The International Writers Magazine: Modern Northern Ireland
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 tomorrows
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 its 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
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, youd 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.
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.
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 Hoops 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 couldnt 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 Courcys 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 didnt need
help being elevated onto a horse. All were expert swordsmen even
throwing them through an enemys helmet slit. The intention of
battle wasnt 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
Toronto to London
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