Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Belfast Belfast

    I'm Scots Irish. Ulster Scots on my father's side. With some Irish Catholic mixed in and not spoken of. Which if you take into account the fact the last "immigrant" in my family came over 200 years ago is something mock worthy.
   Ulster : a province in Ireland and Northern Ireland, parts of which lay in both, famous for its independence both geographical and political. Populated for hundreds of years by non-gaelic Irish; Picts, Vikings, and Presbyterian Scots. Scots not Scotch, which is a drink one serves without ice. Scots are a people, from the Latin "Scotus". A french king mockingly asked his Irish latin tutor, "What's the difference between an Irishman (Scotti) and a drunk (sottus)?" The tutor responded, "The width of this table."
   Which says as much about unity as humor.
   Northern Ireland: the six Ulster counties (there are nine total in the province) which are part of the United Kingdom.They're British not English. IE they have their own soccer team. But they vote in the British parliament in Westminster and in the EU. Belfast is the biggest city in Northern Ireland. If you listen to a catholic from West Belfast and a protestant from a quarter mile away it's hard to tell the difference. But they've been fighting over the same patch of land since the late 17th century. Some would say the last millennium. The IRB against the UDF and then the Free State against itself and the UFF and RUC and UVF…..
   Most of the acronyms and the terms bandied about by historians of Northern Ireland, by politicians and reporters, and by those of us who sit in Irish bars 3000 miles away in Boston or Pittsburgh or Chicago and talk about "the struggle", don't register in most people's minds
  IRA registers. Pretty much everybody knows that when bleary, blue-eyed men start threatening to cry or sing at Murphy's Pub at 2 in the morning their inspiration is not their Individual Retirement Account.

   There's a number I've been known to make fun of.
   That's a round figure, the precise one is sometimes said to be 3,234.
   The number of people killed in Northern Ireland between 1968, the beginning of "the troubles" and 1998 the loose timing of the start of the current truce.
   If you check the statistics for the conflict between India and Pakistan during the same period of time that many people were often killed every year.
   Sometimes when I'm bleary eyed at 2 am I say, I guess when your skin is brown and the Speaker of the House is named O'Neill or the President Clinton, you don't count as much in Pakistan or the Hindu Kush.
   I'm Scots-Irish so I felt like I had the right..
   And then a couple days ago I walked through West Belfast. It sits on a slight rise, almost as North as it is West of Belfast, and separated from the city proper by a major highway dug like a moat between the two.
   A green mountain stands behind it. A beautiful backdrop to a handful of working class neighborhoods packed against each other in a crescent. A low theater of houses.
  You can walk the border of the entire thing in 45 minutes.
  The Shankill and the Falls roads are a short jog apart.
  When you walk past the houses you think - working class people who got homes. They found their corner of the world and held on to it after their grandparents fought their way out of the dockyard slums.
   It's well kept, it's pretty clean, it's packed with people.
   And every couple hundred yards you'll see something that will make you sit down on the sidewalk and weep.
   Three thousand 2 hundred and thirty four people died in this minor city suburb in an industrial corner of the British Islands. From the time I was one year old till now. In a space no bigger than the two little Pittsburgh neighborhoods I called home; Edgewood and Swissvale, two people a week were killed till the day I turned thirty. Smaller really. Imagine that in Swissvale, just Swissvale let's say, men were using guns and bombs to fight a local battle supported by an international set of zealots and arms dealers and the British and Irish governments.
  Imagine a guerrilla war happening in your backyard. Not on a giant border held by armies, not across the expanse of Ireland, not in England, not in ghettos around the world but right here in a stretch of post war prefab houses with its trio of thoroughfares offering hair and nail work, deli meats, fish and chips, betting parlors, realty offices, solicitors, children's clothes, sporting goods, travel agencies, and churches. Churches, churches, churches.
  And yes. The IRA killed people in London, and the British government and Ulster loyalists killed people in Derry but the majority of it happened in Belfast. And the majority of it happened in one corner of Belfast. Let's say 3,000 people. Or even 2,500. With about 40,000 injured, crippled, scarred, wounded, or tortured.
  People were going to work, taxes were being paid, schools were in session, homes repaired, cars fixed on the weekends, lawns mowed, lovers kissed, parents cursed, records bought, all of it, the day by lovely monotonous days of it happening while every week 10 or more people were being dragged from their homes and beaten.
 By somebody who lived 4 blocks away. In either direction.
 I stood in the middle of one Protestant grid of streets and had trouble moving my feet. Murals all around me. Stacks of wooden pallets to be burned in the giant July bonfires. Drums in the distance, as it was a Saturday when the orders march. Men sitting in trucks with the doors open casing visitors. White armored Land Rovers every hundred yards. Soldiers in full battle armor with fully automatic rifles at their shoulders.
  And around the corner a green grocer offered apples at a discount and a snug little bar had its door open. Couple kids went by on skateboards. A grandmother and two ladies pushed some prams.
  A woman counted out change to the grocer and said no to a bag. I asked the guy with me, "If we walked into that bar and ordered a beer what would ha-?"
  "I wouldn't come out." he answered before I finished.
   "It's twenty feet away."
   "Well I'm here and I'm with you, an American. That bar? That's somewhere else."



  1. I thought that only Italians use the region they are from to catorgorize where their families came from. But the different dialects are sometimes a giveaway. Is it the same in Ireland? Glad you are having such a good time. Like I said before, stay safe.

  2. I know that in Germany we have the high German and than every region or state has their own dialect so here in the states if I speak my dialect and they are German they know that come from the state of Hessen hope you can learn some of the Irish dialect while you are in Ireland

  3. I bet having a war in your backyard would make you both scared for your life and appreciative of everything in it at the same time. It's interesting what shapes a person.

  4. It is interesting that I came upon your blog from a twitter link and I am glad that I did. Being Irish American myself ( or at least told so my whole life) I have really enjoyed reading your posts about your experience there.
    Growing up in a home where being Irish was as important as remembering to brush your teeth, I had a bit of a shock recently after my father got his ancestry DNA profile.
    He had always studied our history and genealogy, so when his results came in we were all surprised. His profile showed the majority of his markers were of Scandinavian origin and only 3% British Isles markers.
    So, this brought us to question our very "Irishness" if you will.
    Back to your post...the irony for me is that " of those guys in an Irish pub" in Chicago would have been my dad at one time. But now we know our roots were of the Viking invaders. So, there's that.

  5. “You wound and you will wound again.
    Because you wound and then you go away.
    You do not stay with the wound.” – Antonio Porchia

    [This post reminded me of that] The saddest, besides death itself, is the distortion, that later becomes normalcy in everyday life. People must adapt, endure, carry on, pretending wounds aren't there, but they are. People may perceive it, or not, get used to the distortion of truth, the many truths, and the constant feeling of being on guard, becomes normal… becomes life. You learn this way of living… not knowing other way, imagine it is far away ‘cos there’s not a concrete experience/memory [of that other way] to back it up anymore.

    Ancient sadness...

    I don’t know there, but that’s how it feels in my local version of the world. But I can relate to that sadness. Everywhere sadness feels familiar, numbers dissolve into that emotion, feeding it. It’s the story of humankind.

    “The chains that bind us most are the chains we've broken.” – Porchia

    If only we could find another way of organize ourselves besides politics. Some say we were better before being "domesticated"… I don’t know. I’m sure I don’t like politics, that once was an “art” and now is also a “science”, which only makes sense to me lately when I read that word in some papers about psychopathologies. I’m fed up by it I guess. Super corrupt ranked country here. Or perhaps I'm mistaken and it's not [only] politics... or just that.

    If only we can organize ourselves [evolve] through empathy, not politics. Through heart intelligence, not mind nonsense. (Sigh)

    Thanks for sharing.

    [Damn, now I’m sad.]