History, Modern, Museum, Travel, UK

Risking a Trip to Titanic Belfast

It seems kind of weird that Belfast would capitalize on its links to a terrible shipping disaster, but that’s what it has gone and done. The city’s harbor area has been remodeled as the Titanic Quarter, a snazzy residential, shopping and entertainment district. The main attraction of this district is Titanic Belfast, a museum devoted to the construction, launch and loss of the RMS Titanic.

Der Untergang der Titanic

For a long time, the fact that Belfast begat the Titanic was practically a source of local shame. For decades, no one was super eager to claim responsibility for the world’s largest sea-borne coffin. That started to change in the early twenty-first century, after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, when the city started looking for a way to rebrand itself to appeal to international tourists. And when you consider that the city’s biggest tourist attraction before that was the Hotel Europa, ‘Europe’s most-bombed hotel’, choosing to focus on the Titanic doesn’t seem such a bad idea.

Besides, there’s no denying the sensational appeal of the disaster. Since 1912 it has inspired hundreds of books, plays, artworks, musicals and films. Saved from the Titanic, starring survivor Dorothy Gibson, was released just a month after the sinking. And in 1997 there was James Cameron’s Titanic, the world’s highest-grossing film until 2010. Even now, 118 years later, scientists are still busy investigating the causes of the disaster, the latest hypothesis being that a sudden solar flare zapped the navigational equipment . Since Titanic Belfast opened in 2012, it has drawn more than four million visitors from over 145 different countries.

Dorothy Gibson

So, seeing as we’re here in Belfast, I decided we should check out the museum. John was not keen, for three reasons:

“One, it’s civilian technology. Two, there is a pandemic. Three, the British Empire.”

 Not to be dissuaded, I checked out the museum’s website and saw that it seemed to be taking Covid-19 into consideration.

“Look,” I pointed out sweetly, “You can only book online, which means they’re monitoring crowd numbers, and you have to wear a mask. And they’re thanking the NHS, which means they believe in health care! Plus, if we go on a Tuesday morning I bet there won’t be anyone else there.”

“Oh, all right,” he grumbled.

So it was that on the next Tuesday we put our masks on and headed off to the Titanic Quarter, wandering along something called the Maritime Mile. This skirts the river’s edge and is dotted with informative signs explaining aspects of the city’s shipping history. For those who are less than thrilled by maritime trivia, the are also numerous stained-glass sculptures commemorating the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, much of which was filmed nearby in the nearby Titanic Studios and scenic spots of Northern Ireland.

As we passed the huge empty-thanks-to-Covid Odyssey complex, we saw Titanic Belfast, our destination.  It loomed hugely and expensively over Abercorn Basin. According to the architects, its supposed to recall the giant prows of the three Olympic class steamships built for White Star Line: RMS Titanic, RMS Olympic (retired as a service ship in 1937) and HMHS Britannic (converted to a hospital ship for WWI, it sank after hitting a German mine on November 21, 1916). It reminds me more of a digitized iceberg.

 

Once through the door, we anointed ourselves with hand sanitizer at the gel-squirting station and paused to admire the high ceilings and fancy lobby. Reassuringly, it didn’t seem busy. We went over to the self-vending ticket machine and then proceeded to pick up audioguides and a souvenir guide book.

A smiling woman wearing a plastic face shield looked at our tickets and sent us up an escalator to the start of the exhibition. A man at the entrance pointed to a scanning machine and we scanned the tickets for entry into a cave-like room called Boomtown Belfast.

The first thing I noticed were shadows flitting across the wall, to the clamor of voices, shouts and whistles. My first impression was that the room was full of people. On closer inspection, they were shadows of flat-capped dock workers produced by magic lanterns. I suppose it was meant to evoke the hustle and bustle of Belfast’s back in docks in 1912 but it made the room seem crowded and I hated it. I wanted to tell all the flitting phantoms to get the hell away from me and put masks on.

Time to take a deep breath.

We moved to the next room. Here there were racketty echoing clanks and the murmur of female voices.

This section was devoted to linen mills. Up until the Industrial Revolution, linen production had long been a cottage industry in Northern Ireland. Rural families grew the flax, harvested it, prepared and spun it, then wove the yarn into cloth. They brought the brown cloth to market and bleachers whiten the cloth in ‘bleaching greens’—big grounds where the treated cloth was laid out to dry in the sun. Starting from about 1830, Belfast manufacturers started looking into flax spinning machines comparable to the ones already used for spinning cotton. Women and children worked in the factories for long hours. By 1914, Belfast was the biggest linen-producing center in the world.

a bleaching green

And it wasn’t just linen for which Belfast became famous. It contained the largest tobacco factory and ropeworks in the world. Whiskey was distilled, sugar was refined, paper was made. The city produced tea-leaf-drying fans that facilitated tea-drinking habits across the British Empire. And, of course, Belfast made ships. Harland & Wolff was the city’s most famous ship-building firm, making a name for itself for constructing most of White Star’s ocean liners including the Titanic.

A museum that largely confines itself to the topic of shipbuilding cannot include everything. Even so it is interesting the ‘Boomtown Belfast’ gallery omitted any mention of three of Ireland’s most significant events relevant to that period: the Great Famine (1801-1879), sectarian conflict related to the Irish nationalist movement and the 1907 Belfast Dock Strike. Of course, there are a lot of reasons the museum’s curators would want to avoid discussing hot topics, especially when most visitors honestly just want to imagine themselves as Leonardo di Caprio or Kate Winslet jigging in steerage. But that doesn’t mean I can’t mention them, so I will!  

First of all, to be completely honest, there was a kind of nod to An Droschshaol in an old-fashioned sandwich board featuring the word ‘Famine’. I suppose it was put there to add to the sense you were strolling down a jolly old Victorian street. Right next to this sandwich board, much more attractively presented, was an interactive computer display emitting an excited announcement in plummy tones about the extensive reach of the British Empire.

That was an interesting juxtaposition. While Belfast was busy producing ships and merchandise for Empire, the British government was exacerbating the effects of a famine through laissez faire policies that hinged on anti-Catholic bigotry. The British government refused to ban grain exports from Ireland, failed to distribute aid to rural families in greatest need, scuppered a soup-kitchen scheme after just six months and looked on with psychopathic calm as landlords evicted starving paupers en masse. Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to Her Majesty’s Treasury and directly in charge of relief works in Ireland 1845-47, described the Great Famine as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence.” As a result of it, the general population of Ireland fell by 20-25% due to death and emigration. And Belfast, though predominantly Protestant, was affected by the Famine as much as the rest of the country. By 1846 one in five people in the city had suffered some sort of contagion linked to the famine (especially typhus and cholera).

As for sectarianism and the nascent struggle between Republicans and Loyalists, I totally get why Belfast natives would want to keep it in the background. But Boomtown Belfast was, in some ways, the birthplace of tensions that would shake Ireland for the next century, that are shaking it even now that a hard border is on the cards with Brexit. In the 1800s, Belfast was the only city in the country where sectarian fighting was frequent and ugly; there were serious riots in 1829, 1843, 1857, 1864 and 1874 and most of the fighting (if not all) involved shipyard workers. Belfast even had his own proto-Paisley, ‘Roaring Hugh Hanna,’ an evangelical preacher so vituperatively anti-Catholic that even Punch made fun of him.  

One of the factors driving this conflict was the very success of Belfast business. The Industrial Revolution brought a flood of poor rural families—both Catholic and Protestant–to the city to work in the factories or on the docks; in 1800 Belfast had a population of about 20,000 people, by 1901 it had grown to 349,000. In a pretty short time, a large number of working-class people of different faiths were occupying different parts of the same city competing for jobs.

Atmospheric sandwich board in the museum’s ‘Boomtown Belfast’ section

And it wasn’t just about religious rivalry, either; there was a strong political angle. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Daniel O’Connell, an Irish MP, was steadily gathering support for Irish Home Rule through the political mobilization of Irish Catholics. Incidentally, the 1798 rebellion against British Rule had been inspired by the French Revolution and led by Belfast. But thanks to O’Connell’s efforts, and to his success in achieving Catholic emancipation in 1829, the nationalist movement became known as a Catholic movement. Because of colonization in the 17th century (‘Plantations’), the six counties of Ulster had a Protestant majority that enjoyed legally enshrined political and economic advantages. Seeing their interests threatened, many Protestants in Belfast reacted against the Irish nationalist movement and its supporters, their Catholic neighbors and colleagues. In 1829, the same year as the Catholic emancipation, for example, a riot broke out over the banning of Orange parades. As historian John Dorney says :

…[A]lready by the mid 19th century, two prominent features of Belfast rioting were in place – clashes in west and central Belfast along the sectarian ‘frontier’,  often sparked by political controversies over Irish independence and flare ups in July in and around the parades of the Orange Order. To this must also be added, by the late 19th century, economic competition between the Catholic and Protestant working class – particularly in [the] city’s shipyards.

All of these elements were present in Belfast’s bloodiest riot in 1886. On June 8, the first Home Rule Bill (which would have granted Ireland a devolved parliament) came before the House of Commons. In the event, it was defeated, but that did not stop as many as 50 people losing their lives in Belfast over the coming weeks. Trouble reportedly started with a Protestant worker being expelled from his job at the shipyards by Catholic Home Rule supporters on June 4.  Protestant workers, led by a preacher named ‘Roaring’ Hugh Hanna in retaliation beat ten Catholic workers so badly they were put in hospital and drowned another in the River Lagan, with another 200 Catholic shipyard workers being forced from their jobs.

The only time dock workers held hands across the sectarian divide was the Belfast Dock strike of 1907 from 26 April to 28 August. At that time, unskilled dock workers labored up to 75 hours a week in very dangerous, unsanitary conditions. Their employment was erratic and uncertain and they had no trade union to look after their interests. In January 1907 James Larkin came over from Liverpool to Belfast with the aim of bringing dock workers and carters into the National Union of Dock Workers. He won the support of both Protestant and Catholic dock workers and on July 12th, instead of Orange parades and sectarian clashes, the city saw strike leaders giving public speeches defending the workers’ interests against sectarianism. Unfortunately, the strike failed but it was an important step in growing the trade union movement in Ireland.

Jim Larkin

Incidentally, one of the best known plays about Belfast, Over the Bridge, describes sectarian divide in a shipyard and the way the employers cynically exploited this divide for their own purposes. This play was by Sam Thompson, who started working at Harland & Wolff at the age of 14 and who said he based much of his work on his experiences there.

As John and I moved from room to room, I noticed that museum attendants had been replaced by smiling, uniformed figures cut out of cardboard. I also noticed that the rooms were getting worryingly crowded. John prudently sought out a relatively isolated place to sit down and I hugged the walls, to trying to evade other visitors whose movements were surprisingly erratic.

The focus of the museum moved from Belfast industry in general to the importance of the harbor and shipping. Interestingly, Belfast’s harbor was not initially a very good one and has been continually modified since the 19th century, when boats started getting really big. Between 1839 and 1841, workers straightened and dredged the river Lagan to form the Victoria Channel . The dredged-up mud formed an island named Queen’s Island for Queen Victoria, who visited the city in 1841.

Belfast in 1791. Image taken from the Irish News.
The harbor in 2012. The Titanic Quarter (formerly Queen’s Island) on the right was formed with mud from dredging the Victoria Channel.

Once Belfast had a decent port, it could really let itself go with the ship-building, and it did. The Belfast Harbour Commissioners laid out a new shipyard on the man-made Queen’s Island and in 1867 this became the property of Harland & Wolff Ltd., a company consisting at first of two young and energetic men. They made a success of it. There was a growing demand for ships considering an increase in international migration and trade. And they were quick to adopt innovative design features such as replacing wooden upper decks with steel ones, giving hulls a flatter bottom and squarer cross-section.

In 1868 Thomas Henry Ismay, the new owner of British shipping company White Star Line, commissioned Harland & Wolff to build a steam ship and this was the beginning of a happy partnership, as Harland & Wolff ended up making more than 70 ships for the company. One of these would be the Titanic.

By 1900, Harland & Wolff employed 9,000 to 10,000 people and their site covered 80 acres. Some time that decade, the company’s leader William James Pirrie got the idea, over dinner with White Star Line’s Joseph Bruce Ismay (Thomas Henry’s son), of building the biggest luxury cruisers the world had ever seen. The museum dramatized this decision by having a recording of a couple of butlers with RADA accents ‘gossiping’ about the momentous conversation they had just witnessed.

Knock-off at the Belfast docks in 1911, with the Arrol gantry surrounding one of the Olympic class ships in the distance.

Before these giant ships could be built, the shipyard needed to be ready. For one thing, they required a bigger gantry than any the shipyard had used before. A gantry is a sort of scaffolding-and-crane system that surrounds a ship as it is being constructed; it supports the ship in place and allows workers to move up and down the sides of the ship. This was designed by Sir Arrol & Company and so was dubbed Arrol Gantry. Then they needed a ginormous dry dock, a place where you put a ship when it needs to be built or repaired below the usual water line. As I understand it, it’s like a bathtub that you can flood and empty at will. For these ships they built the largest in the world, named the Thompson Dry Dock. Designs were perfected in huge drawing offices and plans were adjusted at larger scale in a Mould Loft, where the plans were drawn on the floor in chalk to check for any mistakes that hadn’t been caught in the smaller scale drawings.

Drafting room at Harland & Wolff

When everything was ready, construction began on the Olympic and Titanic in September 1908. Just over two years later, on 31 May 1911, the Titanic was ready to launch. About 100,000 people gathered on the shores of the Lagan to see her off. At that point, however, she was still an empty shell and needed to be fitted with all the accommodation, equipment and machinery including engines, boilers, funnels and propellers. So within an hour of the ceremonial launch, the ship was towed by tugs to the deepwater wharf for fitting out. This process took more than 3,000 men ten months to complete.

The Titanic was fitted sumptuously for first-class passengers with a choice of interior decorating style (Georgian, Italian Renaissance and French), oak bedsteads, fine bone china, private bathrooms, walk-in wardrobes, fans, heaters, fresh-water showers and a lounge settee. First-class passengers had access to a private banqueting hall, a gym, a (men only) Turkish bath, a swimming pool and squash courts. There was also Marconi wireless equipment on board transmitting the latest international news so you could keep up with the stock market. The second-class cabins were like first-class cabins on other ships. Even the third-class passengers had a better deal than usual. On other ships they had to sleep in huge dormitories; here they could sleep in rooms with up to ten berths, each room with a washbasin.

On April 2, 1912, after completing sea trials, Titanic left Belfast for good. She headed to Southampton to prepare for her maiden voyage. And unfortunately we all know how that went. After more than five years of preparation, the Titanic took less than two hours to sink and 1,503 people were lost. And at that point in the museum visit, knowing the ending, we left by the elevators because the crowds were starting to freak us out. I’m sure the rest was interesting but I think I’ll wait until the pandemic’s over to see the rest of it.

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!”