More on foreign affairs from The Atlantic Monthly.


From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Ireland's Troubled North" (October 31, 2001)
A collection of Atlantic articles on Northern Ireland helps put the current easing of political tensions in perspective.

Flashbacks: "Peace for Ireland?" (December 1995)
Articles by Robert Coles, Conor Cruise O'Brien, and others consider the political, social, and psychological aspects of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The Atlantic Monthly | May 1972
 
A Visit to Belfast

by Mary Manning
 
.....
 
"It has been reserved for the twentieth century to show the spectacle of inquisitors who persecute without faith and martyrs who expire without hope."

                                        —Aarland Ussher

t is a dying city, a broken city, a city almost without hope, for where do we go from here? The heart still beats faintly in the University, in beautiful outlying suburbs, in the brave little Lyric Theater, in the few discothèques where the students, girls and boys, line up for hours in the wintry nights just to get in—to have a drink, to listen to the music of the outside world. The few visitors must stay in guesthouses. Hotels, because of the bombings, are increasingly dangerous. But the heart is still beating faintly. Like a patient in intensive care, Belfast, having survived several heart attacks, may survive, for Belfast has a tough Northern heart; it may just make it.

I traveled up to this beleaguered city the weekend of what is now known as Bloody Sunday to review a Lyric Theater production for the fortnightly paper Hibernia, which carries all the news unfit to print—in England that is—for the British public has been kept diplomatically uninformed, as indeed has the United States. Dickens, of course, would have sensed that it was an ominous day. He would have marked the leaden skies, the feeling of snow; or was it, could it have been, fear in the air? Nature is a strangely canny barometer. He would have felt the menace in the lashing cruel seas spilling over the coastline between Dublin and Dundalk. The seabirds—sure sign of storm—had flown inland, had covered the fields with the vivid whiteness of their wings. Cattle and sheep waddled forlornly under the bare trees and hedges or near the sheds, for the grazing land was stiff with a hard, cruel frost. So we sat, my companion Catherine and I, in the virtually empty "excursion" train Dublin to Belfast, known in happier times as "the Contraceptive Special," and stared out upon the sad landscape flying past us. The little restaurant car which serves late breakfasts and snack lunches and in which one usually had to stand in line for a table was occupied only by a mother with two children, all three with hacking coughs. A few journalists and cameramen were in the bar drinking stout. Even the dreadful canned music which was blaring out waltzes from old Vienna faltered and came to a dead stop as we reached the Border. Only those who have heard it recognize the voice of doom when a Northern voice drones out, or rather groans out, over the loudspeaker, "NEWRY," for this is the fatal border town which is one of the principal customs barriers between the North and the rest of Ireland.

"God's sake!" Catherine nudged me. "Look below on the road." We caught our first glimpse of the Saracen tanks and the British soldiers in battle dress searching cars, trucks, civilians, rifles slung over their shoulders. "Milk cans!" Catherine giggled. "The biggest bomb ever was found in a milk can." And now we were in Ulster, that godforsaken province; we were in the war zone. Just before the train drew into Victoria Station, a dismal structure from which even John Betjeman could hardly draw inspiration, printed in enormous white-washed lettering on a bombed-out factory wall was PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD. It was our welcome to Belfast.

"Incidents"

One associates a station, especially a terminus, with excitement, with loving reunions. Not here anymore. Only H. M. Customs greets you, a few hagridden taxi drivers, and a quorum of disillusioned porters. And there is a mean acrid smoky smell, and a pall of smoke hangs low from the arched ironwork of the roof. But thanks be to God, my good friend Dr. Blank (one must not name names) was there waiting in the outer entrance, from which one could glimpse the light of day. He is a psychiatrist with a private practice and is also attached to one of the major city hospitals.

We followed him out onto the street where his car was parked; we were to lunch with his family in a suburb, just east of the city center. "I'm very sorry," he murmured apologetically, "there's just been an incident—couple of cars bombed out, down to our right." As we climbed into the car we did hear the fire engines, and as we moved slowly forward in a long line of cars and buses, suddenly again the tanks were there, this time in front of us, and we were surrounded by Royal Ulster Constabulary men and again the British soldiers. "Ladies, if the shooting starts, just lie down on the floor of the car and hope for the best!" said he with the utmost aplomb. However, the shooting did not start; it was a minor "incident," and about fifteen minutes later we moved along. "We'll have to make a detour. We'll be passing now by the Falls Road, where the action is." He pointed toward one of those endless, gray, mean streets which make up the real Belfast. Ardoyne housing estate is boxes; the Falls Road is like those mining and mill towns in England, sprawling miles of them all exactly alike, all gray, all hopeless. No wonder people come out of those human warrens raging! That flatness, that gray uniformity, must sink into the soul and rot there. There were barbed-wire barricades across the entrance to the Falls Road, and around them scurried a few housewives with shopping bags. Everyone now scurries or scuttles in Belfast.

From the archives:

"Ulster's Children" (December 1980)
The children of "dirty Prods" and "filthy Fenians" carry messages, set fires, use guns and knives. But sometimes they speak with the startlingly premature wisdom of those who have seen people fight and die for what they believe. By Robert Coles
We drove slowly; one had to because of "incidents." "You must have come up against a lot of mental damage?" I asked him. "Ah, yes, I'll tell you one story—the story of Willie John McDaid. He was a Protestant; not a member of the Orange Order, mind you. No bigot. He kept a small grocery shop. A nice gentle wee man meaning no harm to anybody. Well, six months ago when the Troubles were bad, Willie John began getting calls warning him to shut up shop and get out with his Papist wife. Yes, his wife was a Catholic and as nice and gentle a woman as you could meet. But how could he get out? The wee shop was his living. So one night he was set upon and beaten across the face and head with an iron bar. When they brought him into the hospital he had no face left. We just saved his life, but we couldn't save his face or his sight. And I'm in there now, trying to save his mind, trying to pump hope back into him. His wife sits there, poor soul, day after day, holding his hand. That was Protestant bigots. But then I have a patient who lost her four-year-old girl in a bombing downtown while she was shopping. That was the IRA. I'm a Catholic myself, and I've never run into any trouble, and my sympathies naturally are basically with the minority; but killing and maiming of the innocents by indiscriminate bombing I cannot stomach. We're breeding a maimed generation up North, and we'll have in the next ten years a city of conditioned killers who have grown up in hate and violence and will never be psychically well again."

The graffiti on the buildings were like this (it reminded me of the Mouse's Tale in Alice):
     GOD IS LOVE
       COME TO JESUS
         To Hell with the Pope!
             Shit the IRA!
             Paisley put the kettle on
           and we'll all have a pee!
         Death to all traitors
       Jesus is Love
     They shall come to judgement
   Faulkner, Get Off Your Arse!
  Burn, Bernadette, burn
Judgement!
Watching our startled faces, the doctor observed bitterly, "One may be certain that Cain liquidated Abel in the name of Fraternité." He said not another word, as we drove past boarded-up shops, cinemas, and of course innumerable churches. Outside one of these holy edifices I noticed a delicate white dappled winter cherry tree—a delicate parapluie, overhanging the gray wall. It seemed like a little message of hope. Our friend's house was situated in a prosperous suburb, in a tree-lined road with gentlemen's residences standing in their own grounds. As Thackeray once wrote, "Where the devil else would they stand?" Looking around the quiet roads, one could hardly believe in the scarred city below us. Behind our friend's house, above his garden, stretched a meadow in which an old white horse was nonchalantly grazing. "The peace!" I cried. "It's unbelievable!" My hostess laughed. "They blew up the transformer there behind behind the trees a few months ago. We were blacked out for ages. I never go down into the city to shop anymore. I've been in two bombings and that's enough." "I can't believe it," I said again, "your lovely garden there and a gardener!" There was indeed an ancient character mooching around the flower beds. And that silly old horse. "The only difference between man and brutes is that man knows he's one." "You're in a very bitter mood, dear," remarked his wife. He continued, "For instance, dogs, they're the most human of animals. Like man they hunt and kill in packs." "You obviously need your lunch," said his wife, but her eyes were sad.

After lunch we were driven back to the guesthouse in which we were to spend our night. Serried ranks, this time of red-brick respectability, at least four stories high, and faceless. "Lace curtain Protestants," grinned the doctor as he bade us good-bye and good luck. The house was specklessly, aridly clean; the temperature was polar and reminded me of boarding school, and the emptiness of the house was deafening. Our landlady was a little fresh-colored lady with dead blue eyes. She look virginal, but was a widow. Our hearts sank as our feet ascended to the fourth floor. We passed the only bath and lav on the third floor. There was obviously no central heating, and each bedroom had a small one-bar electric heater. "Ladies," said she in her rather genteel middle-class Belfast patois, "you'll like a hot-water bag in your beds?" We almost shouted thank you, and very nearly added, at least three, please. When she had gone we looked at each other shiveringly. "We'll have to sleep in our clothes," said Catherine, "possibly even in our boots. This isn't a house, it's an igloo. What are you going to do now?" "Sleep," said I, flinging myself on the bed in my fur coat and m boots and drawing the eiderdown over me. "Well I'm not going to stay here and get frostbitten. I'm going down to the shops." "You're mad, you'll get shot. You heard what the doctor's wife said." "To hell with that," said she, "I'll get things half price down there!" So off she went, and slumber overtook me, as they say, and an hour later Catherine woke me. "I waited half an hour for the effing bus," she exclaimed breathlessly; she was laden, I observed, with contraband. "I was frozen to the soul, and when one did come there wasn't an effing soul in it, and the conductor looked at me as if I was mad when I asked for city center. Jesus, Mary! Saturday afternoon and the city was empty. I was searched and frisked before I went into Robinson and Cleaver. The girls behind the counters were picking their noses and polishing their nails. Then I went into Marks and Spencer's. There was only a couple of British soldiers in there buying underclothes for their girl friends. Where are we going to eat? I'm starving." So was I. The landlady directed us to a respectable hotel just down the road to the left. So off we went.

The doors of the hotel were locked, and we were scrutinized through them by an old porter who allowed us in and locked up again after us. The manager, who was deathly pale and jaded-looking, wearing a sort of undertaker's suit, was wandering around jangling keys. There did not appear to be any real guests, but there was in the TV room, drinking and wolfing sandwiches, a group of journalists and cameramen. "On their way to Derry tomorrow," explained the manager. "You'll no be going up to Derry for march?" "No, thank God," said I heartily. We ate sandwiches and drank coffee and then tried to get a taxi to bring us to the theater. We had been warned not to walk. Haphazard snipers! If you want a taxi in Belfast on a Saturday, in this moment in history, forget it. "We'll have to start crying," said Catherine, trying to squeeze out a few tears. "Somebody might take pity on us." While we sat there waiting and trembling, the porter kept up a rumbling Shakespearean soliloquy with us: "I sit here, keepin' guard. I look outa this wee window here, and when I see a car drive up with four of them bastards [we didn't dare ask which bastards] in it and one stays in the car with the engine running and then I knows there's trouble and I rings the alarm. We've had two bombings out there already. Seen the hedges all blackened?" At that moment, a tough-looking taxi driver who had been hanging around the hall stepped forward and said he'd run us to the theater; he was taking some of the journalists up to Derry, but they hadn't finished eating yet. His taxi service was suitably named Jetset, and I recommend it to anyone who cares to visit Belfast. The last thing I heard as our Jet driver hustled us out was one of the journalists shouting drunkenly, "Facts are seldom true and never conclusive!" And the low moaning of the porter.

Escape

We were fifteen minutes late arriving at the theater, and me reviewing the play. It is a beautiful little modern building in Stranmillis area, near the quays, overlooking the Lagan River, and the theater is there owing to the courage and persistence of an extraordinary woman, Mary O'Malley, and a group of devoted associates. Ironically the production was a new play by a Dublin author, Joe O'Donnell (it had been turned down in Dublin), called The Lads, and it was splendidly played and presented by a group of top-notch actors. The theater was packed with young and old enjoying every minute, escaping of course from the horrible realities outside. We drank coffee on the balcony during intermission with Mary O'Malley, John Boyd the dramatist, and Tomas McAnna, one of the Abbey directors who was up from Dublin to see The Lads, and several others.

We talked theater and avoided politics. "It's been hell," said Mary O'Malley, "but we're surviving. The theater is nearly always full. I'm free under English equity to hire English actors, and they come, they come. But there's not much laughter left in Belfast," she added sadly. Someone said, "Civilized human beings laugh most when they're sad and talk most when they're bored." "I don't see much civilization around here," someone else said. "Talking of religion ..." "Don't," said another listener. "The only quite harmless and admirable mechanical invention is the prayer wheel of Tibet." "But I feel life in this theater," said I. "More than in Dublin, except perhaps the Peacock, which does keep one window half open on the outside world, and it's owing to McAnna, who's leaving us for America." "The Abbey has turned out some fine actors," said Boyd (his play The Flats was a smashing success at the Lyric). "Turned out is the right word," said I recklessly. "They're all in New York or London." "And as for the Abbey, I wish Riders to the Sea had ridden into the sea and stayed there." The discreet silence could have been heard in Dublin!

We returned to our cold nest. Before taking off our coats, we leaned out of the window and looked out over the rooftops. There were no lights in the windows, no sounds of human revelry by night. It was not a sleeping silence; it was a mute, speechless, suffering silence, wholly unnatural. Suddenly it was broken. A Saracen tank patrol was rumbling toward our street. We quickly closed the windows and crept into our refrigerators. Our little landlady tapped on our door at eight precisely, for we had to catch the nine-thirty train back to Dublin. "I was afraid to turn in the night," said Catherine piteously. "A sort of East wind blew in on me shoulders from somewhere." However, there was a sumptuous breakfast waiting for us in the dining room and the usual one-bar electric heater. With that blessed Northern efficiency she had called a taxi for us the night before. "You'll sign the book before you go?" and she stood beside us, as we signed, chafing her poor red hands. I looked at the last signature above mine. It was dated August 1971.

Sensing my unspoken pity, she said, "It's been hard. I used to get the visitors from Dublin, but they don't come anymore. Mrs. O'Malley does send me actors, but they like to be near the theater and in a group.

We drove down the familiar route to the station, and I craned my neck to have a last look at the cherry tree. Alas and alas, a car had been bombed beside it during the night, and the white parapluie was now a dirty black umbrella. The streets were empty, but bells were already tolling, calling all good Christians to prayer. The skies were gray and somber, and already a few flakes of snow were falling. All I could think of as I sat in the train on the way to Dublin was the shortest verse in the Bible: "Jesus wept." And I didn't know then that thirteen people were to die in Derry that day.

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Copyright © 1972 by Mary Manning. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly;May 1972; A Visit to Belfast; Volume 229, No. 5; page 17-20.