I’m back across for a few days. Back in Northern Ireland, the province, the North, Ulster, the six counties – whatever it is you call it. For, remember, whatever name you chose to attach to this place can be loaded with meaning and interpretation – over here, anyway. But I’m beginning to think all of that matters a little bit less than it used to. After twenty years of peace (and, whilst it may be an imperfect peace, compared to what came before, it is most certainly peace), people here seem to have fewer hang-ups about what name they and others choose to call this part of the world. This all came to mind during a family gathering last night when E., rather improbably, but nonetheless splendidly, broke into a fine rendition of the Stiff Little Fingers’ song, ‘An Alternative Ulster’. For those of you who don’t know, SLF were a punk band from Belfast who formed in 1977 and had a short-lived but bright blaze of glory with their moshing, head pumping numbers. The three slow, hollow, tinny, discordant electric guitar strums at the start of ‘An Alternative Ulster’ are an unmistakable clarion call to get up and do some frenzied slam-dancing to the defiantly yelled, authority-challenging lyrics: “There’s nothin’ for us in Belfast / The Pound’s old, and that’s a pity / OK, so there’s the Trident in Bangor / And then you walk back to the city / We ain’t got nothin’ but they don’t really care / They don’t even know you know / They just want money, we can take it or leave it / What we need, is an Alternative Ulster.” The Pound was in Belfast and the Trident down the road in Bangor; both pubs were part of the music scene for the youth of the day, and, as this song explains, there wasn’t much else in what was the wasteland of Northern Ireland.
No, there wasn’t a lot of good to be found back then in this beautiful place, and the young punks of the day were, if anything, giving it an easy ride. Consider the work of some other artists of the day and they were more blunt, straightforward about what it was like. Take the poet, Ciaran Carson, who wrote about how it was living through the Troubles in Belfast.
‘Belfast Confetti’, by Ciaran Carson (abridged)
“Suddenly as the riot squad moved in it was raining exclamation
Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type. And
Itself ― an asterisk on the map.
My name? Where am I coming from? Where am I going?
A fusillade of question-marks.”
I’ve come across an essay that Carson wrote for the Irish Times, just three years ago, when he recalls how ordinary it had become to hear – and to directly feel – bombs going off in Belfast. He writes, “I remember the big sash windows of my flat on University Road shuddering and trembling when a bomb demolished a nearby building. The windows held, but a few days later, in memory of the event, the ceiling of my bedroom collapsed leaving a mass of lath and inch-thick Victorian plaster on the bed where I would have been lying had hunger not driven me from it to make a late fry-up the morning after the night before.” (Ciaran Carson essay for the Irish Times, 2015)
Then there is the F.E. McWilliam’s sculpture, ‘Woman In Bomb Blast’. McWilliam, living in England, but from Northern Ireland, had watched the horrific news on 4th March 1972 of a bomb exploding at the Abercorn tearooms in Belfast. Two women were killed, two more lost both legs and a total of 130 people were injured. Moved by the tragedy McWilliam created a series of small bronzes. The one I have seen is of a slender woman, splayed horizontal as she takes the impact of the blast; slight, fragile, her face is covered by her shirt blown up. It is beautiful, shocking, elegant, traumatising, balletic, barbaric.
Growing up on the north coast I was largely, and mercifully, sheltered from it all. But four years of student life in Belfast in the early nineties (pre-ceasefire) taught me watchful vigilance as I became inured to the sounds of blasts, to the constant buzz of low, watchful helicopters, to the ‘fusillade’ of questions laid at city checkpoints. So, last month, when I went to the theatre in England and security asked to check my bag, I was easily transported back twenty five years to Royal Avenue in Belfast when every shopper’s bag was checked upon entering shops for fear you were going to leave a fire bomb hidden in Marks and Spencer’s ladies underwear department. Back in the present, it turned out the security man at the theatre was checking for alcohol being smuggled in. “To ‘Hedda Gabler’?”, I asked him, incredulously, “Is it so bad that I’m going need a bottle of vodka to get through it?” I thought I was cracking a joke, but he just looked at me, humourless. As it happened, the play was hard going and smuggling in a bottle mightn’t have been a bad idea.
It seems, thankfully, that slowly and surely we are establishing an ‘An Alternative Ulster’, and this is a great place to be. I’m glad to be home for a peaceful weekend.