We weren’t looking for trouble, honestly. We arrived in Belfast in early July, after months of hunkering down in Portland. Apart from the fact that covid-19 was getting its teeny little hooks into an ever widening portion of the locals, cops had been using up tear gas and pepper spray like it was going out of fashion. All we wanted now was a little bit of peace. What better place to find it, I thought, than in a tiny little suburb on the outskirts of boring old Belfast?
When I looked out of the window on that first morning, I noticed that the street was positively festooned with Union Jacks and pennants of red, white and blue. There were flags in the windows and all in all the sense of a holiday mood. I realized, with some embarrassment and not a little dread, that we’d landed in East Belfast on the eve of marching season. Not just East Belfast, either, but a Loyalist holdout.
The row house we were staying in looked out on a pretty green area called Marsh-Wiggle Park, a reference to a character invented by C.S. Lewis, native son of Belfast. From our vantage point on the upper storey, starting from about July 9, we saw men and boys lugging pallets into a clearing and stacking them up as high as they could. The pallets were supplemented with whatever scrap wood they’d been saving up over the year–chairs, doors, desks, even a bicycle. The pile grew and grew and when it was perfected, on the 11th, someone put a couple of Irish Republican flags on top.
I won’t lie, the sight of this spiteful little stack of sticks gave me an unpleasant feeling. The fact that my husband and I are both descendants of Irish Catholic families made it feel a little too close to home. Even if we were in no immediate danger, it was scary. Maybe it was my imagination, but the air in general was a little electric. In fact I don’t think it was my imagination though because there were violent clashes on the nights of July 10 and 11. Even if they were small compared to those of previous years, it was a nail-biting novelty for me. Late on the eleventh, we saw a glow in the sky and heard boisterous singing.
Then, the next day, the morning of the twelfth, we heard the boom of drums and shrill whistle of fifes. This surprised me, as I’d read that the orange people intended to celebrate safely at home, whatever that would entail. Listening to Ian Paisley’s greatest rants? But lo, ten minutes later we saw a motley collection of portly musicians marching down the street followed by families cheering and waving Union Jacks. I rushed outside to get footage, nervously wondering if I would be recognized as the Enemy. No one seemed to notice me though.
A couple of days later, we’d ‘done our time’ in quarantine and I ventured out in my mask to see something of the city. Aside from all the Union Jacks hanging from streetlights, my first impression was that of a shuttered city. Lockdown restrictions had not yet been lifted and there were very few people out and about. The rows of shuttered shops had a melancholy, forlorn feeling. Bus stop ads offered public health advice. In many windows were children’s drawings of rainbows–a symbol of the National Health Service, a ‘rainbow in the rain’.
One place where there was a big crowd was on a little street near Ballymacarett Orange Hall. Quite a large crowd was drinking and mingling. I decided not to take a picture of the people because I didn’t want to provoke anyone. Several months of isolation combined with nervousness about unfamiliar sectarian triggers led me to bustle on as innocuously as possible. Unfortunately this was not very innocuously at all as I was the only person in the city wearing a mask.
In this part of town there were several murals and flags sporting the logo of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group that is officially listed as a terrorist organization by the United Kingdom and Ireland. While most people think of the Troubles in terms of I.R.A. bombings, the U.V.F. was responsible for the deadliest attack of the conflict, the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings, which killed 33 civilians (and 1 full-term unborn child) and wounded 300.
Like I say, we weren’t looking for trouble but it was hard for me not to notice all this. So I decided to go on the ‘Belfast Troubles Walking Tour’ with local man Arthur McGee. I don’t want to say too much about that because if you come here you should take it. Just one of the many, many interesting things we learned on the tour was the story of the Northern Bank robbery on December 2004, the biggest heist in British history. The thieves got away with £26.5 million in pounds sterling, cash, and the case has never been solved.
In my next post, I plan to write about fiction set in Belfast during the Troubles. Stay tuned!