Ancient, History, Translated fiction

Curses on Vases: Illustrated Agamemnon

The House of Atreus is cursed. I have been making my way through Louis MacNeice’s 1939 translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, which is sometimes tough going, but that much is clear. As a way to get a better grip on the web of treachery and stink of ancestral blood, I decided to find images of the myth in Greek vases. Sure enough, there were no shortage of them.

According to some stories, the rot goes all the way back to Tantalus, who tried to serve up his son Pelops to the Olympian gods for dinner. The gods caught the trick in time and banished Tantalus to the Underworld to be eternally ‘tantalized’. They reconstructed Pelops (replacing his shoulder with an ivory prosthesis because Demeter had absent-mindedly swallowed his original one).

Poseidon riding a seahorse flirting with Pelops. A terracotta hydria from the 4th century BCE, Attic. At the Met Museum.

Some time later, Pelops (who was now as good as new) fell in love with Hippodamia. Her father was Oenomaus, a King who had heard a prophecy that he’d be killed by his son in law. He had therefore decided to challenge each of her other suitors to a chariot race and then kill him when he inevitably lost. Pelops was afraid of losing like the 18 suitors before him, so he enlisted the help of his former lover Poseidon, who gave him four winged horses. Just to make completely sure of the outcome, though, Pelops also struck up a dirty deal with Oenomaus’ charioteer Myrtilus: If he took out the bronze linchpins connecting the axle to the chariot wheels, replacing them with  wax linchpins, the charioteer would have the right to sleep with Hippodamia on the first night of her wedding to Pelops. Myrtilus kept up his end of the bargain and the King was killed, dragged by his own horses. Pelops was not grateful to Myrtilus but threw him off a cliff. As the charioteer was falling to his death, he cursed his killer (incidentally, the site of Myrtilus’ burial place in Olympia was known as a taraxippus, literally a ‘horse disturber’, a place haunted by ghosts or dangers).

Bath-water jug by the White Sakkos Painter from Apulia (320-310 BCE) Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Pelops and Hippodamia had two sons: Thyestes and Atreus. The brothers fought for ascendancy and Atreus won. Atreus married Aerope but she became lovers with Thyestes. When Atreus learned of this adultery, he prepared a delicious feast for Thyestes, without telling him that the meat was Thyestes’ own children. Horrified by his consumption of human flesh, Thyestes cursed Atreus:

When he knew what all unhallowed thing
He thus had wrought, with horror’s bitter cry
Back-starting, spewing forth the fragments foul,
On Pelops’ house a deadly curse he spake:
As darkly as I spurn this damned food,
So perish all the race of Pleisthenes!
Note: Pleisthenes is one of the sons in the stew.

As time winds on, the malediction ripens. Paris abducts Menelaus’ wife Helen and takes ‘the fair mischief’ to Troy. Paris was staying as a guest in Menelaus’ house when he kidnapped Helen, which means his act was not only adulterous but also violated rules related to hospitality sacred to Zeus. None of this is good news for Troy:

What curse on palace and on people sped
With her, the Fury sent on Priam’s pride,
By angered Zeus! What tears of many a widowed bride!
Oil Jar with Paris and Helen, 420 – 400 B.C., Attributed to the Painter of the Frankfort Acorn, vase-painter; and Phintias, potter, Greek, Athens. J. Paul Getty Museum.

Agamemnon and Menelaus prepare an army to go to Troy. While they are wondering if it’s still the right thing to do, they see a pair of eagles:

And one was black, one bore a white tail barred.
High o’er the palace were they seen to soar,
Then lit in sight of all, and rent and tare,
Far from the fields that she should range no more,
Big with her unborn brood, a mother-hare.
Eagle catching a rabbit on an Etruscan vase, from Caere (ca. 550-530 BCE)
From Twitter feed of Peter Gainsford

A soothsayer gleans from this that Troy will fall but that it will anger Artemis, who hates to see young animals killed. In return she will demand “a curst unhallowed sacrifice/’Twixt wedded souls”.

Knowing that the trip will be basically successful, Agamemnon gathers forces to go help Menelaus get Helen back, but Artemis stalls the ships at Aulis. A priest advises Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia so the ships will be able to go on to Troy. He does so, and so earns the ever-lasting hatred of his wife Clytemnestra:

And ill, to smite my child, my household’s love and pride!
To stain with virgin Hood a father’s hands, and slay
My daughter, by the altar’s side!
Apulian red-figure volute-krater by the Iliupersis Painter 370BC-350BC in the British Museum

Meanwhile, in Troy, another curse is in progress. The god Apollo falls in love with Cassandra, a beautiful Trojan princess. Afraid of him, she promises she will marry him and he gives her the gift of prophecy. She then breaks her promise and he changes the gift to a curse—no one will ever believe her prophecies. Instead, they’ll scorn her and call her a “witch and cheat”. Cassandra predicts the Fall of Troy but she is powerless to prevent it. On the night it falls, Ajax the Lesser tears her away from the sanctuary of Athena, rapes her then gives her to Agamemnon as a slave.

Ethiop Painter Terracotta Nolan neck-amphora (jar), ca. 450 B.C. Greek, Attic, Classical Terracotta; H. 11 1/8 in. (28.3 cm) diameter of mouth 4 13/16 in. (12.2 cm) diameter of foot 3 1/16 in. (7.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1956 (56.171.41)

When Cassandra arrives in Argos as Agamemnon’s captive, she immediately senses the family curse. She sees ghostly children—Tyndareus’ sons—on the roof and hears the Curse as Furies who physically occupy Agamemnon’s palace and gloat about all the misery therein, stemming from the ‘incestuous’ affair between Thyestes and Aerope:

Within this house a choir abidingly
Chants in harsh unison the chant of ill;
Yea, and they drink, for more enhardened joy,
Man’s blood for wine, and revel in the halls,
Departing never, Furies of the home.
They sit within, they chant the primal curse,
Each spitting hatred on that crime of old,
The brother’s couch, the love incestuous
That brought forth hatred to the ravisher.
Detail of Erinys (a Fury) from a Paestan Red Figure Krater by the Python Painter (ca. 360-320 BCE). In the British Museum.

When Clytemnestra boasts about murdering Agamemnon, the Chorus see her as a tuneless raven in an image that recalls the ‘harsh unison’ of the ‘chant of ill’ sung by the Furies of the house:

                                                Thy very form I see,
Like some grim raven, perched upon the slain,
Exulting o’er the crime, aloud, in tuneless strain!
Apollo and a crow

Clytemnestra herself agrees, suggesting that she is to some extent possessed by a daimon:

Right was that word—thou namest well
The brooding race-fiend, triply fell!
From him it is that murder’s thirst,
Blood-lapping, inwardly is nursed—
Ere time the ancient scar can sain,
New blood comes welling forth again.
Aigisthos and Clytemnestra ambush Agamemnon just out of the bath. Mixing bowl from Athens ca. 470 BCE at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Klytemnestra murders Cassandra on the altar of Apollo. Ironic! Marlay Painter, kylix (425-400 BCE)

Where will it all end? The problem is that the murder is wrong in at least three different, polluting ways: a wife has murdered her husband, a nephew (Aigisthos) has murdered his uncle, and a guest (Aigisthos) has murdered his host.  This all means that new blood will have to be spilled into infinity. Or does it? Aeschylus hashes out the resolution in the next two plays: The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides.

An old bath
History, Modern, Poetry, Reviews, UK

MacNeice in Ireland: A Prism of Delight and Pain

Until recently, I knew three things about Louis MacNeice (1907-1963): that he was from Ireland, that he was friends with Auden and that he wrote “The Sunlight on the Garden” . Then last year our friend Gabriel gave us a copy of Autumn Journal (1940), a long poem written in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War Two. It’s a book that sketches History as it is experienced personally, in real time, in a dance of daily impressions, emotions, opinions, memories, hopes and doubts. Although it’s written in quatrains, it easily conveys the sense of genuine internal dialogue. He questions the use of being an “impresario of the ancient Greeks” at a college; he decides it’s right to vote in a by-election; he fondly remembers a holiday in Spain; he regrets the loss of his wife. The book provides intimate access to Louis MacNeice’s mental reality.

Portrait of Louis MacNeice by his lover Nancy Sharp

Now that I’ve lived in Belfast for a few months and have read his Selected Poems (edited by Belfast poet Michael Longley), another aspect of MacNeice has crystallized for me, and that the importance of his Irishness in his poetry. It’s a topic that has irritated critics on both sides of the Irish Sea, partly because he evades categorization and is maddeningly ambivalent about his loyalties. Once when asked where he lived, he replied jokingly that he had “a foot in both graves”.  Historically, English critics have almost accepted him as an honorary Englishman, being Auden’s pal, while Irish critics view his membership as a fellow national as problematic. The fact is, though, that Louis MacNeice is an Irishman: he was born to parents originally from western Ireland and he spent the first nine years of his life in the North East, in Carrickfergus and Belfast:

I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries
         To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams:
Thence to Smoky Carrick in County Antrim
         Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud which jams

The little boats beneath the Norman castle,
          The pier shining with lumps of crystal salt;
The Scotch Quarter was a line of residential houses
          But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the blind and halt.
“Carrickfergus”
“Like crucifixes the gantries stand” in “Belfast”

At nine, he left the country and spent the rest of his life in England (minus a brief teaching stint in the USA) but he never stopped writing about his childhood in Ireland. While it is tempting to read his childhood poems (“Autobiography” and “Carrickfergus”) simply as lyrics to his youth, or therapeutic examinations of formative trauma, they are also subtle but serious reflections on the turbulent history and politics of the country of his birth. Just as the overlay of internal experience on shared historical reality is a feature of Autumn Journal, his Irish poems are enriched by their historical context; they are snapshots of a figure in a particular time and place. MacNeice’s ideal poet, remember, is “a reader of the newspapers”, “informed in economics” and “actively interested in politics” (Modern Poetry [1938]).

What’s more, the uncomfortable ambivalence that characterizes all of MacNeice’s poetry, his insistence on the essential and dynamic variety, a world where things are “incorrigibly plural” may partly be the effect of growing up in a country that constantly pulls in two opposite directions:

And if the world were black or white entirely
        And all of the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
         A prism of delight and pain,

We might be surer where we wished to go
        Or again we might be merely
Bored but in brute reality there is no
        Road that is right entirely.
(“Entirely”)

What is most immediately striking about MacNeice’s attitude to his childhood home is a sense of disconnection. It seems, in spite of the vividness of his memories, that the north never felt like home to him, even when he was in it. In “Carrick Revisited” (1945) he describes it as an accidental ‘interlude’.

Torn before birth from where my father’s dwelt,
Schooled from the age of ten in a foreign voice,
Yet neither western Ireland nor southern England
Cancels this interlude; what chance misspelt
May never now be righted by any choice.

Whatever then my inherited or acquired
Affinities, such remains my childhood’s frame
Like a belated rock in the red Antrim clay
That cannot at this era change its pitch or name—
And the pre-natal mountain is far away.
“Carrick Revisited”

This disconnection is built into the history of Ulster itself. Originally Irish, like MacNeice, it is has not been fully Irish nor quite English for a long time. The events that created this state (the Plantations, the Battle of the Boyne, Partition, as you like) “may never now be righted by any choice” even in 2020.

The Norman castle at Carrickfergus

Louis’ father John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942) was a rector for the anglican Church of Ireland, and he would later become a bishop. John MacNeice was a man of conscience who sought interfaith cooperation and peace. In 1912, for example, he supported Home Rule and refused to sign the Ulster Covenant, a brave (though hopeless) stance, considering the Ulster Volunteer Force was founded that very year and marched the streets in their thousands against ‘Rome Rule’.  In 1936, when officiating at the funeral of Sir Edward Carson (the architect of Irish Partition), John MacNeice refused to allow the Union Jack to hang over Carson’s tomb. (Interesting side note: Carson was also the prosecutor whose cross-examination of Oscar Wilde put the latter in gaol for homosexuality).

While John MacNeice was personally on the side of interfaith cooperation, he must have been aware that the Church of Ireland owed its existence to the repression of the country’s Catholic majority. It was the church of English colonists, for centuries the only church acceptable to the Crown (in spite of its dearth of adherents). In 1704, for example, the Test Act restricted public office to members of the Church of Ireland, a law that remained in place until 1829.  And from the 16th to the 19th centuries, all Irish regardless of their true faith, were compelled to pay a tithe to the Church of Ireland, a practice that only ended after the Tithe War (1830-1836) .

 “Carrickfergus”, an apparently simple poem about MacNeice’s childhood, implies this history, the jarring juxtapositions and sad complexities of a society shaped by colonial interests:

I was the rector’s son, born to the anglican order,
Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor;
The Chichesters knelt in marble at the end of a transept
With ruffs about their necks, their portion sure.

Patrons of St. Nicholas’ Parish Church where Louis’ father preached, the Chichesters had a huge amount to do with the poverty of the Catholic population. Sir Arthur Chichester (1563-1625) arrived in Ireland to assist Elizabeth I in the Nine Years War, a conflict that started when Irish Gaelic earls Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell rebelled against English rule. In 1600, Chichester was appointed head of the English garrison at Carrickfergus and he immediately resorted to scorched-earth tactics in the area not only to deprive O’Neill’s army of food but also to starve and murder local civilians. In his own description of the campaign, he boasted, “I burned along the lough within four miles of Dungannon and killed one hundred people, sparing none, of what quality, age or sex so ever, besides many burned to death; we kill man, woman and child, horse, beast and whatsoever we find…” It sounds as if he was pleased with himself and indeed he was handsomely rewarded for his service; under James I, Chichester was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland. He served in this role from 1605 to 1616, during which time he oversaw widespread persecution of Catholics and engineered the Plantation of Ulster, uprooting Catholics and awarding their land to wealthy Scottish and English landowners. Biographer David Lloyd (1635-1692) praised him for being “effectually assistant, first to plough and break up that barbarous nation by conquest, and then to sow it with seeds of civilty.”

Portrait of a Psycho (c) Belfast Harbour Commissioners; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When he arrived in Ireland, Chichester had been on the verge of bankruptcy; by the time he was removed from Irish affairs, he held title to 100,000 acres of land.  MacNeice’s ironic “their portion sure” conceivably refers to Chichester’s “cut” rather than to any special nook in Heaven.

Louis MacNeice’s parents are seen dimly. His father is always shown in his official capacity, an anglican churchman, and his mother Elizabeth (Lily) a soft ghost. The poem “Autobiography” describes her with painful vagueness, “My mother wore a yellow dress, / Gently, gently, gentleness.”. Sadly, Lily contracted uterine cancer when Louis was still very young. After a hysterectomy she fell into a bout of depression and left their home for a psychiatric facility in Dublin. A year later, she contracted tuberculosis and died. MacNeice writes simply, “When I was five the black dreams came; / Nothing after was quite the same.” (“Autobiography”).

It is perhaps stretching a point to say that “Autobiography” is a political poem, but it is still a notable coincidence that two things of historic significance happened in 1914 so that “Nothing after was quite the same”. The first was the “black dream” of World War One, a bloody debacle that caused a whole generation to lose its taste for war. The second was an amendment to the Home Rule Act that would exclude Ulster counties from impending Home Rule, effectively cutting the country in two. The amendment was powerfully argued for by Sir Edward Carson, the Irish Unionist and first signatory to the Ulster Covenant of 1912, which had vowed to resist Home Rule using “all means necessary.” Before this Home Rule Act was put into law, the Great War started but Partition was now practically certain: Northern Ireland would be separated, traumatically, from its motherland.

Carson

MacNeice dramatizes the building conflict between Unionists and Catholics mainly through details caught by a child’s eye, snatches of conversation gleaned from the domestic circle. “The Gardener” from Novelettes is the portrait of a gardener “With a finch in a cage and a framed/ certificate of admission/Into the Orange order” who becomes increasingly senile and decrepit until he can no longer even attend the Twelfth of July parades:

At ten o’clock or later
You could hear him mowing the lawn,
The mower moving forward,
And backward, forward and backward
For he moved while standing still;
He was not quite up to the job.
The Orange Parade of 1920

In “Belfast” he glimpses wretched Catholic women briefly and feels a mixture of pity and shame:

In the porch of the chapel before the garish Virgin
A shawled factory-woman as if shipwrecked there
Lies a bunch of limbs glimpsed in the cave of gloom
By us who walk in the street so buoyantly and glib.
Belfast Linen mill 1918
And in Autumn Journal (Canto xvi) he recalls an atmosphere of fear heightened by rumour and ignorance:

And I remember, when I was little, the fear
Bandied among the servants
That Casement would land at the pier
With a sword and a horde of rebels;
And how we used to expect, at a later date,
When the wind blew from the west, the noise of shooting
Starting in the evening at eight
In Belfast in the York Street district
(Autumn Journal canto xvi)

This vignette evokes two incidents related to the future Irish Civil War: the gun running of Roger Casement and the bloody Belfast riots of 1920-22.

Roger Casement

In the lead up to the Easter Rising, Irish Nationalist Sir Roger Casement arranged for shipment of guns from the German government, for delivery in April 1916. The weapons were carried in a Norwegian vessel Aud-Norge, while Casement and his comrades travelled to Ireland in a German U-boat. The British managed to scuttle Aud before it landed but the U-boat put Casement ashore at Banna Strand, 21 April 1916 (three days before the Easter Rising). He was discovered there and arrested on charges of high treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown. His was a cause célèbre due to his fame as a humanitarian activist in the Congo and Peru, for which he had been knighted in 1911. The British Government used (possibly forged) diaries detailing his homosexual liaisons to dissuade supporters from advocating clemency. Despite high-profile intercessors and a United States Senate appeal against the death sentence, he was hanged on 3 August 1916.

Gun-running at that time was something of a national sport. In April 1914, in the Larne gun-running, Major Frederick H. Crawford and Captain Wilfrid Spender had managed to smuggle almost 25,000 rifles and between 3 and 5 million rounds of ammunition from the German Empire for the use of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Shipments landed in Larne, Donaghadee and Bangor with no police intervention. The Howth gun-running incident  occurred that same year, in July, when 1,500 Mauser rifles were delivered to Irish Volunteers from a private yacht in broad daylight. Scottish troops intervened ineffectually and, when baited by the crowd, attacked the protesters with rifle fire and bayonets, killing four civilians and wounding 30 more.

As for the “shooting in the York Street district”, even if MacNeice cannot have personally witnessed it since he was at school in England, it suggests the “carnival of terrorism”  that rocked the city between 1920 and 1922 and claimed the lives of at least 455 people, 58% of them Catholic–in a city where Catholics were only 25% of the population. The Irish Government estimated that 50,000 Catholics left the north permanently in response to violence and intimidation in this period . Neither the British Government nor the local Unionist leadership made any effort to reinstate these displaced people:

When my silent terror cried;
Nobody, nobody replied.
“Autobiography”

Checking the roll call of the dead, 1920

Inevitably, there are echoes and tributes in MacNeice, to Yeats and Joyce. In Ulysses, Stephen Daedalus utters that famous statement of despair, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Canto XVI of MacNeice’s Autumn Journal follows directly from that thought:

Nightmare leaves fatigue:
We envy men of action
Who sleep and wake, murder and intrigue
Without being doubtful, without being haunted.

This canto, as well as “Valediction” (1934), is one of MacNeice’s most direct comments on his attitude to Ireland. Both poems express a reluctant connection and an agonizing frustration with its problems. In “Valediction” he burns his bridges with the Old Country in a somewhat priggishly elegiac tone:

…being ordinary too I must in course discuss
What we mean to Ireland or Ireland to us;
I have to observe milestone and curio
The beaten buried gold of an old king’s bravado,
Falsetto antiquities, I have to gesture,
Take part in, or renounce, each imposture;
Therefore I resign, goodbye, the chequered and the quiet hills
The gaudily-striped Atlantic, the linen-mills
That swallow the shawled file, the black moor where half
A turf-stake stands like a ruined cenotaph;
“Valediction”

Canto xvi of Autumn Journal is comparatively unhinged, an exhilarating philippic that lashes out against all of it:

I hate your grandiose airs,
Your sob-stuff, your laugh and your swagger,
Your assumption that everyone cares
Who is the king of your castle.
Castles are out of date,
The tide flows round the children’s sandy fancy;
Put up what flag you like, it is too late
To save your soul with bunting.
Odi atque amo:
Shall we cut this name on trees with a rusty dagger?

Brian Boru, legendary King of Munster

The quote from from Catullus 85 (“I hate and I love. How can I do that you might ask./I don’t know, but I feel it and I am tortured.”) exposes this is as a love poem: Catullus’ extensive cursing of Lesbia was only a sign of his wounded love, and MacNeice’s rage is belied by exhausted admissions and entreaties:

Such was my country and I thought I was well
Out of it, educated and domiciled in England,
Though yet her name keeps ringing like a bell
In an underwater belfry.

 “Why should I want to go back/ To you, Ireland, my Ireland?” he asks, and the question answers itself but ultimately solves nothing.

History, Modern, Nonfiction, UK

The DeLorean in Dunmurry

I’ve been wondering about the DeLorean for a couple of months because this space-aged car of stainless steel played a big (albeit brief) part in the recent history of Belfast. Several locals have mentioned it as important to the city’s psyche, part wound and part triumph.

Ron Cobb’s design for the movie car, a DeLorean converted into a time machine.

When Ron Cobb died last week, it seemed like a good time to investigate. Cobb had a hand in making many of the movies I loved growing up: Sleeping Beauty, ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Alien, Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian. A self-taught designer, he also drew cartoons and designed the ecology flag.  Judging by headlines to his obituaries, though, he is perhaps most famous for converting a DeLorean into a time-machine in Back to the Future.

The story of the DeLorean starts with an extremely charismatic figure in the American auto industry, John Z. DeLorean (1925-2005). In the early 1970’s, Delorean was on his way to becoming a top executive at General Motors. At 40 he’d already become their youngest division head and was known (among other things) for creating one of the most popular muscle cars of the time, the Pontiac Gran Turismo Omologato. He was also responsible for the new look Pontiac Gran Prix and the Chevrolet Vega. Thanks to his snazzy dressing, longish hair, beautiful wives and jet-setting ways, he gained a reputation for being a corporate maverick. As The New York Times put it in 1984:

“As the golden boy of General Motors, he wore long sideburns that violated the company’s unwritten dress code, chided his superiors, and , at the second of his three marriages, had as his best man the president of the Ford Motor Company at that time. He loved race cars, sculpted, owned a tenth of the San Diego Chargers, played a jazz saxophone and survived on four hours of sleep a night.”

John DeLorean and his wife of the time Cristine Ferrare

For some reason, he left General Motors in 1973, soon after being promoted. His story was that he couldn’t imagine spending the rest of his working life in a rather stultifying atmosphere. On the other hand, some of the people in the company didn’t much like him so perhaps he was invited to leave. For whatever reason, he decided to go solo and formed the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC).

In 1974, DeLorean and DMC’s Chief Engineer Bill Collins went to the Turin Auto Show to scout designers. In the end, they went with Ital Design’s Giorgetto Giugiaro . The design they chose, the famous gull-winged, sharp-nosed sports car, was heavily based on the Tapiro, a 1970 concept car Giugiario had designed for Porsche.

The Tapiro

Receiving business loans from the Bank of America, from forming partnerships and seed capital from various celebrity friends, DeLorean looked around for somewhere to base his new company. Hoping for lucrative government investments, he searched the world for unlikely but promising places. Eventually he settled on Northern Ireland. The British Government, at that time a Labour Government led by James Callaghan, was keen to reduce violence in Northern Ireland (then in the throes of The Troubles) by reducing unemployment. They offered to pay $120 million of the company’s $200 million startup costs.  

Callaghan

In 1978, construction of the new factory began in The Cutts, an area between Republican Twinbrook and Unionist Dunmurry. The workforce would be drawn equally from both communities—each one having a separate gate. This area of West Belfast had the highest levels of unemployment in Europe at that time—about 50% of men were out of work. In fact, many of them had never worked at all. What’s more, violence was a constant fear. In 1978, the year the factory started being built, a PIRA bomb at Le Mons restaurant killed 11 civilians and an RUC officer and wounded thirty more. Kidnappings, shootings, bombs and riots were a depressing fact of life.

In his book The DeLorean Story: The Car, The People, The Scandal, Nick Sutton describes the excitement and hopefulness of local people for the project:

“In late 1978, in a magnificent splash of Technicolor and glamour, John DeLorean came to Belfast, complete with his entourage. The scene could have been lifted from a Hollywood blockbuster, his glamorous wife Cristina the leading lady. The main player in the drama was, of course, the magnificent stainless steel gull wing sports car, then just a photograph and a couple of prototypes. Most important of all was the pocketful of money John DeLorean had been given by the UK government to spend in the area. This had not gone unnoticed by the locals; the British government had finally done something sensible.

“Who could ask for more? The dream had landed. Everyone was going to work.

“And for a wonderful few years, they did.”

There is a some touching video footage from that time that shows DeLorean and the crew showcasing the first few cars for the benefit of the press and for the families of the workers. The excitement and pride among people interviewed is palpable. And DeLorean, who was 6’4, looms among them like a kindly giant, persuasive with his air of quiet confidence:

Reporter: Your super car, of course, is going to be a super dream for a lot of people who live in West Belfast. They really are placing an awful lot of hope in the DeLorean car, aren’t they?

DeLorean: Well I think it’s mutual. I think originally we came up here we were just businessmen doing a business deal. Now all of us have become so infected with the absolute mandatory requirement that this project be successful, that we’re really more interested in making it successful from the standpoint of the people than we are from any personal standpoint. And by God it’s going to be successful.

But it wasn’t.

Assembly lines only started in early 1981 after delays and budget overruns. There were some quality control issues that were costly to fix and the Delorean didn’t reach the consumer market until January 1981. By that time, the new car market had slumped due to the 1980 economic recession. The car itself attracted lukewarm reviews and by February 1982, more than half of the 7,000 DeLoreans produced remained unsold. DMC was US$175 million in debt and the Dunmurry factory was placed in receivership.

Margaret Thatcher and Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus cars, who was involved in developing the DeLorean

Margaret Thatcher, who’d been elected in 1979, had never been very impressed with the large government investment in DMC. Official files show that she was reluctant to provide the company with loans. In this television interview, DeLorean says that Thatcher’s government refused to honor a contract he’d drawn up previously with Callaghan’s government:

“We started the project under Roy Mason, who was the Secretary of State under the Labour government. When the Conservatives were elected, they decided not to honor the contract signed by Labour.… we never got the last part of the contract, which was 93 million under the working-capital clause and that put us out of business.”

Belfast workers with one of their cars

 

In 1981, the company failed to break even and in January 1982 the company was in dire straits. DeLorean lobbied the British government for aid but was refused unless he could find a matching amount from other investors. What happened next is something quite odd. As DeLorean went about seeking new investors, he became the target of an FBI sting operation in which federal agents and informants posed as bankers and wealthy investors. On October 19, an informant picked up at LAX, drove him to a hotel room and presented him with a suitcase full of cocaine before federal agents burst in on him and arrested him on charges of drug trafficking. That same day, the British government shut down the Dunmurry factor.

On October 2 1982, Ronald Reagan announced a bold new plan to combat drug abuse and trafficking.

After a long trial, a federal jury found him not guilty because of clear evidence that the government was trying to entrap him. Two years later, he was charged with fraud and tax evasion but also judged not guilty. Although the British government was convinced that he had embezzled millions of British taxpayer money for his personal use, they never got around to extraditing him. However, as Nick Sutton says, “In an act of unbelievable spite the UK sequestrated ₤990,000 from what they described as ‘surplus’ from the DeLorean Motor Cars Ltd pension for Belfast employees.”  

There are a couple of recent films about DeLorean. One is called Framing John Delorean  (2019) and the other is Driven (2018) starring Jason Sudeikis and Judy Greer and written by a Bangor-county native named Colin Bateman.

Alec Baldwin stars in Framing John DeLorean

As fascinating as DeLorean’s character is, though, as Nick Sutton says, “The losers in this saga….were not John DeLorean, who was declared bankrupt in 1999, or the management team, many of whom found other jobs. It was the 2,500 employees at Dunmurry. Many of them never worked again.”

Barrie Willis, who was director of purchasing at the Dunmurry plant, believes that there should be a museum or interactive center built in the city, similar to the one built for Titanic Belfast.

“The ship and the car were both failures but they were both glorious failures.

A cluster of doomed DeLoreans outside the Titanic Belfast

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.