Here's a few jottings following a recent trip back to Northern Ireland.......
I noticed something in Northern Ireland recently, something beyond political bitching, flags, remembrance of things past, bad stuff that hogs the headlines and all the blether and blah hot air that must be as much of a threat to the environment as methane gas. I’ll get to that soon but here’s a little historical and travelogue background.
I was born and raised in Belfast but nowadays I am more of an in-out tourist, always delighted to step off the plane to meet up with family and friends. I am not a kiss-the-tarmac kind of guy but, emotionally, I come close. My trips are also opportunities to catch up with Belfast, to walk in my old stomping grounds and to remember the great times I had working in the grim era of the 1970s. I am very fond of the city, annoying though some of its citizens and politics can be. It has a special creative vibe and a lot of good history.
On my most recent visit (August 2015), my wife accompanied me. It was a surprise birthday treat for her – one of those milestone numbers – and it was a big success. We arrived at George Best airport and headed for a pre-Belfast stay at the stunning Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, a location and building on the coast second to none. It was a little disappointing to observe a lack of that famous Irish warmth and personality from some of the staff but we ignored the surly ones as best we could and enjoyed the craic from others who seemed happier in their work.
After two nights at The Slieve, we meandered our way towards Belfast via Ardglass, Strangford and Downpatrick. There is not a huge amount to see and do in Ardglass, pretty spot though it is, but we did have coffee in Doyle’s and a chat with a lovely waitress. I asked where the main street was and she pointed up the hill. “That’s it. That’s Ardglass.” We smiled a collective smile. Strangford had a bit more to it and Downpatrick had a lot more to it including the obvious but still interesting stories about Saint Patrick, ‘dear saint of our isle.” I was particularly interested in Downpatrick’s Market Street because of Damian Smyth’s excellent 2010 book of poems named after the thoroughfare. We ended up in Belfast, a chance to dander around and see how the old town is doing. There was a lot of observing and absorbing of life going on.
So what was this thing I noticed. I keep tabs on Northern Ireland’s news via the Internet, scanning the newspapers and the BBC and, unless I am being unfair, bad news and conflict continue to dominate. Some good news and cute stories are sprinkled here and there to celebrate, entertain and amuse. But, for someone on the other side of the world, dipping into Ulster news coverage the reality of what actually goes on in, for example, Belfast day in and day out is skewed.
The thing I noticed was NORMAL LIFE. Blimey, I hear you cry. You took five paragraphs to present a statement of the blinking obvious. Well, yes, but I would argue strongly that emphasizing normality is very important in a place where morale can have as many holes as a colander.
I watched people heading for work, carrying their coffee cups, yabbering and tapping on phones, queuing for buses, shopping, chatting in the street, choosing sandwich fillings, sitting on benches reading newspapers and books, driving, honking horns, waiting to cross roads, delivering stuff, drinking in bars, smoking in clumps outside, and on and on. It was like any other city. NORMAL LIFE.
NORMAL LIFE, a thing not to be underestimated or taken for granted, a thing that should be a comfort when the going gets tough. After arguments, fights, despicable acts, nasty interludes, hurled stones and bottles, etc, NORMAL LIFE returns and most people get on with earning a crust and living a life.
NORMAL LIFE never goes away for long. It always comes back, ’as sure as the turning of the earth*’.
*Never too far from a western quotation – ‘The Searchers’.