Bernard Conlan talks to Henry Bell about his teaching career and his passion for history.
Born in Belfast in 1949, for the first few years of his life Henry lived in a wooden bungalow in Islandmagee in County Antrim. “Although I have no great memories of it, it was a life without electricity, without flush toilets, because electricity didn’t come to Islandmagee until the late 1950s”
At the age of two Henry moved with his parents to a new housing estate near the Ballysillan Road in North Belfast. Henry remembers Belfast as being a place where there was no sense of any political undercurrent during his early years.
Failing the 11+ was to have a significant impact on Henry’s life. The 11-plus or Eleven plus is an examination administered to some students in their last year of primary education, governing admission to various types of secondary school. The name derives from the age group for secondary entry: 11–12 years.
“It really did change my life in a big way, when I talk to my friends who went to grammar schools they had opportunities that went way beyond anything I ever had”
Henry couldn’t wait to leave school and his chance came in June 1965. He had no qualifications and got a job as a Post Boy for the Headline Shipping Company in Victoria Street.
When the first week ended Henry decided to join the Merchant Navy. “At the age of seventeen I was steering ships into the St Laurence seaway, though a lot of it was boring because we were only apprentices.”
It offered Henry an escape. Most of his time was spent o the Atlantic. “It is a wild, wild ocean, really to see the sea howling around you, 20, 30 foot waves, smashing up right over the bridge and over the decks, it was dangerous.”
His time in the Merchant Navy lasted a year before he decided to leave and further his education. “Friends told me about the old Jaffa College at the bottom of the Cliftonville Road. The Jaffa College was connected to the College of Commerce. Those were two of the happiest years of my live”
The times were the late 1960s, there was optimism in the air, and times were changing.
“It was a year of revolution 1968, Paris was in riot, De Gaulle’s government was on the brink of falling, this was the biggest change to happen in Europe since the Cold War, there was a sense of politics was changing, a new mood of optimism was coming in and then of course Czechoslovakia, and of course Vietnam. The music scene was pretty good, I remember going to folk clubs, people walking around clutching their Bob Dylan albums. You just felt that the world was wider than it had been a few years earlier. The Peoples Democracy movement was beginning, there was lively and informed discussion about the place.”
Henry could see the barriers that were breaking down. “It was hard to believe this would all come to a shattering end with the outbreak of the Troubles. To be perfectly honest the attitude we had was that things were changing and that they would change peacefully. I mean, after all, people coming out putting flowers down the barrel of a gun, these things didn’t happen here for goodness sake. That was the attitude, Belfast was just a conventional, ordinary town”.
By 1971, the atmosphere in Belfast was more oppressive. “I used to hang around at Queen’s the first year, I would hang, maybe have a few drinks at the bar or go to something, there used to be music things on, there used to be Queen’s Film Theatre showing interesting movies, that began to end”.
By this time getting home to the Cavehill Road was becoming a problem. “If you were over at Queen’s at night, no buses, could you order a taxi? No, you could not, I remember walking home from Queen’s all the way through town to the upper Cavehill Road quite a few times”
In recent years, Henry’s career has led him down many paths including work for the BBC as a political analyst. He has accumulated a large collection of photographs of Belfast over the years and wrote a book on the Belfast Technical College. “That was fascinating research, to look into how the skills of Belfast needed to be catered for. They weren’t. That college and the people who put it together spotted that. They provided first class training and education, from that came all those other developments, like the old Jaffa, like the chance of me getting to university”.
Henry has since retired but his love for photographs of old Belfast has been of benefit to different community groups.
“I’m offering my services to various groups, I’ve done work in the Shankill Women’s Centre, and I’ve done work in the Conway Mill on the Falls Road and I’ve done work in other places, looking into local history”
On the role of the historian in a society that is divided, Henry says. “The historian’s role is very difficult, I think actually the best history is going to come in the future, we’re still too close to it that is a problem, we’re still working through a peace process, how history will treat it will be very interesting because the problem is history has been very damaging in Northern Ireland, I’ve had students coming to me from the Unionist tradition saying to me, ‘We never did Irish history at state schools’, and I’ve also had people coming from Catholic education saying ‘We did Irish history, but it was beaten into us’.
“Seek opportunities and don’t close doors behind you, don’t slam doors behind you and always think of the possible, and if you can think of the sideways move, go for it, not everything is stereotypical down the middle”.