History, Modern, Travel, UK

Walls and Peace in Belfast

Yesterday we went on a taxi tour of the murals of Belfast.

Our guide was clearly a tough customer. About fifty but wiry and spry, his nose had been broken more than once and he referred darkly to an injury he’d sustained in The Troubles. Despite his appearance, he was friendly, albeit in the slightly terrifying deadpan-kidding style of the Scots and Northern Irish.

“What’s the first thing customers taking this tour ask me, d’ye think?”

“Ahm, ‘What side are you on?’” John ventured.

The guide scowled.

“I was gonna say, ‘What’s your name?’”

There was a long pause and we wondered if we should just tiptoe away.

“Nah, you’re right,” he grinned, “It’s, ‘Are ye a Catholic or a Protestant?’ Well, I’m not going to tell ye. And the reason I’m not going to tell ye is that we want to be evenhanded, so we do. It’s not our job to win you over to one side or the other, it’s our job to show you the sites and explain some of the history behind the conflict. At the end of the tour, if you still want to know I’ll tell you, but I’m not going to tell yiz now.

“Now, what d’ye know about Belfast, if anything?” he asked.

I looked sideways at John, who could write a book on the subject.

“Er, there was a conflict here,” I say.

“No!” he took a step back. “Here?! You don’t say! Not here. This peaceful little place!”

Nervous laughter.

“And, to be clear, even though you’ll hear me talk about Catholics and Protestants, this is not about religion. Religion is dying out here as it is elsewhere in the world and most people don’t go to church. This is about the relationship between two countries called England and Ireland. And it goes back 900 hundred years. Dinnae worry, I’m not going to bore you with all that history now,” he said. “The main thing I’m going to be talking about is the wee conflict that started in 1969 and ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement.

“Now, I often say that The Troubles didn’t really start in Ireland at all, they started some years before in a wee town in the United States of America called Alabama. Why would that be?” he paused his easy teacher patter to await a response.

“Uh, that was a center of the Civil Rights Movement,” John said.

“Right ye are. Martin Luther King Jr. and others started a non-violent campaign challenging discrimination laws. That movement forced desegregation in the South and paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Belfast in the 1960s was a segregated city and the Catholic minority faced housing, employment and voter discrimination. The biggest industries in Northern Ireland were owned by Protestants who employed Protestants. A Catholic was less likely to find a job and if he was lucky enough to find one, it was generally a low-paid, low-skilled job. In 1971, 6.6% of Protestant males were unemployed compared to 17.3% of Catholic males.  This was a problem for Catholics because if you were poor you had to share housing. According to local law, only the home owner and his wife were entitled to a vote. If you rented or sub-let a house or if you lived with your parents, you could not vote.

“A group of students at Queens University here in Belfast were paying close attention to what happened in Alabama and they decided to form the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. In the beginning, their slogan was simple: ‘One Man, One Vote’.

The Walk to Freedom, from Belfast to Derry 1969

“In 1969 a radical left-wing group went on an anti-government march from Belfast to Derry. Ulster loyalists attacked the marchers at several different points. And this set off months of riots and serious sectarian clashes. The Troubles had kicked off in earnest.”

Our guide closed the van door, hopped into the driver’s seat and we set off on our way.

“Even today, 22 years after the Troubles, Belfast is a divided city. We come together in the business center to work, eat and talk but we don’t live together. If you’re Catholic, you will live on a Catholic-majority street; if you’re Protestant you will live on a Protestant-majority street. It’s not divided cleanly in two, either. I always say that if you looked down from space with one community white and the other black that it would look like a chessboard.”

“Is there any way to tell just by looking who is who?” John asked.

“Yes,” the driver nodded. “If you look at a man’s eyes, if the right one is slightly bigger then that man is a Protestant. And if he has bushy eyebrows, he’s a Catholic.”

Again with the deadpan.

“Seriously, though, there are three questions people will ask. The first is, ‘What’s your name?’ If your name is Niamh, Siobhan, Sean, Finn then you’re Catholic. If your name is William, Elizabeth, Victoria, Kyle then you’re Protestant. The second question is, ‘What school did you go to?’ Even now, 93% of schools are segregated by religion. Third question, ‘Where do you live?’ Like I said, communities keep to themselves, even now.”

The van was leaving the business center and we found ourselves in a street festooned with Union Jacks. Not only was there a flag on each streetlight, but there were little Union Jack pennants strung between the streetlights like a net over the road.

Image taken from photographer Richard Wainwright’s blog

“Can you guess which sort of community we’re in now?” The driver asked. We felt no need to answer. “Shankhill Road. 100% Protestant, 100% Loyalist. If the flags don’t tell the story, all you have to do is look at the murals. Over there you will see one.”

He nodded ahead and we saw a painting of a giant red hand surrounded by words of greeting: Aloha! اهلا وسهلا! 欢迎! Velkommen! स्वागत है!

“You can read the word ‘welcome’ in every language but one,” the driver said. “That one being Irish.”

“The Red Hand of Ulster that you see here” he said, “Is actually an Irish Gaelic symbol for the Ulster region. It comes from the story of Labraid Lámderg, Labraid of the Red Hand. The Kingdom of Ulster had no heir so everyone agreed it would be decided by a boat race; whoever’s hand touched the shore of Ireland would be made king. Noticing that he was losing the race, Labraid cut his hand off and threw it onto the shore, winning the race. His own hand! Why didn’t cut off one of his servant’s instead? Proves the old kings weren’t as smart as they thought they were.

He turned into a rather desolate looking housing tract where there were brick houses whose windows and gardens were decorated with Union Jacks, pictures of the Queen and garden ornaments. The street was dominated, however, by this proprietary announcement.

“This,” said our guide, “Is the probably the most feared district. And the second battalion company seven is the most feared in Belfast.”

Oh? I thought, suddenly well shaken out of the remains of morning drowsiness (I’d woken up much earlier than usual for this tour). Then why are we here?  

“The UDA stands for the Ulster Defense Association. It was formed in 1971 by Loyalists as an umbrella group for several different groups. As you can see, they control this patch.”

“And here we have two associated groups. Then in the middle you have the UFF, Ulster Freedom Fighters. This wasn’t really a different group but it was a cover name for the UDA, which didn’t want to be outlawed. The UFF was branded a terrorist organization in 1973, whereas the UDA weren’t proscribed until 1992. The Ulster Young Militants is the youth branch of the UDA.”

“Er, they’re um not still, like, in operation they?” I asked. “This is just, he he, a kind of nostalgic relic?”

He laughed heartily.

“Oh no, they’re very much alive and kicking today, as is the IRA, and lots of other paramilitary groups. Now, I’m going to show you the two greatest heroes of this particular community. Look to your left and you will see a man who sits just below God in their estimation.”

“Ah,” said John, “William of Orange.”

“That’s the one. William of Orange was a Dutchman and a Protestant. The Dutch flag is orange, and that’s why members of the loyalist association here call themselves Orangemen. When the Catholic King James II of England was deposed in 1688, William came over from Holland to take his place. James went into exile in France but he came to Ireland to try to recover his kingdoms. William followed him here and defeated him decisively in July 1691. The battle that really ended it all was the Battle of Aughrim, the bloodiest ever fought on the British Isles, but for various reasons the battle everyone celebrates here is the Battle of the Boyne.

“Orangemen celebrate the Battle of the Boyne every year on July 12. At midnight on the morning of the twelfth they light bonfires decorated with the Irish Republican flag and effigies of the Pope. This is the view from my house on July 12th.”

He held up an ipad to show a city dotted with large bonfires.

“All to celebrate a war that happened more than three hundred years ago. Now look to your right and you’ll see a very famous guy who is the second greatest hero of this neighborhood. When you hear the words ‘Top Gun’ you probably think of Tom Cruise but when I hear it I think of this man here, Stevie McKeag.”

We looked up at a huge portrait of a guy in camo and a beret. He looked a bit like Prince Harry but a lot meaner.

“The reason he was called Top Gun is that every year the UVF would have a prize-giving and the winner was called Top Gun. The way you got this prize was to kill the most…what’s the missing word?”

“Er, C-C-Catholics?” I sputtered.

“Correct!” he chirped. “Let’s get out and have a look,” he opened the van door.

Do we absolutely have to? I wondered.   

“So…do the people living here not mind…people taking pictures?” John asked casually.

The driver waved his hand dismissively.

“I’ve been coming here ten years now, there’s never any bother. And later on in the day, this carpark will be that crowded with tourists. You see those gunmen there, to the left of Stevie McKeag? Who are they pointing their guns at?”

“Me,” I said.

“Correct. And notice when we walk over here, the guns follow us, as do his eyes. The message is clear: If you’re from this neighborhood you’re safe. If you’re an outsider, you’re not welcome.”

I walked quite quickly away from this mural over to a pretty pale-blue wall covered with what looked like the painting of a quilt.

“This here is a mural that is the result of the Good Friday Agreement. The deal was that any street that covered up a sectarian mural and replaced it with a mural promoting peace, that street would receive funding for development. Often times it was the women who took the lead there. Generally speaking, what women want, women get. The women around here put this painting up and as you see there is a fenced-off area here awaiting development. If you look at the mural, each panel of the quilt has a word on it. What are the two words that stand out to you?”

“Um, ‘Love’ and ‘Mother’?” I asked, like the swot I am.

“Well, to me, no offence, it’s those ones down the bottom, ‘Loud’ and ‘Stubborn’; they’re talking about the men y’see. Well, as I have a wife and a 15-year-old daughter at home I’d be inclined to say it applied better to the female of the species.”

Chuckle.

“If you look over here,” he beckoned, “You can see the mural that used to be here.”

“Wow,” John said. “An Iron Maiden imitation, but a really bad one. That thing looks more like an alien.”

We headed back to the van. I was watching in my peripheral vision for curtain twitching but didn’t see any.

Our guide then took us to see the most famous of several Peace Walls in the city. This is the very tall (25-feet high), reinforced wall that separates the Falls Rd, which is 100% Catholic from Shankhill Road, which is 100% Protestant. It runs for several kilometers, to the foot of Divis, a big hill that overlooks the city.

The driver pointed to a big gate making a gap in the wall.

“That gate closes at four in the evening and opens at eight in the morning. It opens in time to let schoolkids through and closes after they go home, before any trouble starts. The gate is automatic and controlled by the police. If a report comes through of conflict starting, the police can push a button and close the gate. But even through the closed gates local kids throw stones at each other.”

“When did the wall get built?” I asked.

“It was meant to be a temporary measure. You see, at the start of the Troubles there was an incident on Bombay Street, just here, in fact.” He parked the van. “Before August 1969, Bombay street was more integrated than it is now. There were Protestants living on that side and Catholics living on this side. But one day Protestants burned some Catholic houses to the ground. In retaliation, the Catholics came over and burned some Protestant houses. Pretty quickly, Protestants on that side decided to grab all their belongings and get out. Same with Catholics on this side. Then, when the British Army came over to keep the peace, they had a big problem. They couldn’t tell who was who. They didn’t know the trick of looking at the eyes and eyebrows. The wall made their job just a bit easier.  Actually, when the wall went up, it was only meant to be temporary, but here we are in 2020 and it’s still here. I don’t think it’s coming down any time too soon, either. Maybe in a couple of generations. For now, it works. I’ll tell you one thing, though. If the British scrap the Good Friday Agreement with Brexit, I wouldn’t like to be here two years from now.”

We got out and had a look at the wall close up. It was covered in colorful graffiti and names and dates.

“Before, it was just a wall. It got the name of Peace Wall when Bill Clinton visited and was asked to write a message of peace on the wall. The Dalai Lama followed suit and since then, thousands of people, lots of celebrities included, have added their names and messages of peace on it.”

He handed us a marker pen.

“C’mon, if it’s good enough for Bill Clinton, it’s good enough for yiz.”

I couldn’t think of anything clever, so just put our names down.

“Has anyone bombed the wall before?” John asked.

“No bombs yet. But if you look up at that rusty mark up there, that’s the stain left by a Molotov cocktail.”

We got back in the car and had a look at some of the murals as we passed through a gate from the Protestant side to the Catholic side.

This was a mural on the Protestant side:

This was a mural on the Catholic side:

We then visited a little memorial garden honoring Irish Republican volunteers and martyrs. Many were women, which doesn’t seem to have been the case on the other side. Unfortunately, my camera ran out of batteries at this point.

A little way past the memorial garden we stopped outside a mural depicting a smiling young man. Inset in little ovals were a few other men.

“This here is Bobby Sands, the hunger striker who died in his fight to gain political prisoner status. For years he was kept in solitary confinement. He was beaten. He refused to accept the name of criminal and refused to wear the prison uniform. He started wearing a blanket and his fellow political prisoners followed suit. This was called the Blanket Protest.

“Guards started attacking prisoners when they left their cells to empty their chamberpots. Sands and his fellow Republican prisoners then started the Dirty Protest—refusing to wash and smearing their cell walls with shit. Margaret Thatcher refused to acknowledge that their demand to be treated as political prisoners was legitimate. Sands began his hunger strike on March 1, 1981 and died after sixty-six days.

“Why the words MP? During his hunger strike, a Member of Parliament died suddenly. The vacancy in a seat that had a nationalist majority of about 5,000 seemed like a good opportunity to draw attention to Sands’ plight. He was nominated and won the seat on 9 April, becoming the youngest MP at the time. About one month later, he died.

Walking around the corner from the mural, we saw that the building was the local office of Sinn Féin.

“I sometimes used to see Gerry Adams coming in to work here. Well, that’s the tour. I hope you enjoyed it. Now that it’s over, d’ye care to hazard a guess as to which side I’m on?”

“Catholic?” I said.

“And John?” he asked.

“Well, that seems too easy,” John prevaricated, “I’m thinking you might have been bending over backwards, I’m going to say Protestant.”

“Right, John’s walking home,” the driver said.

Droll to the last.

Detective Fiction, Fiction, Reviews

The Most Preposterous Mystery Novel Ever? Yes.

Writing a mystery novel is a complicated proposition. There is much to consider. The sleuth should be human but not too human; the death(s) should not upset the reader unduly; the suspects all need to be neatly numbered and accounted for. You have to calibrate the pace, ramp up the nervous tension and supply a satisfying solution. And, this is crucial, the plot must be startling but not ludicrous.

Perfection is for the gods, of course, and there are plenty of successful ‘imperfect’ murder mysteries. If a story is entertaining enough and roughly adheres to the accepted template, readers in search of diversion will overlook the usual pitfalls of Golden Age Detective Stories (overwriting, small plot holes, jingoism, raging misogyny and offensive stereotypes). As long as there is (a) a crime and (b) a solution to the crime, many of us feel we got what we came for.

But a line needs to be drawn somewhere and there are authors who take liberties. They treat their readers like saps. They spin a tale that wouldn’t stand up to the slightest puff of wind and are proud of themselves. There is one book in particular whose plot is so cuckoo that it left me gasping for air and wondering how any self-respecting publisher would go along with it.

I speak of Seven Dead, by Joseph Jefferson Farjeon. One of Mystery’s old pros, J.J. Farjeon (1883-1955) wrote more than 100 novels, most of them crime stories. Some of them are good. Thirteen Guests (1936), for example, is a diverting tale along the lines of Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie. His play Number Seventeen was made into a successful film by Alfred Hitchcock. It’s clear that Farjeon could do a decent job when he wanted to. But when he sat down to write Seven Dead, something diabolical happened to his brain. “What,” I imagine he said, “if I wrote something so outlandish it made Alice in Wonderland look like investigative journalism?”

He liked numbers in his titles

The reason this book upsets me so much is that it starts out so well—a standard whodunnit, nicely written, good characters, snappy dialogue, a romance angle. One feels that one is in good hands, not gripped in the paws of a fiction-mangling maniac. If there had been any sign of authorial misconduct before chapter 25 then I would have gently laid the book aside tut-tutting. As it was, I read 80% of the thing before realizing it was pure hogwash. That makes me mad.

In case you think I’m exaggerating, I will now describe the plot to you. If you plan to read the book (the more fool you) and want to do so without prejudice, then don’t read any more of this.

The culprit Farjeon

The book opens with a cockney spoon-thief breaking into a country house and discovering seven grimy corpses in a drawing room. The shutters have been nailed down and cloth stuffed up the chimney. In the center of the mantelpiece is a vase supporting an ancient cricket ball. A rolled up piece of paper in the hand of one of the victims has writing on it. On one side, written in ink:

WITH APOLOGIES

FROM

THE SUICIDE CLUB

On the other side, in red pencil:

Particulars at address 59.16s 6.6e.G

The side written in pencil was probably written in the victim’s last moments because in his other hand he holds the stub of a red pencil.

Detective Inspector Kendall and journalist Hazeldean get on the case. They figure out that the Fenners have gone across the English Channel to Boulogne. Hazeldean (having fallen in love with a portrait of Dora), decides to sail over there on his yacht. Meanwhile, Kendall figures out that the seven victims had arrived by sailing up the river in a decrepit boat, that someone had let them into the house, locked them in the room and gassed them using a rubber tube fitted into the keyhole. The murderer had then cycled to a big flat field where an aeroplane had picked him up and taken him to France.

We go to Boulogne. Hazeldean finds Dora and arranges to join Dora and her uncle at the pension where they’re staying. Fenner is having an affair with Paula the woman who owns the pension. Paula’s creepy husband Dr. Jones has been coming on to Dora and her uncle has not been discouraging him. Dora is unhappy. She does not know about the seven dead people in her house back in England.

While Hazeldean is about to tell Dora the bad news, Fenner arrives to tell everyone that Dr. Jones died in a plane crash. Hazeldean tells him, in turn, about the seven dead people in his house. Fenner says he’s off to contact the police—right away!

Bologne sur mer chateau musee

By the time Kendall gets to Boulogne, Fenner has stolen Hazeldean’s yacht. It’s clear that he murdered the seven people with a new form of gas. He also killed Dr. Jones (who did not die in a crash, though Fenner tried to make it look as if he had).

But why did he murder them?

Well…

The code on the piece of paper (59.16s 6.6e) is a geographical coordinate for a tiny island in the Tristan da Cunha group. Detective Inspector Kendall, Hazeldean, Dora and Hazeldean’s hired sailors head off in a new yacht for a tiny island in the South Atlantic. When they get there, they discover an abandoned campsite, a homemade cricket bat and a notebook in a cave wall. This notebook conveniently gives us all the back story we need.

Ten years earlier in South Africa a man named Cauldwell was wanted for murder but escaped the country on board a boat called Good Friday. He helped arrange a mutiny, wanting to ensure the boat wouldn’t reach its original destination as that would result in his arrest. Unfortunately, the ship was so badly damaged in the mutiny that when a storm came along, it sank. Eight people managed to scramble into a lifeboat and they all ended up on a tiny island in the Tristan da Cunha group in the South Atlantic.

For months the eight of them stayed there building a boat from driftwood, eating penguins and playing cricket to pass the time. In all that time, in spite of having a newspaper containing a photograph that identified Cauldwell as a fugitive murderer, no one noticed.

The group slept in caves and Cauldwell shared his cave with a man named John Fenner who was going to England to take care of his niece. While sleep-talking, Fenner divulged that he had figured out half of the formula of a new kind of poison gas that was sure to prove very lucrative. Cauldwell asked him all about it and suddenly became very friendly with him.

On the day that the boat was finally finished, everyone decided to have one final game of cricket, for old time’s sake. Cauldwell (who had already stolen John Fenner’s secret-gas formula and papers), pretended to chase the cricket ball and before anyone knew what was happening, he waded into the water, stole the boat and set off out for freedom.

cricket ball of evil

He drifted along for some time and was finally rescued, claiming to be John Fenner, the sole survivor of the Good Friday. As the ship’s surgeon (Dr. Jones) helped nurse him back to health, he learned some of the true story. Realizing that his patient would probably get rich from the new gas, Dr. Jones made a deal with him that amounted to blackmail. If Cauldwell helped him with money, Dr. Jones would stay quiet about his true identity.

Cauldwell subsequently goes to Dora’s place to impersonate her uncle, with occasional trips to Boulogne where Dr. Jones lives with his French floozy. Somehow, in spite of having gone in for murder more than chemistry back in South Africa, Cauldwell successfully manages to figure out the rest of Fenner’s formula and to produce the new kind of lethal gas.  

Meanwhile, back on the cold rock in the South Atlantic, the others were just as mad as seven wet hens. They carve out the Latin words FIAT JUSTICIA RUAT CAELUM (let vengeance fall from the sky) on a homemade sign, probably deciding it was no use saving wood to make another boat. Everyone lays hands on it and vows vengeance.

Then after a while an empty boat comes along.

It’s a shame that Farjeon decided to omit the most amazing and interesting part of this, i.e. the fact that seven shipwreck survivors manage to sail, in a wreck, from the Tristan da Cunha group all the way up to Benwick. And they make the trip without attracting so much as a raised eyebrow. This is a journey of about 6,000 miles as the crow flies through some of the most treacherous waters on earth. The crew (surprisingly strong considering their subsistence diet of penguin and sea elephant) manage to avoid freak waves, hard winds, men overboard, lightning strikes and collisions with other boats (or sleeping whales or floating containers).  That trip, we are to suppose, was a doddle.

And after years of privation, they don’t stop to shower or eat or phone their nearest and dearest or anything. Instead, they go straight to Cauldwell’s place for a showdown. They all politely file into a room that’s completely shut up and make no kind of effort to break the door down. They just sit there and wait to be gassed, not forgetting to first write down the coordinates of a godforsaken island in the South Atlantic. If it were me, I might have written something a bit more to the point, e.g. ‘get Fenner’ or ‘Fenner is Cauldwell, we were shipwrecked.’ Anything, really, to help the case along.

But it works. Kendall has a hunch that Cauldwell will pop along back to the island so he, Hazeldean and friends go there and hang around for a week. Sure enough, Cauldwell does show up. At this point even the villain has started to doubt the author’s competence:

“Why—am I—here?” he wondered.

He must know his reason! He’d had a reason! He would remember it in a moment. It was only that last storm that had disturbed his mind, making him forget things. That tumble down the hatchway, you know. Naturally, a bump like that…

“Ah! The diary!”

That was it! The diary! Of course.

Of course. The diary. Hidden in a tiny crack in a cave on one of the world’s remotest islands. Makes perfect sense.

Inspector Kendall and Hazeldean leave a revolver beside the vengenace sign and hide to see what Cauldwell does. Cauldwell, who has never shown a milligram of conscience in his life, is suddenly beset by ghosts playing cricket. When he sees the sign and the revolver, he decides he’s had enough of life and shoots himself. Kendall and Hazeldean bury him there and everything is wrapped up nicely.

Not quite the straight bat, Farjeon.

History, Running, Travel, UK

All Toes on the Towpath

Belfast is a surprisingly wonderful city for running, with no shortage of greenways, parks and riverbank trails. My favorite place for long weekend runs is definitely the towpath, which runs for 11 miles alongside the Lagan River and forms the backbone of Lagan Valley Regional Park, an area of 4,200 acres that includes meadow, forest, marsh, historical estates and urban parkland.

The towpath is a remnant of the Lagan Canal, a 27-mile water route linking Loch Neagh (the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles) to Belfast Harbour. The canal’s main purpose was transporting coal to Belfast. In an era when roads were undeveloped and there were no trains or motorboats, ‘lighters’ were pulled along the canal by a horse, which was led by a guy called a ‘hauler’ .The stretch from Belfast to Lisburn opened in 1763 and is known as the Lagan Navigation, ‘navigation’ being a term used to describe a river whose water is made more navigable by a system of locks . The second part, from Lisburn to Loch Neagh, opened in 1796.

By the 1950s, the Lagan canal was rendered obsolete. But even today there are a few reminders of the old days—a cute lock-keeper’s cottage, an abandoned canal barge and the towpath itself, the trail along the banks where horses plodded towing the boats. The path is now paved with asphalt and has become a popular walking and cycling trail. In fact, it has even been absorbed into the National Cycle Network of Northern Ireland, which explains the silent wheeled ones who zoom past you every once in a while.

The waters of the Lagan are dark and deep, reflecting the varied greens of trees and plants that grow on its banks. Birds are at home here; I regularly see herons, terns, gulls, coots, mallards and Irish magpies with iridescent green in their black feathers. Allegedly there are also tufted ducks and jays (garrulus glandarius) but I have never seen them.

A lot of the riverside plants are unfamiliar to me, especially the pink things I’ve nicknamed ‘bucket flowers’ that grow in great clusters all along the banks. I’m pretty sure they’re the source of a delicious fragrance that combines elements of watermelon, pepper, honeysuckle and grass. On warm August days it seemed each bucket flower was occupied by a bee and I took care not to bump into them or into the pin-pricking nettles on the path’s verge.

My towpath trail begins at the Belfast Boat Club, the biggest multi-sports and leisure club in Northern Ireland. It’s always pretty busy around there, with the tennis courts full and the joining restaurant very popular.  

Further along the path on the opposite side of the river is Belvoir Forest Park, which is the only place in Belfast where I’ve gotten seriously lost. After running around in circles for two hours and emerging briefly onto  I finally emerged onto a street called Galwally Avenue and guessed my way back into town.

Ever since getting lost in Belvoir Forest Park I tend to stay on the other side of the river until getting to the little red bridge, which takes me over past some restored locks, an old lock-keeper’s cottage and then on over John Luke Bridge. This was named for the famous Northern Irish painter John Luke (1906-1975), who started out working as a riveter in a Belfast shipyard and is considered one of the greatest Irish painters of the twentieth century.

  

Three Dancers (1945) by John Luke

John Luke Bridge takes you past a car park and into Clement Wilson Park. This, was apparently the site of a clog factory until bought by Wilson Management Ltd. in 1929, when it became a fruit-canning factory.  Because the factor was so far from town, factory staff wandered around the surrounding grounds during their lunch break rather than going home. This allegedly inspired management to landscape and prettify the grounds. The city council bought the area from the Clement Wilson factory in 1974 and it is now a very pretty park with a paved trail suitable for wheelchairs and strollers.  

Weaving between dogs, children, cyclists and hand-holding couples, I eventually get to Shaw’s Bridge, an impressive structure that owes its existence to the need for artillerymen to cross the River Lagan to carry out Cromwell’s genocidal conquest of Ireland. Originally oak, the bridge was rebuilt in stone in 1709 and has remained in its original condition ever since.  

Shaw’s Bridge

When I get to the Mr. Whippy Truck and Shaw’s Bridge, it means that I am only a couple of steps away from Barnett’s Desmesne, which is named for its last private owner William Barnett, a grain merchant and the breeder of the first Irish horse to win the Derby (Trigo, 1929). The grounds include woodland, flowery meadows and a grand renovated Georgian mansion called Malone House. This stretch of the towpath is probably my favorite because it is usually very quiet and peaceful and there are some beautiful old trees overhanging the path. Occasionally I have come across people doing a spot of line fishing from the path.

 The next bulk of city-owned green we meet is Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park. This is named for a Belfast ship owner and his wife, who was made a Dame for services to Admittedly the towpath skirts its borders so I have never actually been in the park proper but by all accounts it is a nice place covering more than 128 acres, which includes the City of Belfast International Rose Garden.

Portrait of Lady Edith Stewart Dixon By Henrietta Rae (30 December 1859 – 26 January 1928) (c) Larne Borough Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

After that there is a mile of green water. A BBC article says that it’s probably just duckweed but others think it’s algae. I’m not sure, but it’s a striking sight. Along this stretch of towpath there are some cow fields. That’s about where I turn around.

If you are ever in Belfast when it’s not raining, or if it is raining and you have a raincoat, I highly recommend the towpath for an afternoon of wonderful wandering.

Heroes, History, Travel, UK

The Big Defibrillated Heart of Belfast

We’ve been in Belfast for nearly two months now and I’m afraid I’m getting almost fond of it. Don’t get me wrong, its bad press is well deserved. Even in mid-summer it’s rainy, surly, and redolent of chip oil. The badly painted paramilitary murals, the damp Victorian brick, the predominance of the word ‘wee’—it all gets to you after a while. Even the seagulls are abnormal. I’m from Dunedin, where gulls are unusually aggressive and screechy but even they don’t compare with these mussel-cracking hippogriffs, which are enormous and scream as if they are murderously angry at you personally. I don’t particularly like any of that. Nor did I appreciate the way a bystander completely ignored my bellyflop onto concrete earlier this week, even though it happened right next to him! I told him so too, haughtily thanking him for his concern as I winced away. And yet, the strange truth is that this city has a proud history of conscientious kindness totally at odds with its appearance and reputation. And that strain of humanity is still there, even if it’s not necessarily the first thing that you notice.

Possibly the main thing that struck me after moving here from Portland, Oregon, is that I haven’t yet seen anyone sleeping rough. In Portland, every riverbank and bridge and slope of highway is populated by human flotsam. Confined to rare public spaces, they subsist where they can forming a straggling alternative city along bike lanes and rivers, half-invisible until respectable people complain about their unsightly existence. Actually, in Vancouver, Auckland, Rome, Bueños Aires and London you also see people sleeping on the streets, the same official irritation with their despair. Maybe there is a tent city Belfast and I just haven’t seen it, I shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but it’s a noticeable difference for a visitor.  

As you can see from the map, Belfast is bluntly divided into the four compass directions. The downtown area, fitting into the white D shape, is densely commercial, with the predictable global franchises, gift shops and a few prominent expensive sculptural reminders of the Good Friday Peace Agreement plonked down where tourists can’t miss them. This one, standing over the River Lagan, is ‘The Beacon of Hope’ by Andy Scott, otherwise known as ‘Nuala with the Hula’.

A little further along the river bank you see ‘The Big Fish’ by John Kindness, a representation of the Salmon of Knowledge bradán feasa, a figure of Irish legend that got smart by eating hazelnuts.

Then in Arthur Square, a popular spot for street preachers, we have ‘The Spirit of Belfast’ by Dan George. It is supposed to represent the twin industries of linen and ship-building on which the city was built, but locals call it ‘Onion Rings’.

The main shopping center, Victoria Square Shopping Center is topped with a dome that allegedly offers a 360-degree view of the city, though it has been closed for several months due to covid-19 precautions.

 Despite these splashy and fairly unconvincing modernities, the great heart of Old Belfast remains in evidence, particularly in the narrow alleys known entries that connect the main streets. In the eighteenth century, when Belfast was known as ‘Linenopolis’, this area was packed with the people who worked in the factories, drank in the pubs and worshipped at various churches (Catholic, Anglican, Church of Ireland, Free Presbyterian…). According to many people, it was in the entries were where modern Belfast really began.

Joy’s Entry holds a particularly honored position as it is named for Henry Joy McCracken, a founding member of the remarkable Society of United Irishmen. Founded in 1798 and inspired by the French and American Revolutions and Scottish Enlightenment, this was a sworn society committed to equal representation of all men (no matter what their religion) in a national government. In doing this, they were rebelling against the British Crown’s policy of repressing and dispossessing Ireland’s Catholic majority. Interestingly, the Society of United Irishmen were almost all wealthy Presbyterians. Himself the son of two industrialist families, McCracken helped organize a nation-wide rebellion, for which he was swiftly arrested. In 1798, refusing to give up the names of other United Irishmen leaders, he was court martialled and hanged in Corn Market at the age of 30.

Henry Joy’s sister Mary Ann (1770-1866) was just as impressive. She fought all her life for political equality for women and for women’s rights in general. She campaigned for children’s welfare and for prison and social reform. Passionate about abolition, she refused to eat sugar and as an elderly woman stood on the docks at Belfast Harbor handing out pamphlets detailing the evils of slavery. As the co-owner of a Muslin factory, she refused to lay off staff during an economic downturn, preferring to eat the costs herself because she knew the workers had nowhere else to go.

Thomas McCabe (1739-1820), another member of the Society of United Urishmen, was also a strong proponent of abolition. He opposed the plans of Waddell Cunningham, the founding President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and owner of sugar estates in the West Indies, who wished to form a slave-trading company based in Belfast. In 1786, when Cunningham held a meeting in the Exchange to establish the Belfast Slave-Ship company, McCabe walked there from his shop and made a fiery speech, famously declaring, “May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man who will sign that document.”  And he had enough influence to sink the venture before it began.

Speaking of local heroes, almost daily I pass by a Victorian-era water fountain erected by public subscription to the memory of Francis Anderson Calder (1787-1855). Although he was a Commander of the Royal Navy and saw some ‘warm conflicts’ , that’s not why the city built a funny-shaped fountain to his memory. His real claim to fame is his involvement in the Belfast Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Thanks to his efforts, water troughs were built throughout the city for the refreshment of horses, a measure that was later adopted throughout the United Kingdom.

Francis Anderson Calder, a big softy

Finally, a taxi driver wised me up to Professor Frank Pantridge. I was in the taxi on my way to the dentist saying (lying) that I didn’t know anything about Belfast. Helpfully my driver (who coincidentally had the same dentist) explained that this was the home of Van Morrison, C.S. Lewis, George Best, the Titanic and Defibrillator.

“Is that a band?” I asked.

“No, the defibrillator,” he explained helpfully and left it at that.

After some research, I have divined that Professor Frank Pantridge did not actually invent the defibrillator, but he did come up with the idea of making a portable version that could be used as soon as possible after a cardiac arrest, when it would be most effective. The first version, which was able to run off a car’s batteries, was produced in 1965.

The funny thing is, this is not even the most remarkable thing about Pantridge’s life. As it happens, he was a Prisoner of War in World War II and was forced to work on the Burmese/Thailand railway. He developed a severe thiamin deficiency called beriberi and was extremely weak on his return to Belfast. In spite of this, he managed to complete his medical degree and to study the heart, partly motivated by his own experience of beriberi, which (among other nasty things) weakens the cardiac system. Thanks to him, we have a piece of equipment that has saved thousands of lives.

I guess the point of this post is that a lot of great people have lived here. The next time Belfast’s rain gets up my nose, I will clench my teeth, look to the sky and murmur the names of these five paragons of the Prickly City, “Henry, Mary Ann, Thomas, Francis and Frank, remembered be thy names!”

Fiction, Travel

The Troubles in Ten Novels

Conflict is a sine non qua of fiction and war has been a central concern of story tellers for millennia. From Gilgamesh to “Nefarious War” by Li Po to Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, we humans are fascinated by tales of struggle, trauma, death and survival. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Northern Irish conflict known as The Troubles should yield its share of stories.

  1. Milkman (2018) by Anna Burns 

This is experimental novel set in Belfast in the 1970s won the Man-Booker Prize in 2018. The narrator is an unnamed 18-year-old girl who is stalked by an older paramilitary figure, ‘Milkman’. Anna Burns was born in Belfast. Her first novel No Bones (2001) is an account of a girl’s life growing up in a dysfunctional family during The Troubles in the 1980s.   

2. One by One in the Darkness (1997) by Deirdre Madden  

This novel tells the story of a reunion of three Northern Irish sisters shortly before the ceasefire of 1994. It explores their shared memories of childhood and growing up during the Troubles, providing a compelling picture of Northern Irish history in the latter part of the twentieth century.  

Deirdre Madden was born in County Antrim and many of her novels focus on the turmoil of the north. Her 1996 novel One by One in the Darkness (1996).

3. The Twelve (UK) or The Ghosts of Belfast (USA) (2009) by Stuart Neville

Former paramilitary killer Gerry Fegan is haunted by his victims and vows to assuage his guilt by targeting those he ultimately blames for their deaths: politicians, security forces, street thugs and bystanders. His vendetta threatens to derail the peace process and everyone wants him gone. David Campbell, a double agent, accepts the hitman job, for his own reasons. The Twelve (published in the USA as The Ghosts of Belfast) was Neville’s debut novel. He has since published six more critically acclaimed books, mostly set in Belfast.

4. The Cold, Cold Ground  (2011) by Adrian McKinty

Adrian McKinty is probably best known for The Chain, a kidnapping thriller set in Masachusetts. But  he also has a famous series of crime novels set in Belfast during the Troubles, starring Royal Ulster Constabulary Sergeant Sean Duffy. The first of these books was The Cold, Cold Ground (2012). He said of the novel, “It didn’t sell very well, but it ended up getting the best reviews of my career. I got shortlisted for an Edgar, won a couple of awards, and so then that set me on that path for the next six years of reluctantly, kind of being dragged into writing about Northern Ireland in the 1980s.”

5. Watchman (1988) by Ian Rankin  

Miles Flint is a surveillance officer for MI5. He is sent to Belfast to witness what he believes is going to be the arrest of some PIRA members. However, he discovers that he is really going to participate in the assassination of the Irishmen and that his own life is at risk.

Scotsman Ian Rankin is one of the big names of crime fiction, of course, but he is better known for his Detective Inspector Rebus novels, which are set in and around Edinburgh.

6. The Boy Who Could See Demons (2012) by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

Alex Connolly is either schizophrenic or really does have a 9,000-year-old demon for a best friend. It’s up to child psychiatrist Anya to find out. The novel touches on the legacy of trauma in terms of mental health. Author CJ Cooke grew up on a council estate in Belfast and published her first novel, the best-selling The Guardian Angel’s Journey in 2009.

7. Ghost Moth (2013) by Michèle Forbes  

In 1969, as Northern Ireland moves to the brink of civil war, a man and his wife struggle to keep their romantic secrets buried in the past. Michèle Forbes was born in Belfast but has been based in Dublin since her university days. Apart from being a writer, she has a distinguished acting career. Ghost Moth was her debut novel and she has also published some award-winning short stories and another novel, Edith & Oliver (2017).

8. Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty 

A retired couple originally from Northern Ireland but now living in Scotland decide to go for a little holiday. In Amsterdam, between sight-seeing, they take stock of their lives, with the result that fissures form, frustrations bubble up and memories and scars from the Troubles start to ache again.  Bernard MacLaverty was born in Belfast but has lived in Scotland since the seventies. He has published five novels and five collections of short stories.

9. Where They Were Missed (2006) by Lucy Caldwell 

Saoirse is the daughter of a member of the RUC and her mother is a Catholic from Donegal who struggles to cope with the sectarian pressures of life in Belfast in the 1980s and turns to drink. It is only when she is a teenager that she discovers what tore her family apart. Lucy Caldwell grew up in Belfast and has written three novels and several plays.

10. A Breed of Heroes (1981) by Alan Judd 

Young British Army Officer Charles Thoroughgood is deployed on his first tour of duty in Armagh and Belfast at the height of The Troubles. The experience leaves him disenchanted with army life, to say the least.

Alan Judd is the pseudonym of Alan Edwin Petty, a former diplomat and soldier who now works as a security analyst and writer. A Breed of Heroes was made into a BBC television film in 1996 and a sequel, Legacy, was published in 2001.