Living on a Divided Island 1923-1968

Partition created two new administrations. Each faced similar challenges of building new states within the midst of violence and civil conflict. Both states housed minorities unhappy with the new political order.

Both parts of Ireland were badly affected by the global depression, and economic stagnation remained an on-going problem. The introduction of the welfare state in the United Kingdom improved lives in Northern Ireland. In contrast, the Irish Republic was experiencing a lower standard of living. From the late 1950s it opened up to international influences to boost the economy and reverse mass emigration.

In Northern Ireland, the electoral system and employment practices maintained Unionist dominance. During the 1960s, a decade of modernisation and optimism, international protest and civil rights movements influenced demands for change. By the late 1960s, community and political tensions erupted into violence.

‘The Dying Cúchulainn’

‘The Dying Cúchulainn’

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The Bennett Family ready to emigrate

The Bennett Family ready to emigrate

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Irish Free State Currency

Irish Free State Currency

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Air raid siren

Air raid siren

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Television set

Television set

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Divided Allegiances

‘The Dying Cúchulainn’, 1966. BELUM.W2013.28.2 © National Museums Northern Ireland
‘The Dying Cúchulainn’, 1966. BELUM.W2013.28.2 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Somme badge, 1966. BELUM.O2.1974 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Somme badge, 1966. BELUM.O2.1974 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Community tensions emerged during the 50th anniversary commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.

This official miniature of ‘The Dying Cúchulainn’ was produced in 1966 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The original statue is in the General Post Office, Dublin, which was the headquarters of the rebels in 1916, and where the Irish Republic was proclaimed. This commemoration was held at a time of confidence in the Republic.

In Northern Ireland these pin badges were issued to veterans by the government, to mark the 50th anniversary of the First World War Battle of the Somme in 1966.  The Somme had particular significance for Unionists, and the official commemorations took place during a period of growing political tension in Northern Ireland.

 

Between the Wars: Slump and Depression

Ulster Past and Present, by William Conor (1931). BELUM.U1934 © The Estate of William Conor
Ulster Past and Present, by William Conor (1931). BELUM.U1934 © The Estate of William Conor
Bennett Family ready to emigrate. One of a series of photographs taken by A. R. Hogg, of families at Belfast Docks before taking ships to emigrate in 1929. BELUM.Y2352 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Bennett Family ready to emigrate. One of a series of photographs taken by A. R. Hogg, of families at Belfast Docks before taking ships to emigrate in 1929. BELUM.Y2352 © National Museums Northern Ireland

The First World War boom years for industry were followed by a downturn that damaged Northern Ireland’s economy. The traditional industries such as ship building and linen manufacture were particularly affected.

In 1932, Catholic and Protestant workers marched together to improve welfare payments. They succeeded in increasing weekly welfare benefits from 8 shillings to 20 shillings.

Irish Unemployed Workers’ accordion band drum. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Irish Unemployed Workers’ accordion band drum. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Booklet entitled 'Protection. Some Letters to the press with regard to the Protection of Irish Industries', by John Sweetman. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Booklet entitled 'Protection. Some Letters to the press with regard to the Protection of Irish Industries', by John Sweetman. © National Museums Northern Ireland

Music was an integral part of this protest and a popular song of the time - ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’ – which was one of the few songs whose words were familiar to all involved, became its chief anthem.

 

The Emerging New States

The Irish Free State developed its own currency shortly after partition. A design committee was led by the poet William Butler Yeats. © National Museums Northern Ireland
The Irish Free State developed its own currency shortly after partition. A design committee was led by the poet William Butler Yeats. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Irish Defence Forces steel helmet made by Vickers. BELUM.X516 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Irish Defence Forces steel helmet made by Vickers. BELUM.X516 © National Museums Northern Ireland

In the turbulent years after partition the border was under threat. Violent opposition led both new states to adopt firm security measures.

Over time, the Irish Free State integrated its republican minority, and in 1932 the defeated side in the Irish Civil War took power in Eamon de Valera’s government.

The first Northern Ireland Cabinet; Sir James Craig, E.M. Archdale, Sir Dawson Bates, Lord Londonderry, H.M. Pollock, J.M. Andrews. BELUM.W2013.110.5 © National Museums Northern Ireland
The first Northern Ireland Cabinet; Sir James Craig, E.M. Archdale, Sir Dawson Bates, Lord Londonderry, H.M. Pollock, J.M. Andrews. BELUM.W2013.110.5 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Silver cup presented to The Rt. Hon. Sir James Craig, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland as a token of appreciation for his unswerving stand on the boundary - “Not an Inch” BELUM.W2012.338.88 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Silver cup presented to The Rt. Hon. Sir James Craig, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland as a token of appreciation for his unswerving stand on the boundary - “Not an Inch” BELUM.W2012.338.88 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland was less successful in reconciling its Catholic minority. Nationalists found no meaningful place at Stormont, either taking their seats with little effect or not participating at all.The southern state became a ‘cold house’ for its Protestants, while Catholics faced similar alienation in Northern Ireland. As Catholics formed a large minority, this situation created greater instability in Northern Ireland.

 

Ireland 1939-68

Air raid siren issued to the Belfast Museum and positioned on its roof. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Air raid siren issued to the Belfast Museum and positioned on its roof. © National Museums Northern Ireland
National Health Service child’s spectacle. © National Museums Northern Ireland
National Health Service child’s spectacle. © National Museums Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland took part in the Second World War as part of the United Kingdom, while Éire remained neutral.Men and women worked to support the war effort in Northern Ireland, enduring the devastation caused by air raids on Belfast. However, the war exposed weaknesses in the economy and tensions in industrial relations.

After the war, Northern Ireland benefited from the United Kingdom’s welfare state, widening the gap in living standards between the two states.

Election poster produced by the Northern Ireland Labour Party. O.548.1973 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Election poster produced by the Northern Ireland Labour Party. O.548.1973 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Election poster produced by the Ulster Unionist Council. BELUM.W2013.28.3 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Election poster produced by the Ulster Unionist Council. BELUM.W2013.28.3 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Despite Northern Ireland Labour Party success in the 1950s and 1960s, traditional fears and community tensions undermined working-class challenges to the dominant Ulster Unionist Party.Éire became the Republic of Ireland in 1949. After economic stagnation and mass emigration in the 1950s, it turned to modernisation, free trade and closer links with the outside world.

In Northern Ireland, Unionist attempts at reform were resisted by those who opposed any perceived concessions to Nationalists.

 

Social Change

Belfast ration book, 1950-51. BELUM.Zg10558 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Belfast ration book, 1950-51. BELUM.Zg10558 © National Museums Northern Ireland
EKCO television set, 1960s.HOYFM.DB.2204 © National Museums Northern Ireland
EKCO television set, 1960s.HOYFM.DB.2204 © National Museums Northern Ireland

After the end of rationing in the early 1950s, most people had money to spend on luxury goods like electrical equipment. There was truth in British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan’s, 1957 speech that the nation ‘never had it so good’.

Television brought the world into people's living rooms from the 1950s, while improved education widened horizons. Modernisation brought new roads and better housing, such as high-rise flats, but also destabilising changes to society.

Photograph of the Plaza Ballroom in Chichester Street, Belfast. BELUM.W2012.141 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Photograph of the Plaza Ballroom in Chichester Street, Belfast. BELUM.W2012.141 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Anti-nuclear protest, Custom House Square, Belfast. L4481-1 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Anti-nuclear protest, Custom House Square, Belfast. L4481-1 © National Museums Northern Ireland

For some, the 1960s brought a more permissive society where freedom of expression was encouraged and there was dissatisfaction with the ‘old order’. At times, this turned into civil unrest.

The late 1960s was a time of social revolution, both locally and internationally.