Ulster's Troubles

By Heaney, Seamus | New Statesman (1996), September 6, 2013 | Go to article overview

Ulster's Troubles


Heaney, Seamus, New Statesman (1996)


Although it is the official capital of the partitioned state of Northern Ireland and although its citizens regard themselves definitely as "townies", it is impossible to forget that Belfast is essentially a country town, situated where one of the Glens of Antrim sweeps down to the sea. The bills are what constantly catch the eye of the man "out of London". In 1858 Dickens wrote home:

  This is a fine place, surrounded by lofty hills. The streets are very
  wide and the place is very prosperous ... I want to climb one of the
  neighbouring hills before this morning's Don-they.

A hundred years later Philip Larkin, then librarian at the university, recorded:

Their draughty streets, end-on to
hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable.

The natural encroaches on the urban in all sorts of ways. Several of the main buildings and High Street, one of the main thoroughfares, are built over what is now an underground river that in the early days flowed down the centre of High Street to the docks. Names like Falls Road and Malone Road (preserves of the Nationalist mass and the bourgeois ascendancy respectively) are anglicised forms of Gaelic names, indicative of former pastoral conditions--"the road of the hedges", "the plain of the lambs".

More disturbing indications of the essentially natural character of the place came a few weeks ago when the test pilot at Shorts aircraft factory declared that the flights of seabirds across the path of test aircraft were not only dangerous but costly. The decision might have to be taken, he intimated darkly, whether to preserve the wildlife or the industry.

It is a country town, too, in its provincialism, its lack of independence. Despite its own House of Parliament and its late-18th-century reputation (it has a long memory for most things) of being "the Athens of the North", the Belfast position is by no means the self-sufficient one that a capital usually maintains. Its political ties with Westminster have led to the development of a state of mind that looks to England for approbation, and its fashions, artistic and sartorial, are the London fashions--the red tape has become, for some sections of the community, a lifeline.

This, of course, is the result of long-standing Unionist shunning of the South of Ireland and Dublin in particular. Many of the people here rely for their identity on their adopted political allegiance rather than their geographical position. When the extreme Unionist hears an English accent, a whole series of reactions takes place: here, he thinks, is one loyal to the Crown, concerned to maintain the Ulster border as a bulwark against the tyranny of Rome and rebels, one who is grateful for the North's refusal of Home Rule, who recognises that gerrymandering is a necessary evil in order to maintain a loyalist government. I remember the dismay that soon turned to anger on the faces of a middle-aged company in a Belfast hotel when an English friend of mine got vociferous in his Guinness about the wrongs of Ireland and the stupidity of partition. In fact, a colonial attitude exists within the United Kingdom itself.

So the Queen can be assured of a fervid demonstration of affection when she comes next week to open the new bridge named after her. Her image, usually in scarlet tunic and mounted on horseback, presides from many a kitchen wall. Her coronation mug takes pride of place on many a shelf of crockery. The Union Jack will droop from upstairs windows in streets hardly broad enough to admit the royal car. "God save the Queen" will remain proudly inscribed with a tar brush on gables and in pencil or chalk on the walls of public conveniences.

In other kitchens, of course, it is the benign countenance of a Pope, or a series of Popes, that presides. There is no coronation mug on the shelf but a souvenir from Lourdes or a shamrocked plaque from Dublin (already gaining the status of an antique since it shows Nelson's Pillar dominating O'Connell Street).

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