It is a gorgeous sunny day here in Belfast, which was in contrast to the dark corners we visited as we try to understand this country.
Of course we wanted to give equal time to the Unionist side of Belfast, so we booked a tour of Sandy Row, a street which lends its name to the surrounding residential community, which is predominantly Protestant working-class. It is a staunchly loyalist area of Belfast, the heartland for affiliation with the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Orange Order.
Our guide, Paul, was late due to some confusion with the booking office, and it seems we got him out of bed to run down and give us the tour. Paul admitted he was exhausted from the activities of the last week. Sandy Row is ground zero for the 12 July celebrations that involve lots of bonfires, one of which Paul spent the last six weeks helping to build. And then there was the parade and the parties and the drinkin’ – you know.
First, let us set the scene. We met Paul at The Wall, the one shown above, that celebrates the start of it all – Prince William’s victory over James II at the Battle of the Boyne on 12 July 1690. This wall is a relatively new centerpiece to the story – and it happens to be right across from our hotel. We shuddered a bit to think of the excitement we missed the day before we actually arrived here.
It seems very tasteful and well-done, right? It is part of an effort to remove the more incendiary and paramilitary walls that used to dominate the area. Here is what the wall used to look like:
So glad we missed that era.
Paul is a lovely man, and probably a good mirror of his community, which he dearly loves. He has not much education, is unemployed, has a family and a son he wants to raise in a peaceful Belfast. He is trying to do ‘research’ on the internet to learn more about the history of Belfast and to better himself. He voted to leave the EU because he wants Britain to be more British, thinks immigration should be tightly controlled, and welcomes a border with the Republic because the need for guards would create jobs. So many working-class people here like Paul have one major problem – in Sandy Row, 50% of them aren’t working. The reasons for that are not quite clear to them, but for Paul, there is a hazy correlation to unchecked immigration and a greedy EU. Transfer him to the US and you will have the same groundswell of misplaced frustration, and the vain hope that the present can revert to the past if we just chuck out the villain holding us back.
For us, it was enough to see the lovely tobacco company headquarters, (no longer in business), the site where the shirt-making factory used to be, the factory where the weavers of flax and linen worked, etc., etc. The docks no longer employ the 10,000 men and boys who trudged there every day, and even the abatoirs and bars are closed. There simply is no industry and no jobs for people like Paul. The houses are small and the population of Sandy Row has shrunk considerably. But to Paul, it is a special community of people who take care of each other and who share their lives, and he sees it as a magical place that must be preserved. He worries about the new apartment blocks coming in that charge “800 to 1,000£ a month, for the upper classes.” He fears they will squeeze out him and his in the next 50 years. We think his timeline is far too optimistic, but we tried to share his enthusiasm for the world of Sandy Row.
The celebrations of 12 July are a huge part of this clinging to the past. Bonfires were lit to guide William and his troops along the coast to Carrickfergus, hence the continuing preoccupation with 12 July bonfires up to the present day. They must be massive. Paul’s was just one of many, and it took six weeks to build. And then there are the “trainer” fires they let children build and light before they have to go to bed. This is a tradition that isn’t going to go away soon, and it leaves an awful mess behind.
Back to the walls. There are fewer of them in this area, and there is a concerted effort to replace the nasty ones, but some remain. There is also a version of the Garden of Remembrance we saw the other day, but from the other side, of course.
There is one entire wall done of scenes of everyday life maybe 30 years ago, local sports heroes and personalities, and Paul walked us through every single one of them, along with directions to the sports celebrities’ local homes. (I seemed to have missed shooting the 20 or so boxers of note.) He loves this place and the people who live here.
So, in summary, the Battle of the Boyne is celebrated every year and re-fought on almost a daily basis here. Yes, most of the shooting has stopped – but not all. And sadly, there is very little to take its place.
The other event of this lovely sunny day was our trip to the docks to see the number one tourist attraction in Northern Ireland, or the north of Ireland, if you will – the Titanic Experience. This is a very glitzy interactive museum which looms like a huge iceberg, right next to the docks where Titanic was built, which lends it a certain eerie quality. Evidently it was packed yesterday when a cruise ship delivered 3,500 people to the doors. Imagine spending several hours immersed (so to say) in the story of Titanic and then getting onto a cruise ship. Not for me.
At any rate, it was very well done, and very moving and very sad. I didn’t even like the most recent film, but one can’t escape the drama of the story, which began with the skill and hard work of the Belfast workers who were so proud to see it launched. The exhibit also tells the story of the vast amount of industry that occupied Belfast in the early 20th century.
So many stories and so many dreams. One can only hope that some of them come true for the people of Belfast.