The late northern writer, Benedict Kiely, was the darling of what used to be called Radio Eireann. He was a repository of reams of traditional verse. Amongst these, there was a doggerel with the refrain: “May God, in his mercy, look down on Belfast.”
And that is how I often thought of our second Irish city during its recent troubled past. As each news bulletin, and each newspaper, daily carried reports of murder and bombing, it seemed as if Belfast could only be left to the mercy of God. It was not a place I wished to visit, and in fact I last saw the city on a cycling holiday in Northern Ireland in 1950. Then, in the youthful freemasonry of An Oige, The Irish Youth Hostel Association, religious and political differences and geographical boundaries, faded into insignificance.
During those recent troubles, I found myself thinking of Belfast as a place apart, a poisonous territory, where people hated each other, best avoided. Such irrational judgments melted when, during the past few years, I have been meeting with ordinary, decent people, from all sides of the community, who experienced the consequences of a conflict for which they, themselves, bore no responsibility, but which they had been caught up in, and had to endure.
There was the social worker who worked in a very entrenched loyalist area, and who spoke with great warmth about people who lived constantly on the edge of violence. Her job was to try to encourage the children to go to school, and to stay at school, meanwhile discouraging their fathers from “keeping the guns in the house.”
Yet another woman told me about the small corner shop of which she was the owner. She gave credit to her local customers, because the supermarkets would not give them credit. They would pay their bills every Friday, she said, but they immediately resumed the next bout of credit, so they were always in arrears. She barely made a living from the business, but she did it, and is now very happy she did it, because “it was the only way these people could keep food on the table.”
And there was the woman who lived in the leafy outward suburbs of the city, in an area outside the “trouble on the streets,” and where, she said, “nothing ever happened.” Then one day, her teenage son had to make a cross-city journey to a sporting event. He was seriously injured in the head, when, without any warning, a bomb exploded. Wrong place. Wrong time. Now, he had grown into a strong, handsome young man but with the mental age of a five-year-old. His parents were in a turmoil of worry as to what would happen to him “when we are no longer alive.” With tears in her eyes the woman asked me if she had told me that “nothing ever happened” in the exclusive area in which she lived.
Ordinary people, trying to live ordinary lives, in extraordinary circumstances. Their stories were the catalyst for revisiting Belfast. Which I did, a few weeks ago, in the company of my fellow members of the Clonmel Historical and Archaeological Society.
I have now visited many of the European cities which were devastated in World War II, amongst them Aachen, Nuremberg and notably Dresden, where, in biblical language, a stone was not left upon a stone. I have marvelled at the capacity of people to re-build and to restore, not only the physical fabric of devastated places, but the human spirit. The same can be said of Belfast, where regeneration and restoration is going ahead, though now, at a slower pace. The restoration of the human spirit may take a little longer.
Belfast was amongst the most progressively industrialised cities in western Europe. Much of that success originated with the French Huguenots refugees, who first identified the exceptional climatic and soil conditions of the northern counties for the growing of flax and the manufacture of linen. Taking advantage of the decline in cotton, arising from the American Civil War, great mills were built, employing very large numbers of girls, mostly Catholic, and known as “the Millies.”
The skills learned in the manufacture and maintenance of milling machinery, (employing both Protestant and Catholic men), ultimately led to the great world-class ship-building industry, involving the most disparate of trades and skills and design and manufacture, but almost exclusively employing Protestant men. The engineering expertise was remarkable, but its exclusivity contributed to a fractured community.
Now, both great industries no longer exist, and the industry, which Belfast is fostering, is that of tourism. The ingredients for this are new and interesting architecture; the transformation of old industrial areas into attractive amenity facilities; the restoration of the Lagan; and of course, the celebration of its great ship-building past in the Titanic exhibition, and a natural curiosity about a city healing itself after years of conflict.
All of this is being achieved by the input of billions of money from the taxpayers of Britain and contributions from the US, Europe and the Republic. “And if you want us to come in with you,” (meaning Irish re-unification), “it will cost you billions,” a young Belfast man said to me.
Belfast was the city where some of its most notable Presbyterian thinkers first conceived the concept of the United Irishmen, with the objective of breaking down the religious and social barriers between people and the pursuit of constitutional reform. It was the nucleus of Irish democracy.
Yet, today in this same city, walls, eighteen miles in length, separate adjacent streets, where communities, who demand that separation, live. They are the same people. They speak the same language in the same accents. They occupy the same design of house. They look the same. They worship the same God, only in different churches. The separating eighteen miles of sand and cement and twisted wire and graffiti are also part of the new industry, a prurient sales-pitch in the tourist packet.