Belfast Beyond the Peace Line
Belfast, Northern Ireland
The “Black Taxi” tours of west Belfast are popular with visitors. Your driver might start off with the Catholic republican neighborhoods along Falls Road, stopping long enough for an out-the-window shot of the Sinn Fein headquarters, or of one of the many lovingly painted murals that depict anything from the 1916 Easter Rising (a failed act of rebellion that nevertheless led to the 1921 partitioning between Ireland and Northern Ireland) and the 1981 hunger strikes of the “H-Block Martyrs”, to the oppression of the Palestinians and a hunger strike in Turkey (“She was inspired by Bobby Sands,” the latter says of the woman in that picture, without indicating who “she” might be for the benefit of the uninformed). Drivers may point out the “Easter lilies” – strings of small, fluttering flags strung up along the streets in commemoration of the Uprising and of those who have died in the republican struggle for independence from Great Britain. The Milltown Cemetery (where many of the aforementioned dead are buried) might be the logical last stop before heading over to the Loyalist, Protestant Shankhill Road area, where reverent images of the Queen, and slogans like, “One island, two nations” grace the brick walls.
Snaking along amid the narrow, curving streets and neat little rowhouses is the red-brick “peace line,” built to live up to its name by separating the Catholics from the Protestants.
Visitors have used a section of the wall to express their own opinions of “the Troubles”. A tour guide told me that his favorite piece of graffiti there was written by a Dutch man: “Life’s too short for this shit.”
My own obsession with Ireland’s troubles began, inexplicably, when I was 8 or 9 and living in a rich little suburban town in New York – definitely not a place whose residents would be inclined to concern themselves much with a messy, primarily working-class struggle across the Atlantic. I’d never been to Ireland, and had no connection to it other than the knowledge that my ancestry was at least half-Irish. But names like Bernadette Devlin and, later, Bobby Sands, meant more to me than most of the names of the Americans we read about in our Social Studies books. I listened eagerly when Cathy Gannon, the only Irish girl in my 3rd-grade class, explained the meaning of the green and the orange to me (always emphasizing the superiority of the green), and I stared in horrified fascination at grainy newspaper photographs of bloody riots, and of tarred-and-feathered “traitors” being paraded through the streets.
Later, I read Yeats and Joyce until names like Parnell and Maud Gonne (for whom Yeats pined throughout his life) and Constance Gore-Booth Markiewicz – all key players in the republican movement – also became familiar fixtures in my Irish frame of reference.
And yet, for all my fascination with the idea of Ireland and the unending struggles of its people, I really never had much of a clue about the realities of any of it (this, I was told several times in Ireland, is not unusual; Americans come to visit with all manner of misconceptions about the history and causes of the Troubles – the most common being that their basis is in religion). When I finally had the opportunity to visit Belfast, it felt like a kind of pilgrimage, but I had a lot to learn.
It was early December when I arrived. I’d come up by motorcoach from Dublin; my first surprise was that between the green hills of Ireland and those of Northern Ireland there is no visible border, no checkpoint, no need to pull out one’s passport. Things would have been different a few years ago, but the delineation now is a border of the mind, recognizable only to those familiar with it. There were only horses, cows, and blackfaced sheep to watch us, unperturbed, as we crossed. Back home in the States a few weeks after my visit, an Irish woman described to me what it was like to cross the border in the old days, and how it felt to have a “nervous 16-year-old British soldier aiming a gun at your head.”
Coming into Belfast just after dusk, we passed the City Hall, which was adorned with thousands of sparkling white lights for Christmas. Along the River Liffey, blue lights under the bridges lit up the water and the waterfront. At night, at least, in this part of town, nothing looked anything like the newspaper photos I remembered from 3rd grade.
As it happened, my visit coincided with some very significant, and very delicate (and, ultimately, for a variety of reasons, very failed), talks regarding power-sharing between Sinn Fein and the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland. Although there has been a relatively stable peace in the region since the 1998 Good Friday agreement (the Irish seem to have a thing about bringing about historical events on religious holidays), the stumbling block in the negotiations had to do with “decommissioning”, or IRA disarmament.
In any event, I wasn’t officially in Belfast to write about its political history or future; I was to focus on the city as an up-and-coming tourist destination. With the success of the Good Friday agreement, and the dissipation of violence, Belfast has had the leisure to create a renaissance for itself. In the city center (historically a “neutral zone” anyway), the waterfront and the pretty red-brick Victorian houses are being renovated. Posh boutique hotels and nightclubs are all over the city, and wonderful restaurants with surprisingly eclectic menus can be found in chic neighborhoods like the “Golden Mile” and Lisney Road. (There are, of course, still plenty of the old pubs as well.) The shipyard where the Titanic was built, which is a little forlorn at the moment, will soon be the site of an upscale multi-use riverfront complex. In all of this, Belfast’s optimism seems to sparkle as brightly as the Christmas lights that illuminated City Hall (although the alternatives to violence were posted on billboards all over the city).
With only two days to spend in Belfast, though, I was determined to finally refine my befuddled understanding of its history, and get a sense of what it was to live in a city where the mere placement of lilies (again, republican symbols) in an assembly building for Easter in 2001 caused a furious uproar. My best guess was that there were two places to achieve this – in west Belfast, and in the pubs. The fact that it was Christmastime – the season of goodwill, in a devout country-would, I guessed, make the palpable optimism for continued peace and the success of the power-sharing negotiations that much more poignant, and add another dimension to my understanding.
The day after I arrived, I took the west Belfast tour. Having my long-held fantasies about Northern Ireland usurped by the stark immediacy of the images in the real streets of west Belfast felt something like dreaming of seeing Santa Claus and being knocked out of the reverie by a stampeding herd of reindeer. I’d imagined that signs of the struggle would be more subtle-comprehensible only to those who had created them. But there was no ambiguity. Regardless of the recent peace, the residents of working-class west Belfast clearly want to make it known which side they’re on.
In the pubs and clubs in the city center, though, things were not so neatly laid out for me. There was no indication that anyone was interested in anything beyond having a pint or three among friends, and in checking out newcomers. As a somewhat-willing participant in an ill-advised pub crawl, I first stopped in at the Kitchen Bar on Victoria Square, where I and the people I was with might have suddenly dropped down from the Belfast sky on spider webs. After watching us for a few minutes, a man who looked a lot like Martin Sheen got up from his table of friends to ask, in a friendly way, where we were from. My fantasy that my Irish-looking face would allow me to blend right in was shattered then and there.
In the John Hewitt pub on Donegall Street, I blundered my way into a long conversation with a tall, dark-haired, somewhat gaunt but pleasant-looking man by asking him whether the red cross against a white background on our drink coasters was a symbol of the republicans, or of the Unionists (had I bothered to turn my own coaster over, I would have found that it bore an anti-racism message from the Department of Health, Social Services, and Public Safety). “I’m neither,” he answered simply.
He was, as it turned out, the self-proclaimed “Propaganda Minister of the Democratic Poetry Party”, representing about 500 Belfast poets, and he invited me to an open poetry reading which would be held at the end of the week (I would, unfortunately, be gone by then). Over hot port (good luck trying to get an American bartender to make it for you), we talked a bit about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the world, but it was poetry that interested him the most. A recovering poet myself, I was able to hold up my end of the conversation well enough, although I’ll never be a match for the wide-ranging literary knowledge of the Irish.
“We speak the same language,” he told me on his way out. I took it as a great compliment from a man who had clued me in to what should have been an obvious point: there are things to talk about in Belfast which have nothing to do with the struggle for independence, or the struggle against it.
There’s a traditional Christmastime play in Ireland called the Pantomime. Neither mimed nor about Christmas, it’s not what one would expect. Usually the plays are based on fairy tales and fables; this year, at Belfast’s Grand Opera House, it was “Jack and the Beanstalk”. Next year’s production will be “Sleeping Beauty”.
I put on some decent clothes and attended the Saturday night performance, not knowing what to expect but not, to be honest, expecting much more than a play for children. To be sure, it was that; children filled the boxes and balconies and swirled the flashing neon light toys that their parents had bought for them in the lobby. The parents had the familiar look of being a little overwhelmed by the process of getting their children to the theatre, but also secretly relishing the idea of seeing once again a Christmas spectacle that had no doubt brought them joy when they were younger. We might just as well have been at Radio City Music Hall for the Christmas show.
In terms of plot, costumes, and stage design, the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk was told in a perfectly traditional way. But, unless I was reading far more into it than I should have (always possible), some very timely messages for the people of Belfast were embedded in the dialogue and music.
Jack’s mother, played by a rotund and obviously much-loved local female impersonator who goes by the name “May McFettrridge” (it’s traditional in Pantomime for men to play women’s roles, and vice versa), engaged in banter with the audience between scenes. I couldn’t hear much of what the audience members said, but I held my breath for half a beat when the actor mused that one of them “must be a Catholic…or a sloppy Protestant.” I needn’t have worried; the remark brought only laughter and applause.
Toward the end of the play, Jack, having lost his weapon, asked the audience if anyone had a gun – perhaps not a line that would have made it to the Radio City stage. “No, Jack,” his mother intervened. In a stage whisper, “she” uttered the word that would make or break one of the most important peace agreements in several years within the few days: “Decommissioning.” With that, for a minute, all of the tension that the talks must have been creating among the people of Belfast, Catholic or sloppy Protestant, was shattered by more delighted laughter and applause. And I could exhale again.
The play ended with the giant’s henchman dropping his hatchet and being transformed from evil to good; the fairy who brought this miracle about took pains to emphasize the permanence of the peace that would ensue. With that, the cast belted out a familiar song made new by virtue of hearing it in Belfast: I can see clearly now, the rain is gone. All of the bad feelings have disappeared. Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for – it’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day – an anthem of optimism if ever there was one. In the balconies, children swayed back and forth in unison, waving their wands of light.