Phil Scraton on a springtime walk through the city:
I’ve always resisted routine, not sure why. Saturday morning in Belfast is an exception. Out of the house, through the park, along the river, across Botanic Gardens, pick up the Guardian, into the University, water the plants, catch up on work and home for lunch. How did this sequence, steps retraced time and again, become so regular? Is there a suppressed inner self yearning for sequence, a wandering spirit in search of a comforting route? Even when I took up running, I altered course each day, rarely covering exactly the same ground.
Mid February and there’s been no snow, no frost, no winter. What a difference a year makes. Returning from Berlin a year ago the challenge was water pouring through ceilings. Today the news tells of a drought in South East England and record high temperatures in the Midlands. Tomorrow the mercury falls to almost freezing. The seasons have levelled to a kind of constant Fall.
Leaving the quiet of the house, the noise is deafening. A cacophony of birdsong as the choristers assume Spring’s premature arrival … little wonder – the buds on the horse chestnut trees have broken, their new leaves dancing free of constraint. School hockey matches are under way and shrill voices echo through the houses. Within minutes I’m walking the tarmac track through the golf course leading into Ormeau Park.
To the north east, tower the giant yellow twin ‘goalposts’ of the Harland and Wolff shipyards – Samson and Goliath. Harland from North Yorkshire, Wolff from Hamburg and the Titanic their most famous ship, this is a city whose history is steeped in ship-building – and sectarianism. In July 1920 at the moment of partition, when six of the nine counties of the Ulster province were created as ‘Northern Ireland’ severed from the Irish Free State, Catholics and left-wing organisers were expelled from their jobs by Loyalist mobs. The shipyards became a cold house for Catholics, a birthright for East Belfast Protestants – a working class divided by sectarianism.
Through the trees, further west, I catch glimpses of Belfast’s centre beneath the Black Mountain’s slopes, beyond the River Lagan, its ripples glinting in the morning sun. The mountain’s rounded summit provides the perfect location for telecommunications masts. Until recently the hills were out of bounds, providing the military with a perfect vantage point to keep the Nationalist/ Republican communities below under constant surveillance.
A shout from the golf course warns of a wayward ball and I hear the ricochet as the missile clatters a tree close by. Proudly displaying club badges woven into club sweaters, the uniformed golfers pull trolleys, swing clubs and share mutual frustration of sand traps and missed fairways. In fantasy they are their heroes, in reality they are not. The course is a male domain, not a woman in sight. I recall reading of lines drawn on clubhouse floors – lines no woman could cross unless collecting glasses or cleaning floors.
The path leads into Ormeau Park, land sold by the Donegall Estate to Belfast Corporation in 1869. A mother calling her children reminds me that until recently this was contested space. “Siobhán, Seán, time to go!” – Irish names that would have drawn open hostility. The park became the province of ‘Tartan Gangs’, young Loyalists whose territorial claims were fiercely protected. Here Ireland’s north, identity is established immediately: by names – first and second, by area, by streets, by schools, by sport. That’s Bono’s reference point in the U2 song ‘Where the streets have no name’.
Siobhán and Seán are back with their mother and across the way is the dishevelled crew of middle aged guys , ever-present by the bandstand, their motley collection of harmless dogs chase through the trees and bushes. Runners, cyclists, children, walkers, jugglers, shoppers, the park has reverted to its designers’ intentions – a free, safe space open to all. As once it had been, when first-wave feminists held open air meetings in their struggle for the vote.
Close to the path is a remarkable wall mural. Painted by two Chilean and three cross-community Belfast muralists, it emerged from the ‘Shared City’ project celebrating cultural diversity within and between societies emerging from conflict. It is testimony to the significance of public art in expressing solidarity and respect, challenging hateful murals that sustain war and conflict. Poignantly the mural overlooks Ormeau Road Bridge, for many years an interface separating the Loyalist and Republican communities.
Pausing above a stretch of water constantly disturbed by serious rowers it is difficult to imagine the battleground this once was. The cultural mix, of supermarkets, restaurants and shops, the new Chinese Welfare Association building, the Errigle Inn – home of the Real Music Club drawing singer-songwriters from around the world, is testimony to the green shoots of transition.
To borrow from Antonio Gramsci, beyond the pessimism of the intellect, particularly given the intransigence of political leaders, there is optimism within communities born from collective will. Walking the Lagan the ‘word of the prophet’ is ‘written on the subway wall’: Unity, James 2011. Yet, as history testifies, transition takes generations, peace cannot be realised overnight.
Across the river is Annadale, a social housing complex that is home to one of the biggest, most public bonfires on the 11th July. Loyalist communities celebrate the 12th and the defeat of the English Catholic King James II by Protestant William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland. In fact, it was the 12th July 1691 when the Irish Catholic Jacobites were finally routed at the Battle of Aughrim and went into exile in France.
The Union Jacks fly high over Annadale but the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters) insignia has been removed from the most prominent gable end wall as part of a programme of urban renewal and peace-building. Yet effigies of prominent Republican politicians and the Pope, alongside the Irish tricolour, are still burnt on the bonfires.
Leaving the river, passing the sports complex, I’m soon through the gates into Botanic Gardens, established in 1828 with a mission to progress botanical science. Its two stand-out features are the Palm House, built in 1840, its dome added 1852, and the covered Tropical Ravine, opened in 1889. The open spaces of the Gardens and their popularity are a constant reminder of one positive Victorian legacy – public parks.
The Gardens fit tightly between the recently-refurbished Ulster Museum and the impressive new Queen’s University Library. Just beyond is the University’s signature building – the Lanyon. Newspaper in hand I walk through the ever-open front door and into the reception hall – marble, stained glass and oak doors.
Beyond are the lawns and flowers of the cloistered quad and the bench on which I sat that hot day in May after an interview that changed our lives. The grand Victorian building occupies three sides of the quad. Its clock chimed 10, drawing my attention to the numbers 1848 picked out in the brick-work. Queen’s College, as it then was, named after the British Queen Victoria, chartered in 1845 and opened in 1849.
That date – 1848 – resonates throughout Ireland, Britain’s closest colony. It was the mid-point of what I learnt in school was the ‘Irish famine’ or the ‘potato famine’, but what I now know was the ‘great starvation’ or the ‘great hunger’. In the shadow of colonial rule, an avoidable, prolonged tragedy was allowed to happen. So many died, so many emigrated, including my mother’s family.
Another story for another day …
Words & Pictures: Phil Scraton