Belfast to see it themselves. Hooley ran a record shop called Good Vibrations and vigorously promoted local punk bands in Ireland and beyond.

Portrayed by Richard Dormer (who also stars in Game of Thrones as Beric Dondarrian) in the film, Hooley entered the music scene as a DJ at the age of 15 in Belfast before sectarian conflict reached its peak. I spoke to him recently about his experiences. He recalls Belfast before the troubles with pleasure:

The 1960s was a wonderful time to grow up in Belfast; it very colourful, with lots to do and plenty of gigs; the Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Bob Dylan would come and play.

And then the Troubles came, and then nobody came over to play in Belfast; it was a horrific period in our lives. Pubs and clubs were being bombed, and Belfast became very black and white. It was the only city centre in Europe where people just didn’t go out at night. It was all pretty dismal.

The name Good Vibrations stands in contrast to the very bad vibes which characterised much of Belfast during the 1970s.

We’d all hung about in the clubs and bars, and then when the Troubles came, Protestants went to the Protestant areas and Catholics went to the Catholics areas, and people tended to stick there. When you went into the city centre, you were always worried about passing a car in case it blew up, or being shot at.

Which made Hooley’s choice to set us a punk record shop and label on Queen Victoria Street – known as Bomb Alley because it was the most-bombed quarter-mile in Europe at the time – not the obvious one.

Hooley, a self-described “old hippie” who was the most unlikely person to get involved in the punk scene, got caught up in the movement after seeing band Rudi perform and wanting to put their record out. “There was going to be no hope in them getting a record because no record companies were going to come to Belfast to see them,” he says.

Good Vibrations features a foot-stompingly good soundtrack of bands including The Outcasts, The Shangri-Las and The Undertones, whose 1979 hit Teenage Kicks is described by Hooley as the song that changed everything for Good Vibrations:

Nobody in England was interested in us [Belfast bands] because we weren’t English, and nobody in Dublin was because we weren’t Irish, so we basically had to do it ourselves. We recorded it very cheaply in an old clothing warehouse that a friend had set up.

Hooley took the single Teenage Kicks to London and was certain The Undertones would sign a record deal, especially on the back of the success of Belfast band Stiff Little Fingers.

Everyone told me the record was was rubbish! As a last resort I left a copy of the record with BBC DJ John Peel. I left on the Friday and he played it on the Monday night – twice, which was unheard of in the BBC.

The Undertones signed an American record deal within the week.

The film is focused on punk music but it doesn’t ignore the politics of the time. Good Vibrations features young men and women who identify not in this context as Protestant or Catholic but as punks – demonstrating the power of music in overcoming political divides.

The film illustrates the disbelief of soldiers and authority figures that Protestant and Catholic musicians were not divided by religion in their pursuit of the punk movement. Hooley describes the approach to treat this very serious topic of sectarianism with a degree of humour as being a conscious decision.

This would happen on a regular basis. The kids got stopped all the time; when the police found out they were of different religions, they just couldn’t believe it. There’s a lot of stuff in the film which people say couldn’t happen, but the film is very true to life".

Having seen poor representations of the Troubles in previous films, Hooley didn’t want conflict to dominate the story of Good Vibrations.

We couldn’t exclude the Troubles, we had the feature them, but we didn’t want it to be the whole story. This is about the music and bringing people together from both sides.

Good Vibrations is currently screening nationally in limited release.

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