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.”


“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.

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!”

History, Italy, Medieval, Travel

The Joanna-of-Naples Cure

I don’t know about you but reading about antique hardships really warms my heart. It’s not Schadenfreude exactly; the pleasure comes not from the terrible suffering per se, but from my own near-complete immunity from afflictions like ergotism and death by boiling. An appropriate German compound noun might be Schauderdanke or ‘shudder thanks’.

So, if you’re feeling low, instead of keeping a gratitude journal or undergoing bee-sting therapy, why not take a trip down memory lane back to the fourteenth century? Nancy Goldstone’s book The Lady Queen: Joanna the Notorious Queen of Naples, Jerusalem and Sicily is an excellent source of the unending horrors of life in medieval Europe and sure to put the pep back in your step.


Joanna I of Naples was born in 1328 and died in 1382, experiencing pretty much non-stop crises in the 54 years between. Part of the appeal of her story is that massive wealth and privilege in no way shielded her from what we in the twenty-first century would consider horrific trauma.  Though it seems pretty clear that serfs and slaves had a hard time back in the day, Joanna’s trials and tribulations have opened my eyes to the fact that, by our standards, ‘Queen’ was not such a cushy job either. Reading her story, you are forced to admit that, no matter what challenges you face right now, you should get down on your knees and thank the universe that you are not the Queen of Naples.

Joanna with her grandfather Robert the Wise

Eight Ways Joanna’s Life was Probably Worse than Yours

8. Vengeful Hungarian Relatives
Joanna’s problems began well before she was even born when her great-grandfather Charles II named as his successor his third son Robert rather than a child born to his older son. The twelve-year-old grandson (also named Charles) was instead bundled off to Hungary (where his maternal family had roots) to claim the throne
there. Young Charles had his hands full setting up shop in Hungary but eventually managed to establish his dominance and to increase royal revenue, largely thanks to productive goldmines.  He had five children with the formidable Elizabeth of Poland and Robert the Wise foresaw that one of them might later attempt to take Naples. He tried to
deflect future conflict by marrying Joanna to Andrew (she was five and he was four).  The Hungarians expected that Andrew would rule Naples jointly with her, so restoring the throne to the ‘rightful’ descendent. However, just before dying, Robert adjusted his last will and testament to deny Andrew any real power: cue shitstorm.

Elizabeth and kids: they’re so cute when they’re young.

As Robert the Wise was safely tucked up in his tomb, Joanna was left to manage the fall-out. The Hungarians repeatedly tried to convince the Pope to overturn Robert the Wise’s decision to deny Andrew the crown. Elizabeth of Hungary even made a special trip to Italy to pursue her case and is supposed to have bribed the Pope. Clement VI finally reversed his ruling and agreed to crown the young blister after all.  Meanwhile, though, Andrew had summarily ordered the release of brothers jailed for murder, rape, pillage, treason and ‘several other offences’, probably with a view to taking the crown by force with their help. Alarmed, the Pope changed his mind again and sent a message to Naples.

7. Her Kingdom was Invaded by a Nose-Chopper

Unfortunately, there was no email in those days, so the papal messenger got there too late. Believing the court was about to be overtaken by a dirty barbarian (the Neapolitans were quite racist), members of the royal court wished to deny Andrew the crown in a more permanent manner, i.e. by killing him. He was strangled after a hunting trip. Nancy Goldsmith doubts that Joanna herself was involved but suspicion fell on her anyway.
Pregnant with Andrew’s child, she recognized the need to marry again to some man who was able to militarily protect the Kingdom on her behalf. She chose Louis of Taranto (uh oh, big mistake!). As soon as the Hungarians heard about this, they were livid; they had expected her to marry Andrew’s younger brother Stephen instead. Although it was months since Andrew’s death, they started calling her a husband-killer and Louis I of Hungary prepared to invade Naples.

While Joanna herself had not initially been too popular with the Neapolitans, Hungarian Louis soon replaced her as the royal everyone loved to hate. One of the first things he did on entering the city was to demand exorbitant taxes. His methods of ‘investigation’ into his brother’s death (cutting off noses, fingers, ears and engaging in horrific torture) were so cruel that most noble families refused to have anything to do with him. Similarly, his men were cruel enough that potential allies closed their gates to him. Eventually he got injured and ran out of money, so returned to Hungary. Joanna returned to Naples, but her troubles were not over yet…

Louis I of Hungary

6. Her Second Husband was the Ultimate Manspreader

Soon after his marriage to Joanna, Louis of Taranto decided to take all of her power away and to keep everything for himself. He confined her to a room of her castle, purged the court of her supporters and made it a rule that nobody could talk to her unless he was present. Eventually Joanna managed to smuggle some letters to Pope Clement complaining about this treatment and Avignon sent two galleys to Naples to convince Louis to back down. While privately he continued to treat Joanna with contempt and violence, this was par for the course in the fourteenth century. Even so, he clearly stood out even by the standards of the time, as Petrarch described him as “violent and mendacious, prodigal and avaricious, debauched and cruel.”

He even had himself printed on the coins

5. The Popes were All Up in Her Business
As soon sixteen-year-old Joanna ascended the throne, the Pope started interfering. He sent a legate, intending to impose his direct rule, but the legate was so inept he ended up alienating everyone and was eventually recalled. From then on, Joanna was expected to inform His Holiness every time she passed wind. Admittedly (as in her problem with Louis of Taranto), a close relationship with popes could be a distinct advantage. However, it didn’t stop her from being spied on, double-crossed or excommunicated later on.

4. People Were Dying Like Flies
The Black Death came along in 1348, when Joanna was twenty. The disease coincided with bad weather, crop failures and an economic crisis, and killed an enormous number of people. Boccaccio, who spent several years in Naples, has the plague as a backdrop for his famous book The Decameron.

Illumination of The Decameron showing plague victims

3.  Her Three Children All Died Young

When Louis I of Hungary invaded Naples, he decided to kidnap his nephew Charles Martel, Joanna’s child born to Andrew before his assassination. Little Charles died soon after reaching Hungary. Joanna’s second child, Catherine, died at the age of one. Her last child, Françoise, died soon after Joanna and Louis were crowned in 1352, at the age of eight months. In her third marriage she conceived but miscarried.

2. Her Third Husband was a Lunatic 


When Louis died, Joanna was still of child-bearing age and time was running out to produce an heir. Her decision to marry James IV of Majorca may have looked good on paper, but he was not the sort of man most women would choose to father their children. From the age of 13, James had been imprisoned in a small iron cage and the experience had affected his mental health. As Joanna writes to the Pope, things went very wrong quite quickly:

“Eight days after I had joined my spouse in matrimony by God’s permission, Your Holiness’s consent, and the necessary exemption, he began to engage in insane behaviors, about which I did not excessively worry, thinking that they were caused by his youth and the filth of a long imprisonment which might have dulled his sensuality. But after the several days, afflicted with a fit of fever, he carried out even more outrageous deeds such that, on the doctors’ advice, I removed from his room the weapons, stones, wooden clubs and all such objects he could lay his hands on. But this too I kept silent, presuming that the infection from his disease was the cause of this. Later and as a result of familiarity caused by a more intimate association I began to notice that every month, sometimes at the change of the moon and sometimes just after the full moon he would have an outbreak of madness, with some clear-sighted moments at intervals.”

Inevitably, James tried to take power away from Joanna but with the Pope’s help she nipped that in the bud. Annoyed, James left to recapture Majorca only to end up captured by King Henry II of Castile. Joanna had to bail him out but  he wandered off again in another doomed attempt to recapture some territory and died of illness in 1375.

1. She Ended Up Excommunicated, Imprisoned and Assassinated

The Western Schism was Joanna’s downfall. To make a long story short, there were suddenly two popes Urban VI in Rome and Clement VII in Avignon. Forced to make a choice, Joanna backed the wrong one—Clement VII.
She ended up being captured and imprisoned by Charles of Durazzo, her relative and a supporter of Urban VI. She was killed in the fortress of San Fele on 27 July 1382. Because Urban VI had excommunicated her, her body was tossed into a deep well on the grounds of Santa Chiara Church in Naples, a monastic complex built by her step-mother Queen Sancha of Majorca.

Cloister and gardens of Santa Chiara

Honestly, I could go on forever, but by this time you should be feeling as light as air and ready to kiss the twenty-first-century ground under your feet. Thanks, Joanna, you made my day!

History, Italy, Medieval, Travel

Witchery in Piedmont

Seeing gleeful clots of tiny vampires and witches at a Turin mall tonight, I was pleased to see the local youth honoring its patrimony. After all, the mountains of Piedmont have long been prime witching ground.


Severed fingers at a Torinese pasticceria


Sadly, witches have not always been appreciated by country people, who feared for the safety of their families, livestock and goods. In their eagerness to keep malignant spirits away (or at least at bay), they resorted to a variety of interesting rituals and precautions.

According to Antonio Zampadri’s book Magia e Leggenda in Valle di Susa, Alpine cowherds incised crosses on cowbells, villagers nailed twigs in the shape of a cross to their front doors, and the clothing of newborns was taken inside before dark, lest someone cast an evil spell over them.  They didn’t make butter on Friday or Saturday since this was too close to the Witches’ Sabbath. In the village of Chianocco, the Evil Eye indicated a very particular procedure. A group of men and women entered the afflicted house and, in a secret ceremony, boiled water in a big pot with seven mallow leaves and other mysterious aromatic herbs while the oldest woman present uttered ancient spells of white magic. Another cure-all ritual involved closing all the doors and windows of a house, getting a terracotta vase and putting into it an iron key and a fragment of wax taken from an Easter candle after being blessed by a priest. The belief that iron was a lucky metal is preserved in a local saying ‘toccar ferro’ – similar to our ‘touch wood’.




There are records of particular women accused and convicted of witchcraft. In Avigliana 1444, Giocometta, wife of Pietro Bordaro, was arrested for various crimes by the Dominican priest Giacomo di Albano. In 1471, the Dominican Inquisitors of Piedmont (who had their headquarters here in Turin), tried a woman from Miagliano by the name of Giovanna Monduro, wife of Antoniotto Marandolo. According to executedtoday.com , a website devoted to people executed for their crimes, Giovanna’s neighbors accused her of being a ‘mascha’ (witch) and said they had seen her in ‘mascara’ (going to the sabbath). She was interrogated four times. In the first two interviews, she denied everything; in the third, torture was introduced into the proceedings and she ‘admitted’ belonging to the sect of witches, participating in shapeshifting (turning into a hare and killing two hunters) and in transvection (flying around on a broomstick); in the fourth interview she offered names to get her tormentors off her case. It didn’t work and she was burned at the stake on 17 August.


Evil witch in the shape of a hare


Legend has it that in the thirteenth century a Piedmontese woman nicknamed ‘Clerionessa’ had a reputation for preparing philtres and lotions including potions ensuring youthfulness. Unfortunately an old lady died after ingesting one of these concoctions–Clerionessa had assured her it would take decades off her and restore her youthful vigor. The poisoner was arrested and put in prison. There she refused to eat anything but certain herbs brought from her house. Mysteriously, after fifteen days, her cell was found empty except for the ashes of burnt herbs.


Halloween decoration at our favourite bar


My favorite suspected spellbinder is Maria Gotto from Rubiana, accused in 1620. Stregoneria in Valle di Susa e dintorni by Massimo Centini, explains the case. It all started when one big fat fibber, Giovanni Ludovico, claimed she was one of seven witches who flew around cavorting with the devil and creating storms. These witches supposedly had wolves as lovers and got up to all sorts of mischief. Of these seven witches, however, Maria was the only one accused because she had also (allegedly) killed a baby. Maria is said to have looked at the baby and said “Oh, praise God, make sure you wrap your little one up, he looks ill.” Sure enough, the baby died that night. Furthermore, one autumn day an eyewitness saw Maria in the road with a little pig “even smaller than a chicken.” As they chatted, the pig suddenly disappeared, proving her magic powers. When 70-year-old Maria was asked to make a statement during the trial, she said with admirable bluntness, “I don’t know what these rumors are based on, but if I’m a witch I’m also the Queen of France.”




In the cemetery of the Abbey of Novalesa, several skulls were found with nails hammered into them (post mortem). This was often done, according to Professor Renato Grilletto, to let evil spirits escape or to destroy the spirit of the dead so they couldn’t bother the living. You perforated the cranium of the cadaver, usually on the left side which is the evil side. In Piedmont they often talk about revenants, which are not just ghosts, but the real beings of the dead who, as the name suggests, return among the living.