August 15th, 2009

white house

Arthur Street and President Arthur

After my note on Cullybackey I started to wonder if the Arthur family had left any legacy in Northern Ireland, and indeed a couple of days ago I found myself in Belfast walking from Arthur Square along Arthur Street past Arthur Place to Upper Arthur Street. Could it be, I wondered, that the future President's family at one point found favour with Belfast's city fathers and got commemorated?

Checking the records, it seems that Arthur Street doesn't appear on the 1685 map or the 1737 one, but is there in 1833. (On the map it runs roughly north-south, Upper Arthur Street being the southern end which runs off the bottom edge of the map, just east of the church marked A67 [the Donegall Square East Methodist Church].) The river running through the area in the 1685 map is the Blackstaff, before it was diverted to enter the Lagan a bit further upstream, allowing houses to be built in Arthur Street / Victoria Square.

Well, Google Books gives me partial access to Marcus Patton's 1993 booklet, Central Belfast: An Historical Gazetteer, enabling me to piece together the following sentence:
Eliza Street was probably named after Lady Elizabeth, daughter of the First Marquis [sic] of Donegall, with Charlotte Street, Amelia Street and Arthur Street being named after her siblings.
Debrett's, available in full from Google Books, tells me that the first Marquess of Donegall (whose own dates were 1739-1799) had seven children by his first wife (and none by his second or third), listed as George Augustus (1769-1844), Arthur (1771-1788), Spencer Stanley (1775-1819), and the girls whose birthdates are discreetly omitted, Charlotte, Anne Henrietta, Elizabeth Amelia, and Emilia, all of whom apparently died young.

I'm not sure that I buy this story. Eliza Street, Charlotte Street, Amelia Street, and Henrietta Street which would also go with this pattern, are all to the south - in the case of Charlotte Street, some way to the south - of the Howard Street - Donegall Square - May Street axis where Upper Arthur Street ends. It does make sense that the marquess, who basically owned Belfast, would commemorate his dead daughters in the streets built in the later eighteenth century; but looking at the geography, Arthur Street should have been constructed a few decades earlier. I think it's more likely that it commemorates the first marquess himself, rather than his son, as his name was also Arthur (as were all four of his predecessors as Earl of Donegall).

In any case, it's pretty clear that there is no connection, or only a distant one, with the Presidential family of the Ballymena area. I remain on the lookout for local connections to the 21st President; next time I'm up in Derry, I shall ask my old friend Paul if he has any ideas.

August Books 27) How The Mind Works, by Steven Pinker

I was really disappointed by this book. Pinker starts out by claiming that he will explain the origins of human emotions, aesthetics, and belief in the context of the latest findings of evolutionary and psychological research. He does not really succeed in doing so. It is a succession of moderately interesting research reports, linked together with a glue of neat one-liners (mostly other people's), but without really coming to a killer conclusion and indeed occasionally resorting to sheer polemic (eg on gender). The section on neural networks is particularly dull, especially as Pinker admits that living brains don't actually function that way.

I found precisely two points of interest in the book, both pretty tangential to the main thrust of the argument. First, of interest only to those who also know her, is that an old family friend is mentioned in passing on the development of children's minds. Second, of more general interest, is the observation that all cultures tend to design ornamental gardens with unconscious reference to the primeval African savannah - lawns and flowerbeds interrupted by carefully placed features. Rather a pleasing thought! This observation is not Pinker's own, but he does give pretty full citations for it which the interested reader can follow up.

I hear that Pinker's other books are better, so shall continue to look out for them though without particular enthusiasm.