Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Romanticism on the streets of Belfast

If you were contemplating romanticism, then Belfast probably wouldn’t be the first destination to spring to mind.

But if there’s one sentiment I came away from last week’s business trip to that city, it was a sense of the romantic.

It wasn’t the first thing that I noticed. That was the music shops. There were probably more in the few streets I explored than there are in the whole of London – music is hugely important to local culture.

And from the Unionist marching bands to the rebel songs of the Republican movement, it has long been intertwined with the politics and identities of the area.

But that’s only part of it.

On the Thursday morning – a glorious, crisp day, with frost beneath and blue skies overhead – I set out to walk the mile or so to interview a number of hospital staff at the Royal Victoria.

I hadn’t really thought about it before, but the hospital sits firmly on the Falls Road or Bóthar na bhFál as it’s known in Irish: ‘road of the hedgerows’.

‘The Falls’ had registered in my mind many years ago. Whether one lived in Northern Ireland or not, ‘The Troubles’, as they were so euphemistically known, were never confined to that region. The Falls itself and the Falls Road in particular were part of the scenery that regularly filled television reports.

And with that came the memory of the famous Republican murals.

A Northern Irish acquaintance had told me that I should get a bus tour of the area – including the murals. Once I’d finished my work, I scoffed at the idea, took some basic directions and headed off to walk all the way back down the Falls Road to the centre of the city.

The murals hit you for a number of reasons. After all the years of essentially anti-Republican propaganda in the mainstream UK media, you realise very quickly just whose history you’re looking at. Or rather, whose eyes you’re looking at history through.

The Gilbralter memorial, to the three IRA volunteers who were killed by the SAS on The Rock in 1988, shows paramilitary figures firing into the air at their funerals.

But the murals are not dominated by such images. Indeed, these are few and far between. The themes that dominated all the murals I saw, including all those on a stretch known as the Solidarity Wall, were of peace, justice, history, equality and respect.

And a sense of revolution – of rebellion – bound up in poetry. Nothing better illustrates that than the famous mural to hunger striker Bobby Sands, who is described as a “poet, Gaeilgeoir, revolutionary, IRA volunteer”. ‘Gaeilgeoir’ is an Irish language enthusiast.

Here is something that goes way beyond any conventional ideas of a terrorist And the image of Sands – a slightly hippyish young man with an open-necked shirt – is also a long way from stereotypes of revolutionaries.

There’s nothing particularly serious about the image – or Christlike, as in Alberto Korda's famus photographic portrait of Che Guevara, the template for all would-be revolutionaries ever after. You do get that, but it’s on quite a scale, at the Cuba section of the Solidarity Wall.

No. There is something particularly – uniquely? – Irish about the romantic, poetic nature of Irish Republicanism.

It doesn’t stop with a few paintings on the walls of homes in a working-class area of the city. Or even with the words of Sands, whose verse is quoted in more than one place.

After I’d come to the end of my walk, snapping away and being greeted with friendly nods and ‘hellos’, I was flagging somewhat, so I decided that on my way back to the hotel, I’d pop into the legendary Crown Bar for a glass of Guinness.

The name of the pub has its own lovely bit of history. It was first built in 1826, a lushly decorated “liquor saloon”. The couple who owned it was a mixed one: the Protestant husband wanted to call their hostelry ‘The Crown’. His Catholic wife agreed – on one condition: that the name and a representation of the crown were created in the tile floor outside the front door, so that her customers could step on it!

Initially, I wandered about outside, snapping away at the incredible detail on the building. Around one side, two men stood, an empty sherry bottle on the ground and cans of lager in their hands.

“Why don’t you photograph me?” said one suddenly, striking a pose. So I did.

“And what about my friend, here?” he added. So I shot – but not in an old Belfast way – his friend too.

“I’m Brian,” he told me. “And now you can say you’ve met two real Belfast alcoholics!

“Have you got any change?”

A few minutes later, there I was, perched on the one remaining bar stool, a Guinness on the bar in front of me, and reviewing the days photographs, when suddenly I heard a little chuckle and, as I glanced up, was snapped on a mobile phone camera.

This proved to have utterly tickled pink the man whose phone it was.

Much as I initially tried to return to my own photographic musings, he was in no mood to let me.

Fergal, as I came to know him, wanted someone to chat to.

It appeared he was one of nine children (a bit of a hint in terms of which community he came from). All his siblings, he told me, had emigrated to “find better lives for themselves.

“But I thought: ‘why not stay here and make a better life for yourself’?”

That started ringing bells – the sort of bells that asked how, in the context of the last 40 years of Northern Irish history, someone from the Nationalist community would plan to do just that.

Over the course of a couple of hours – and a few more pints – more hints came out. Hints? Or just things that I was particularly alert to? Who knows?

He challenged me to agree that the bombing campaigns had ultimately saved lives: self justification?

He wanted to talk philosophically about guilt – about how I shouldn’t feel guilt for what my forefathers had done to the island of Ireland or he for anything his forefathers had done, but what did I think about the Potato Famine? We could only feel guilt for things that we ourselves had done.

And there was a vein running through it all of the romantic. The love of words in spite of his own dyslexia. A sort of pick-‘n’-mix spiritualism. A belief in an aim of making things better, even if having to shed blood in doing so.

A young man came in at one point, almost certainly stoned. He hung around and, when I popped outside for a quick smoke, scrounged a fag, before trying to discover whether he knew Fergal. It seemed that the older man knew his family.

Returning inside, he hovered. Ever the generous visitor, I offered him a pint. He took it. But within a few moments, Fergal had apologised to me and quietly escorted him out of earshot. When he returned, it was to inform me that our hanger-on was leaving. Which he did so a few moments later, thanking me quickly on the way out.

What persuasive methods had been applied to hurry his departure? I didn’t ask.

I did, later, put the blunt question of whether Fergal had ever been ‘involved’. Daft really, since simply being in Belfast, simply being in Northern Ireland, meant that you were ‘involved’.

He said that he had never “been a volunteer”. But later, he suggested that he had ‘made things’ for those who were volunteers.

It was a fascinating encounter. Not what I expected, but perhaps in a way just what I wanted. I’m not prepared to say with absolute certainty that he had done anything that would have seem him imprisoned, but I have the feeling that that was the case.

He was far from what one might expect a terrorist to be like. And while he might not have been the picture of a romantic revolutionary, romanticism ran through his conversation and ideas.

The next day, attending an event, it gave me a huge amount of amusement to see the utter horror on the face of a woman who was bemoaning my having been left to tramp around Belfast on my own. When I told her this story, she was even more mortified. As it happened, I had never felt remotely unsafe. Fergal was sounding me out to a great extent – seeing what the obvious stranger in town was about – but then I was playing the same game. And it was fascinating.

One thing about romanticism is the lack of fear. Fear, to an extent at least, is relative. What is frightening for one person is not for someone else. In Gateshead and Newcastle in January, it was something like fear that had infiltrated my bones so deeply that I barely moved from my hotel. Perhaps this little trip has helped purge me of that.

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