This piece originally appeared in Reisikirju, a collection of travel stories published in Estonian in 2014.
There really is something about the sea. The moist cool salt air comes in off the waters of the Belfast Lough and into the winding streets and big hills of Bangor, County Down. Bangor is a summer resort but it looks fine all year round, a 20 minute train ride from Belfast. Big castles of stone homes right on the water colored lime green, creamy yellow, students about in their blue uniforms, plump old ladies with white hair and wonderful smiles who look just like my grandmother. And that makes a lot of sense, because her father’s family was from right here, this tiny speck of the earth. I guess part of me is from up here too, but I only feel it when I smell the sea.
There is the delicious smell of grease in the air of Bangor, too, all of those quaint chip shops with their Fish Frys and Ulster Frys. I have to tell you what an Ulster Fry is just so you can have a heart attack. The people of this land cook soda bread and potato farls in bacon fat until golden and crispy. Then they add Irish bacon, sausage, black pudding, tomatoes, and fried eggs. A shinier meal has never been seen. They advertise £5 specials on the streets. “Ulster Fry! Keeps you full all day!”
It’s a sign more welcome than the one back in Belfast. From my hotel window on the 18th floor, you can see a giant mural on the side of a nearby building. The background is blue and the words are written out in black, You Are Now Entering Loyalist Sandy Row, Heartland of South Belfast Ulster Freedom Fighters. There are two red fists painted on either side of this slogan, as well as an image of a paramilitary man with an automatic rifle. To see it is to be terrified. And they say the Troubles are over. But on February 22 a Unionist car bomb went off in Newry. Last week a Republican one detonated in Holywood.
That’s just a 20 minute car ride west from this used book shop.
I love used book stores, but this one in Bangor is causing me troubles. It looks the same as all others, stacks of books, old wooden shelves, a musty smell, a bored looking old man in the corner reading a newspaper. I stopped in to buy a souvenir for Epp. I might have gotten her an Ulster t-shirt but it seems like nobody sells Ulster or Northern Ireland t-shirts in Belfast, at least not in the shops I have visited. Not sure why. And here there are Irish books aplenty, with a whole shelf for Iris Murdoch alone. But Epp has so many books. She has libraries stashed at three or four locations across South Estonia and there might be boxes of books somewhere else I have forgotten about. The last time I brought her some paperback Françoise Sagan novellas, they quickly became coasters for coffee cups. This girl loves books, but she just has too many books and can’t read them all. And yet what better gift for a girl who loves books than more books? And something from Ireland must be about Ireland.
The trouble here in Bangor is that other than Iris Murdoch and some volumes on Irish mythology, most of the books are about The Troubles, Na Trioblóidí and Na Trioblóidí is really depressing. I can’t figure out which one of these titles is the least romantic. Is it Lost Lives? Killing Rage? A Long, Long War? It seems like the thing the people of this land like best other than blowing up cars is reading about blowing up cars.
Maybe just getting her some flowers at the airport would be a better idea? There is one volume that has a poetic title though. It’s called The Price of My Soul by Bernadette Devlin. “The fighting Irish girl MP tells her story and what’s really happening in Ulster,” is the subhed. The author’s face is on the cover, long limp hair parted on one side, round face with those special Irish looks, weary, darkened eyes and hand raised beneath her chin, as if deep in thought. A book by an Irish Catholic socialist published in 1969. “Che Guevara in a mini skirt,” the back of the edition says. And Devlin does look tough. I like her.
When people talk about the north, they usually think of it as being cold, but one could say that the air blowing down from Northern Ireland into the rest of Eire is particularly frigid. All during my stay in Dublin, whenever I mentioned that I was heading up to Belfast next, people seemed to pull their jackets in tighter as if buffeted by a brisk wind and say, “So you’re heading up north, are you?”
There was a warning in the Dubliners’ frost blue eyes, and one woman at the National Archives even recounted a trip up there not long ago. “I’ll never forget the sight of those British Army guard towers,” she said.
I remembered images of those towers too, from watching news broadcasts growing up. They said the Troubles were over with the peace agreements of 1998, and again with the power-sharing deal between the Unionists and Sinn Fein in 2006. But yesterday, Bobby Moffett, a member of a Unionist paramilitary force called Red Hand Commando, was gunned down outside a shopping center… by other Unionists.
I know my grandmother is Irish, and a lovely lady she is, with curly white hair, craggy dimples, a great smile and wry wit, but there is something about these people that I will never understand. The clannishness and unending feuds. How many Irish families consist of siblings who disown each other or don’t talk to each other for years? No one can recall the origins of the spat, but it’s there, and nursed from time to time. And so it is for the Irish Protestants and Catholics, who have been at it for centuries. For to me, there is no difference between Protestants and Catholics. To me, all the Irish look like my grandmother, or my mother. Speckled skin and mother hen frame. To me, the Irish all look the same.
Belfast itself is a fine town, much rougher, more working class than Dublin. Dublin feels youthful, well-tended and wealthy. The people look good, the houses look good, and St. Stephan’s Green looks really good. In Belfast you meet graffiti, head shops, chip shops, and plenty of construction. Whenever I step over the construction barricades downtown during my strolls, I think about my conversations with Quentin at dinner the other night.
Quentin is a local guy, works for a technology firm, short dark hair, pale blue eyes bears an uncanny resemblance to U2’s magnificent guitarist The Edge. And a bit like my Uncle Frank for that matter, for it is an Irish face this man has, or at least one of the dozen Irish faces you see on every person on this island.
Quentin is also a maniac. When I met him in Barcelona years ago, he was portly and looked about 40. Now he’s training for a triathlon and looks about 25. He has cycled from his home north of Belfast to the company headquarters south of the city three times in the last four days. “That’s 100 bloody kilometers,” he cheers the next day at an upscale Belfast restaurant. The man just sweats energy, his legs are hopping under the table like a rabbit in springtime. When he’s not being a technology officer, he’s also a photographer and a writer and a father. For dinner he devours a massive piece of sirloin steak and that’s it. “My body needs the fekkin’ protein, ya know.”
Quentin grew up in Belfast during the 1980s. “What was it like? It was like having your school bus stopped every day and having a British officer with a gun walk up and down the aisle before you could continue,” he said. He’s hard to place in the pantheon of Irish thought. Is he a Unionist? A Republican? Quentin spoke as if whatever has happened in Northern Ireland is beyond his control.
“You know what the taxi driver told me,” I said to Quentin at dinner. “He said that you can tell a Catholic from a Protestant from the way they say the letter ‘H.’ Protestants say ‘aytch,’ while Catholics say ‘haytch.'”
“That’s exactly the kind of nonsense I am talking about! People. They always need someone to hate they will find any reason to hate them.”
“He also told me that Irish is a dead language.”
Quentin nodded, carving up his steak. “It is a dead language.”
“No it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No. When you have three old Native American ladies who are the last speakers of a language and the last one of them dies, then the language is dead. But there are more than a hundred thousand native Irish speakers.”
“It’s 3 percent of the population. And the problem with Irish is that anybody you meet who can speak Irish can also speak English. Plus you don’t need to speak Irish to be Irish.”
“Do you speak Irish?”
“I do, but … See, my wife is a fluent Irish speaker, except that she learned the Connemara Irish and I learned Ulster Irish. We try speaking it to each other but it doesn’t work. It’s just a dead language.”
We didn’t mention the Troubles in length during our steak dinner, but we didn’t have to. While I was in Belfast, two British Army officers were shot outside a guard hut. They had stepped away for a moment to haggle with a pizza deliver boy.
“The dissidents are middle aged guys like me who haven’t benefited from the peace deals,” this is what Stephen told me as we drove from Dublin to Belfast for a working lunch with Quentin’s company. It was a hazy day, and we road through the rolling hills of the greenest grass you ever saw, with the prettiest yellow flowers and most content sheep. I couldn’t help but look out the windows at the countryside and sigh, and then try to pronounce those impossible Irish road signs.
“Benefited?” I said.
“Aye, benefited,” I watched Stephen’s lips move in the rear view mirror, saw his straight, yellow teeth. “There wasn’t enough gravy to go around for them. Oh, sure they have youngsters out there, doing their dirty work, but most of them have been doing this for a long time.”
Stephen is an older gentleman in a tweed jacket with a flat cap. He has a pronounced nose, not too big but easy to draw, and that fleshy, ruddy quality to his skin that only the Irish possess.
“Do you speak Irish?” I asked him.
He glanced up in the mirror at me with those blue eyes and bushy gray eyebrows. “Irish?”
“Yes, do you speak it?”
“Irish is a dead language. I can’t speak a word,” Stephen said. “They keep it as a state language here down south for identity reasons and historical reasons.”
“I saw Gerry Adams speaking Irish on TV in Dublin,” I said. “Have you seen that guy? Thick hair, thick beard. He looks like a werewolf.”
“Aye. But Sinn Fein is run like a bloody gang. There are places where you can’t get jobs if you are not a party member. That’s what I mean about gravy. There’s still not enough to go around. There was money in the peace process, but not enough for everybody. And that’s why we still have so-called dissidents.”
“But how do they even tell?”
“How do they tell what?”
“How do they tell who is Catholic and who is Protestant?”
Stephen adjusted himself in his seat, as if he needed to be more comfortable to tell me next. And it came in a whisper. “There are some ways to tell. Class, the way a person looks. And, well, when Protestants say the letter ”H’ they say ‘aytch’ but when Catholic’s say the letter ‘H’ they say ‘haytch.'”
My heart sank when I heard it, but I knew it was true. People killing each other over how they pronounce a letter of the alphabet.
Back in the Bangor book shop, these conversations from the past few days spiral around my head. It’s such a nice day, so pleasant to be outside in that rare Northern Irish sunshine, but I can’t get this hurt feeling out of my chest. It just sits there and throbs. Why has this been going on for so long? Protestant? Catholic? How about Irish and Christian!
‘You come to a factory, looking for a job, and they ask you which school you went to. If its name was “Saint Somebody,” they know you are a Catholic and you don’t get taken on…’
To leaf through the pages of Devlin’s book is to be immersed in cold stew. Listening to an Irish Catholic tell a national history is like hearing a survivor of childhood molestation give a deposition on the witness stand. Maybe that’s why I have kept my own Irishness packed away. It comes wrapped up nice in an emerald box with sweaters and dances and drinks, but I’m certain that if I open it up it will explode.
I take one more look at Bernadette Devlin’s face and place the slim volume back on the shelf. Epp has enough books as it is and I have had my fill of Northern Ireland and its endless Troubles. Time to go out and enjoy life. Walk the boardwalk, smell the sea. Maybe even get an Ulster Fry.