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At the beginning of the 19th century, Belfast had its best years ahead of it as it transformed into an industrial powerhouse the likes of which Ireland had never seen. The city’s mounting wealth and rapid growth – its population doubled in the middle decades of the century – led to a yearning for the kind of intellectually bolstered civic identity it saw lending credibility to commerce in its sister cities in the UK and Ireland.

It was an aspiration not easily achieved. Compromised by a political landscape that was contested on religious, social, geographic and economic grounds, Belfast had been all but emptied of potential patrons in the tumult of the preceding centuries.

This fascinating portrait of the musical life that emerged in the city in fits and starts throughout the century reads like an archaeological survey conducted with forensic attention to detail. Begun by the late Roy Johnston and completed by Declan Plummer, it is a volume that marshals its material with a deftness that belies the clearly herculean effort of assembling copious original and secondary material.

There is much to deal with as the city grappled with – and often failed – the challenge of re-defining itself in the face of a default conservatism and age-old social divisions. Religious strictures that placed one constraint after another on the choice of repertoire didn’t help either as the legacy of an 18th-century fixation with opera (gratified by touring English companies) gave way to the dominance first of choral and subsequently of orchestral concerts.

If the level of detail occasionally overwhelms, especially admirable is the book’s appraisal of Belfast’s uneasy relationships with Dublin and comparable cities in England and how its particular social and political mores affected the development (and, more often than not, curtailment) of various initiatives.

By the end of the century, Belfast could boast a Philharmonic Society (established in 1874), the 2,000-seat Ulster Hall and the Frank Matcham-designed Grand Opera House (opened in 1862 and 1895 respectively, and both still at the heart of the city’s cultural life). The new century would bring its own challenges, ones that are still being turbulently worked out.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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