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The International Writers Magazine
: Modern Northern Ireland

Clive Branson

'Tattoos the size of banners flashed from pale, wide-pored bulges of skin – and those were the women!'

Someone once said: "The Fountain of Youth is not a little sprout of water but travel." All countries have a particular scent, retained in the memories of visitors and immediately recognizable on return. The smell of coal burning brings me back to a narrow street in Bangor, Co. Down where my late grandmother lived. On smelling that scent, my heart is filled with childlike love. It reminds me of her homemade jam, playing cards with her till the "wee" morning hours. Watching her spread the newspaper on the floor and reading it on all fours, something my mother continued.

It reminds me of how my cousins would eagerly come over and scramble on my bed to wake me up. Of gentle conversations over the fence with the neighbour, the squeezed garden in the backyard filled with tomorrow’s ripe vegetables. Being enamoured with the red-headed girl next door; of laughter when I arrived and tears when I departed. And in a country that is inextricably linked with violence and suspicion, it was an aroma of reassurance, peace and tranquility. It was a smell of home.

Even after a 15-year absence, I hardly recognized most of the seaside resort, yet I instantly re-acquainted myself with the neighbourhood once I caught the drift of that scent from the coal storage at the bottom of Springfield Road. A pang of recognition filled me and I was a boy again and found myself in front of her address, now inhabited by my aunt. In traveling, the scenery gives the illusion of adventure and escapism, but it’s those you meet that make the experience memorable.

What was once a peaceful and soporific seaside resort, has become cynically termed as the "Gold Coast ," for the number of millionaire residents per capita. I walked along the Southshore path that skimmed along the Bay of Bangor. It meandered peacefully past the remanents of the Medieval town wall and the Bangor Golf Course. On one side of the path was the high grass of a heath and mounds that were once sand dunes. The other, is the rocky terrain that impeded against the waves until several miles later, it flattened to the sandy beaches of picturesque Crawfordsburn.

I was advised by my relatives not to frequent the ‘drinking holes’ of Bangor in the morning hours due to the robust nature of the patrons. So instead my uncle took me to his favourite pub to watch Northern Ireland challenge Wales in football. A cluster of yob-like labourers with the mentality and IQ of a mislead cow herd – loud, obnoxious, blinded by prejudice and desperation – "Foul! Ya blind, ruddy, focin’ ref!!" every five minutes. The beer was sloshing wildly between ruby-flushed faces and gaping, toothless mouths. Tattoos the size of banners flashed from pale, wide-pored bulges of skin – and those were the women!

The atmosphere of Northern Ireland has changed significantly. There are less blatant displays (i.e. flags, banners, wall murals and painted curbs) of sectarian aggression. A mist of determined calmness has blanketed the nation. "No-one wants the troubles anymore," a cab-driver told me. "A handful of people profited from it, but the youth of today want nothing to do with it. They want to enjoy life, thank God." Angry territorial wall murals have been covered up by paintings of national celebrities and folk heroes. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to spot a British soldier in battle fatigues on patrol. Mind you, violence still exists, motivated less by religious bias to one geared by a Mafioso-like crime between the IRA and Protestant paramilitary fractions associated with extortion and drugs. Opinions still remain parochial – a suspicion that progress may remove their culture and values.

The land is cluttered with neat but drab housing projects. Barbed-wire fortifications like concentration camps, ward off the outside from the inside and vice versa. The countryside, however, is dotted with bucolic vistas around every curve. Cottages of pristine white or pink, adorned with black shutters and a yawning burst of flowers appear between high hedges and flowing pastures.

There is a 12-mile railway track between Bangor and Belfast. The trains sounded like asthmatic, diesel sowing machines. The trip was very pleasant, flowing past realms of orderly towns that remind me more of Lego Land. The train kissed the embankment and beaches along the Irish Sea, kids waved as they sat on stone walls. It is almost like a time warp: the swinging passenger doors, the flagmen with their whistles and pocket watches, and the slow chug from each station will eventually be replaced by something silent, modern and impersonal. I suggested to a Creative Director at an advertising agency to keep one of the old trains and convert it into a mobile restaurant, picking up patrons from each station. It could be a great tourist attraction, but he shook his head sadly and suggested the idea would never see the light of day.

Schoolgirls have adopted a formulaic dress code: white blouses weep unceremoniously under jumpers while socks have been rolled down like accordions to their ankles. Little angels with naughty attitudes sit beside businessmen and women, hovelling in their morning papers.

Belfast is an impressive city of commerce. Imposing Victorian buildings have spread around the grande dame of the city center - City Hall and a flurry of consumer-aimed arteries of avenues. The giant cranes that swung over the Harland and Wolff shipyard – where the Titanic was built - seem like skeletal tombstones. An industry that once employed over 9,000 men has trickled down to 85. Cheap labour in Asia has virtually eliminated Irish industries in shipbuilding, car manufacturing and textiles. Today, Belfast relies on IT, finance, light industry and government instead.

Some worthwhile sites in and around Belfast are Belfast Castle, the 12th Century Norman castle, perched prominently on the slopes of Cave Hill, 400 feet above the city and managed by Belfast City Council. Mount Stewart and its magnificent park and gardens, are still home of the Londonderry family since 1800. The grounds were absolutely serene in their majestic layout. And Grey Abbey and town. Visit the ruins of the 12th Century Cistercian Abbey developed from French Benedictines. It exhibited early Gothic features at a time when late Romanesque work was still common in Ireland. The town was a Mecca for antique hounds or a nice escape with quaint hideaways like Hoop’s Café for tea and sandwiches.

Ireland is littered with castles and I was fortunate enough to be in Ireland during Heritage Week I explored further a field and visited Dundrum: an attractive little trading harbour in a landlocked bay surrounded by The Mourne Mountains. My relatives were quite sentimental about these 12 summits that rose above 2,000 feet and separated North from South. I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of these ‘mountains’ would be mere footsteps juxtaposed to other mountain ranges in the world. But the most dramatic attraction is de Courcy’s Castle – a Norman stronghold. Volunteers were settling up for a re-enactment later that day and one stout individual generously gave me a lecture of the evolution of battle headdress, swords and armour. It was fascinating and such a contradiction to how Hollywood likes to portray the period. Being of Viking descent, most stood over six feet and didn’t need help being elevated onto a horse. All were expert swordsmen – even throwing them through an enemy’s helmet slit. The intention of battle wasn’t necessarily to kill your opponent, but to incapacitate your adversary. The single- handed sword was heavy and used for jabbing. The double-handed sword was light and utilized for swiping. Most soldiers died from lingering wounds rather than immediate deaths. Low entrances into castles were deliberate. Rivals who tried to infiltrate had to bend over to enter only to meet a quick and lethal end by being decapitated.

© Clive Branson Nov 16th 2004

From Toronto to London

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