Belfast redux: Witnesses to tenuous peace

Special to the Times Union

We arrived in Belfast a week before the referendum on Northern Ireland, for a ceremony lauding John as the first Ireland Professor of Poetry. Always, coming into Belfast, one is struck by how small a battleground it is. Just a few streets west of the city centre, which resembles any bustling English town, lie the Unionist enclave Sandy Row, and the Nationalist Falls Road, literally side by side. Barbed wire and bombed-out or dilapidated houses characterize both areas.

The only apparent difference between them is the murals adorning the sooty brick walls. Along the Falls, one sees Che Guevera and other political crusaders, making it clear that the Catholic extremists regard themselves as freedom fighters, while the Protestant murals depict the defiant, blood-red hand of Ulster, and "King Billy'' on his white horse -- few Unionists seem to know that King William of Orange was supported in his campaigns by the Pope.

Belfast is a microcosm of the tensions racking the end of our century, the walls between the Shankill and Falls a miniature of the former Berlin Wall, its sectarian strife as hard to decipher as Algeria or Yugoslavia, the pastor Ian Paisley, with his gross historical simplifications, a Protestant version of the Ayatollahs. But while religion has been a source of conflict in the North of Ireland, it has also provided a name and central symbol for the referendum which was passed last week: the Good Friday agreement. This agreement will try to remedy the division of Ireland, which began with a famous event bearing another religious name, the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916.

Arguments abound. If there had been no Easter rising, would Ireland have achieved home rule after World War I? After all, Ireland was united before 1921, albeit under English rule, and a new independent structure might have evolved naturally. However, the Unionists had already declared their opposition to home rule, which they feared would be "Rome Rule.'' To placate them, England gave them their own parliament in 1921, which they were able to maintain through gerrymandering, or carving up electoral districts to sustain a false majority in the six northeastern counties which make up Northern Ireland. But in the 1960s the oppressed Catholic minority finally rebelled, under the banner of civil rights.

We are in an unusual position to appraise the current changes, John who was recently named Ireland's first poet laureate, and Elizabeth, his partner, a novelist who is published in Ireland but who was born in New York. We had been working on a TV film on John's home area in County Tyrone, ancient seat of the Kings of Ulster, and the yearning for peace was palpable. John's portrait was being painted by a staunch Unionist, a former commander of the Ulster Defence Regiment. So it came as no surprise that mid-Ulster had one of the highest yes votes, nearly 90 percent.

But what about Protestant Belfast? While there, we ventured, somewhat apprehensively, into the Orange Lily Pub in Sandy Row, decorated with triumphal orange sashes, Union Jacks, and photos of the Royal Family. When John produced a handful of change to buy our drinks, and the barmaid gazed down at Republic of Ireland coins emblazoned with harps and salmon, we realized we'd been found out as southerners, and most likely Catholic. (The different currencies, and the difficulty of making a phone call to someone on the same island, are two of the more absurd and annoying aspects of a divided Ireland.)

But the barmaid remained friendly, and Elizabeth began to speak to her neighbor at the bar, a middle-aged man staring morosely into his pint of Guinness. He told her that his 5-year-old daughter had been killed by the IRA, caught in cross-fire. Afterward, his wife left him, because his face was an unbearable reminder of their dead child. "But I bear them no grudge,'' he said simply. "God has told us to forgive each other. All this hatred and revenge is eating up our souls.''

Last summer, we went to Feile na Pobail, or the People's Festival, in the Catholic Clonnard section of Belfast. Our guide, a cousin of Pete Hamill, was solicitous that we should get a "right'' i.e. Catholic taxi to the site, an enormous greensward close to Gerry Adams' house. Also nearby was a cemetery full of tombstones bearing Republican emblems and hymns to fallen patriots, but with a few Protestants from less divided times as well. Irish music blared through the loudspeakers, while families played and picnicked.

The only suggestion that this was different from any urban park on a sunny Sunday was the presence of vigilant stewards here and there, keeping a professional eye out for trouble. Compared to other sections of the city, which were taut with fear, these festival grounds seemed relaxed and happy, as though, to quote the IRA slogan, their day had come. And, indeed, the Catholic minority has been steadily growing, and Irish literature, legends, music, even films, have caught the imagination of the world, while Unionist culture seems to remain static. So, even as long ago as last summer, long before the Good Friday agreement, something positive was in the air.

But will this cobbled agreement work? Or will it fall apart like the power-sharing executive of Sunningdale in 1974, a collapse which led to bombs in Dublin and Birmingham, and the assassinations of Airey Neave and Lord Mountbatten? It is a bit like Lanty Hanlon's famous dog, which went a bit of the way with everyone. The Unionists have been given back their Stormont parliament, and an assurance that there will be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without majority consent. The Republicans should gain entrance to Stormont (castle that houses the Northern Irish parliament), and will have the sop of cross-border councils, much-disputed by Unionists.

This is ironic when one considers that the new euro-train can barrel down to Dublin from Belfast in an hour and a half, and that when one crosses the border by car there are few noticeable differences: same green mountainous landscape, same language, same faces. (Although on Irish radio recently, an Orangeman declared that he could not attend a ceremony down in County Wexford, because of "the potholed roads in the Republic.'' Obviously, upright Protestant roads are superior to slovenly Catholic ones, especially when the Protestant kind are subsidized by the British Exchequer.) A bird flying over Ireland would see only one small green island, and be unaware of the divisive lunacies of history. Anyway, despite the resistance of Unionists, the border seems to be naturally dissolving, especially as all Europe moves toward unity.

But we must still hold our breaths. The Orange marching season has begun, and there are still the Assembly Elections to the new Stormont, where the extreme Unionists will find themselves in a minority, for the first time. And there is decommissioning: Sinn Fein maintains that what is important is that the guns are silent, but Unionists want to see them handed over, to which Gerry Adams ironically echoes the Unionist battle cry, "No surrender!''

And there are the stubborn, splinter paramilitary groups on both sides, like the particularly vicious Loyal Volunteer Force, which killed several young Catholics during the cease-fire, as well as the Continuity IRA, the Republican IRA, and the "Real'' IRA, all of whom claim legitimacy. Iconic Catholic figures like Bernadette Devlin, and the sister of the hunger-strike leader Bobby Sands, have also opposed the agreement, thus placing themselves in the same camp as religious demagogues such as Ian Paisley.

Poets and writers have played their part in this long search for a possible peace. There was Thomas Kinsella's "Butcher's Dozen,'' a fiery broadside lamenting the brutality of Derry's Bloody Sunday. There was John's own "The Rough Field,'' the first exploration in poetry of the historical and emotional reasons for the Troubles, which is one of the reasons he was chosen as Ireland Professor of Poetry, the first Irish laureateship. Born in Brooklyn, brought up in Tyrone, educated in the north and in Dublin, professor in Cork, Writer-in-Residence at the New York State Writers Institute in Albany, he incarnates the many strands of Irishness, north and south.

The poet Seamus Heaney has compared the violence in Ulster to the ritual killings in the Nordic sagas, until "exhaustion incubated peace.'' Derek Mahon has deplored the reign of the Fire Kings, and Michael Longley has written movingly of the need for forgiveness in his poem "Cease Fire,'' where Hector's father, Priam, embraces Achilles, his son's killer. In language-loving Ireland, poetry has been a saving grace, a source of sustenance in these times of crisis. Only in Eastern Europe has poetry played such a similar, central part as a gesture toward sanity.

In a few weeks, the Orange drums will throb through Ulster. Will the Orangemen, belligerent in their bowlers and sashes, try to force their way through the small Catholic enclave of Portadown, the Garvaghey Road, as before, declaring it their democratic right to march where they please, in their own province? The Unionists love to use the term democracy, but Ian Paisley has already declared that he does not recognize that the agreement was passed by a majority. Couched in this assertion, but unspoken, is Paisley's belief that a majority formed in part by Catholics is not a genuine majority at all, since Catholics shouldn't be participating in politics in the first place, but should remain sub-citizens. Recently, on Irish radio, a comedian was pretending to give Paisley an arithmetic lesson. "If you have one apple, and I have three apples, who has more apples?'' asked the comedian painstakingly. The Paisley character thundered, "I do, because your apples are Catholic apples!''

Perhaps this year, finally, things will ease. The Protestant boycott of a Catholic church in Antrim, called Harryville, has been lifted, as opposed to last year, when Catholic churches were being burned. John has expressed the tensions and fears which flare up every marching season in a poem that has become well-known in Ireland. Although maybe this year the fields will be cleared, for a better harvest.


March and counter-March
As jagged orange of whin,
Thick rushy green begin
Again to overcome the fields.
Each year we try to scythe,
Hack, or burn them down,
Knowing full well that next Spring
Those same dumb stubborn
Roots will stir underground.

John Montague, author of several volumes of poetry, short stories (including "Death of a Chieftain'') and criticism, has been distinguished writer in residence at the New York State Writers Institute in Albany for a decade, teaching spring writing workshops. Elizabeth Wassell, who taught fiction writing this year at the Institute, is the author of "The Honey Plain'' and a second novel scheduled for publication in the fall. They live most of the year in County Cork.

First published on Sunday, May 31, 1998

Life & Leisure

Copyright 1998, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

John Montague
Elizabeth Wassell