Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Xmas Belfast


I remember flying into Belfast's George Best Airport two Christmas Eves ago on a particularly bright yet frosty morning. The plane made a turn around about Scrabo Tower at the top of Strangford Lough - the tower itself a memorial erected in 1857 to Charles Stewart the Third Marquess of Londonderry who was one of Wellington's generals during the Battle of Waterloo and uniquely well respected by his tenants for his attempts to alleviate suffering during the potato famine.

The view southwards across the water to the Mourne Mountains - and on clearer days from the tower itself even to the Isle of Man and the Scottish coast - was literally breathtakingly beautiful.

It was completely understandable why C S Lewis was inspired by the physical splendour of County Down when constructing the dreamlands of his Narnia novels or indeed why former Southern Irish President, Taoiseach and earlier South Down MP Eamonn De Valera stated that County Down was every Irishman's second favourite county after that of his birth.

Newtownards lies at the top of the lough and is where the main Northern Ireland commercial radio station Downtown Radio transmits from. Apart from the doom-laden three-note musical sting which preceded the terrible news bulletins of the Troubles period, there are two other innocuous things always remind me of the station that I listened in to during the Eighties.

The night time slots were often filled by Jackie Flavelle who had played bass guitar with the Chris Barber Jazz Band in the late Sixties and other artists such as Rod Stewart and Dr John. Flavelle Unravels regularly had a game where listeners could phone in and try to not respond in the positive or negative for 40 seconds or so to Jackie's questions and then they could win a pen or pencil or something really cool. The DJ would patiently explain the complex rules to the listener and then the game would commence with what seemed like 95% of all listeners saying Yes or No within seconds. It doesn’t sound like much in hindsight but it was constantly entertaining at the time – in some way it was a cross between the dumbest thing you have heard in your life and a Zen riddle.

I also remember around December – and alongside other standards such as Jona Lewie’s Stop the Cavalry, Beau Jangle's The Moon Shines Tonight On Charlie Chaplin or Paul McCartney's nightmarish Wonderful Christmastime– that they used to play local band Cruella De Ville’s I’ll Do The Talking quite a lot. It wasn’t about Christmas per se but really fitted the mood of this particularly haunted time of the year perfectly somehow and certainly deserved a much wider hearing.

When I was back in Northern Ireland at this time I also walked up to and over the Cave Hill in North Belfast on Boxing Day. The mountain was a major inspiration behind the writing of Swift's Gullivers Travels.

On the summit of Cave Hill the United Irishman leader Wolfe Tone met compatriots Henry Joy McCracken, Samuel Neilsen, Thomas Russell and others in 1795 at an Iron Age settlement called McArts Fort. Here they would pledge allegiance to an Ireland free of English rule and one which would unite the Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter in harmony. The subsequent uprisings in the non-Plantation Ulster counties of Antrim and Down and at Wexford in the South in 1798 - alongside the failure of the French fleet to arrive in support - leading to a diametrically opposite form of union within a handful of years.

From the same geographical spot one can see the Antrim Road waterworks which the Luftwaffe mistook for the Harland and Wolff shipyards during the 1941 Blitz - leading to extraordinary levels of civilian death and destruction in residential North and West Belfast including the homes of both my grandparents in the Woodvale and Oldpark districts.

Close by in 1973 in turn was the site of an horrendous double murder of a Catholic politician and a Protestant female companion by loyalist paramilitaries in revenge for the republican murder of a mentally handicapped Protestant youth. It literally shocked all of Northern Irish society to the core at the time.

Yet from the same vantage point I could see the very estate and even street I grew up in during the Seventies - my Tomahawk bike, Mario Lanza's Christmas Hymns and Carols, my Scream Inn and Haunted House board games, the Christmas Radio Times, Subbuteo's Targetman , The Broons and Oor Wullie annuals and those five Mettoy "Wembley Soccer Stars" figurines of George Best, Charlie George, Bobby Moore, Francis Lee and Martin Chivers. Billy Bremner never got around to joining the squad.

In the far distance from the Cave Hill was the outline of the dark Mournes where - when growing up as a teenager in the Protestant community - I felt my country ended by default due to the interplay of political violence upon the self-contained cultural dynamics of partition. I sincerely wish it had been otherwise with regard to all the people of Ireland and how we could have and should have related to each other.

During the Nineties when living in London I recall an ITN news broadcast prior to the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires where reporter Tom Bradby was walking across either Murlough Bay or Tyrella Beach towards Newcastle and the Mournes in the evening sunset and elaborating upon historic developments that suggested the conflict was essentially about to come to closure within days and hours - "It's over".

Around the same period I remember very moving footage on a current affairs programme of two Christian groups from the Protestant and Catholic communities meeting and embracing in a candlelit gathering in the middle of Lanark Way between the Shankill Road and the Springfield Road - an urban thoroughfare often used as a shortcut for sectarian killers during the latter period of the Troubles.

South of Larnark Way in turn I recollect to this day how, during my final years living in Northern Ireland in the early Eighties, a gable wall at the junction of the Shankill Road and Northumberland Street would invert the usual trend for threatening political rhetoric or jet black sectarian ribaldry by bearing the unusually upbeat encouragement Happy Xmas Belfast for a year or two.

The Ulster Troubles were certainly a period of unequivocal criminal waste, destruction and human degradation. Only this week came news that North Belfast residents are to be consulted on longer access hours through a peace wall in Alexandra Park - this was erected in 1994 to stop sectarian fighting in the area and remains the only park of its kind in Europe with a barrier in the middle. 49 other peace walls remain in Greater Belfast.

However at the same time to have been fated to grow up in the Sixties and Seventies in such a physically beautiful country and to share your youth with all the great people of Belfast and Northern Ireland of those days was nonetheless a rare blessing.

As always this Christmas I will recall those vanished communities, places and times with enormous fondness and respect.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Louis MacNeice - Born In Belfast Between The Mountains And The Gantries


Within only a few miles distance of each other in County Down in Northern Ireland lie the last resting places of an extraordinary European warrior and an acclaimed national poet - both of whom died prematurely in the middle part of the last century.

In the graveyard of Movilla Abbey in Newtownards is the family tomb of Special Air Services founder, rugby international and proto-type hellraiser Blair Mayne who died in a drink-related car crash in December 1955 at the age of only 41 and whose failure to be awarded a Victoria Cross is a matter of considerable military controversy to this day. The biography of Mayne by Martin Dillon and the late Ulster Unionist politician Roy Bradford concludes:

He sleeps within the ruined walls of a thirteenth-century abbey in County Down, but the high company of heroes will forever be his Valhalla.

Several miles away at Carrowdore Churchyard - also in close proximity to Strangford Lough on the Ards Peninsula - is where the poet Louis MacNeice is buried with his mother. MacNeice died in December 1963 at the age of 55 having contracted viral pneumonia from working in inclement weather during the making of his final radio play.

MacNeice was born in Brookhill Avenue in North Belfast right beside my former school. This is situated among the Cliftonville, Oldpark and Antrim Road districts mentioned in my earlier post about the Jewish community there and indeed close to the former homes of Israeli President Chaim Herzog and actor Harry Towb - all extremely troubled and dangerous areas during the civil unrest of the Seventies.

A contemporary and friend of W H Auden and Stephen Spender, MacNeice's poetry was critical of bourgeois society and modern life in general. Subject matter would range from love to the approach of war and from place and travel to childhood - the latter including one particularly haunting tableau of Christmas past:

and as if through coloured glasses
we remember our childhood's thrill
waking in the morning to the rustling of paper
the eiderdown heaped in a hill
of logs and dogs and bears and bricks and apples
and the feeling that Christmas Day was a coral island in time
where we land and eat our lotus but we can never stay


Although resident for most of his life in England as an academic and writer it is MacNeice's poetry about his homeland that I find particularly striking in its analytical regard - be that with reference to his Planter heritage in Ulster as discussed in Carrickfergus or his excoriation of the non-belligerence of Eire during the Second World War in Neutrality wherein he berates "the neutral island in the heart of man".

However it is the sixteenth canto of Autumn Journal in which MacNeice's vitriol against the vagaries of Irish history and culture ranges in truly kaleidoscopic fashion - the power and passion made even more extraordinary by the time of its publication in 1939 when the partition of Ireland had politically and socially solidified to granite permanence - and would become moreso with Northern Ireland involvement in the subsequent global conflict.

The canto incorporates references to IRA assassins, Roger Casement and Maud Gonne alongside the voodoo of the Orange bands in Belfast's York Street, Kathleen ni Houlihan and King Billy.

To the nationalists of a free Ireland:

Griffith, Connolly, Collins, where have they brought us?
Ourselves alone! Let the round tower stand aloof
in a world of bursting mortar!
Let the school children fumble their sums
in a half-dead language;
Let the censor be busy on the books; pull down the Georgian slums;
Let the games be played in Gaelic


As for the Northern Ireland Unionists in Belfast:

A city built upon mud;
Free speech nipped in the bud,
The minority always guilty;
Why should I want to go back
To you, Ireland, my Ireland?


This section of Autumn Journal - mostly remembered for the phrase "Put up what flag you like, it is too late to save your soul with bunting" - ends with the labelling of Mother Ireland as a bore and a bitch and the admonition:

She gives her children neither sense nor money
who slouch around the world with a gesture and a brogue
and a faggot of useless memories


In a period of time where senses of hostility and antipathy between the peoples of Ireland are blending out into history itself as opposed to bleeding into it, the scope and content of this section of Autumn Journal has retained every bit of its invective power over sixty years after its creation.

MacNeice, alike James Joyce, held impassioned feelings about the political, cultural and religious divisions of his homeland. But the affection he held for Ireland was undeniable. His sense of belonging and connectivity to Ireland may have been problematical and complex but his physical presence there today - alike with George Best who was also originally buried beside his mother - speaks volumes in terms of emotional resolve and closure.

The poet's poet whose profound and unique literary talent was forged upon the geographical and cultural streetscapes and landscapes of Belfast, Ulster, Ireland and Britain.

The murderous fractures amongst the people of these islands which commenced so shortly after his death being so utterly heartbreaking in the sheer scale of unadulterated and bewildering pointlessness.