By Jack Holland
Have you ever had the feeling that you were born in the wrong place? If you have, then you will realize that it can be a very depressing moment.
Having been born in Belfast, I must attest to having experienced more than just one of them.
Those of you who will visit the contemporary city that still goes by the name of Belfast, with its bright new buildings, sparkling leisure centers, bustling bars and ristoranti, perky little bistros, and burgeoning hotels, might wonder what I’m talking about.
Perhaps it is merely that some people are happy in their place of birth, and others are not, for whatever reason. It doesn’t have to be Belfast — it could as well be Las Vegas.
However, I will insist that Belfast is special, and has its own unique way of making me miserable. I am not talking about those attributes of Belfast that have made it infamous — the sectarian murder, political violence, assassinations, car bombings, riots, bloodbaths, etc. Those constitute frightening moments, rather than merely depressing ones. Certainly, I’ve had enough of them as well. But it’s the depressing moments that I’d like to dwell on for the time being.
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I’ve drawn up a list of eight Most Depressing Moments (or MDMs). Where possible I have endeavored to provide a date, but in certain cases, given the lapse of time, I can’t always be exact.
First MDM: Sunday, winter 1953. I am staring through the locked gates of a park. The swings are chained, the roundabout is hobbled, at the foot of the slide large metal spikes are sunk into the ground — a precautionary measure, just in case some industrious child manages to get over the gate. The spikes are there so that if he goes down the slide he will be impaled as he hits the ground, thus ensuring that God The Father will not be disturbed on the Holy Sabbath by the sound of children enjoying themselves.
This was my first experience of the "Belfast Sunday."
Second MDM: Circa 1954. My parents have just moved from the city center into a new house in the Highfield estate on the outskirts of Belfast at the foot of the Divis Mountain. I am in the living room. There is no wallpaper on the freshly plastered wall. From the back window I can see a thin mist over the back garden, which is full of thick green grass, weeds and dock leaves. From the front window, I can see a drizzle-laden cloud sliding down the slopes of the mountain. The nearest block of shops is half a mile away across a windswept area of mud and grass that is called a playing field. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go. This is my first experience of "Belfast redevelopment."
Third MDM: One day in June, July or August, circa 1955. I am at home staring out the window at the deserted street. It is pouring rain. A bedraggled pigeon perched on the windowsill is staring back in. Beads of rain drip from his beak. My grandmother asks me if I am enjoying my "summer" holidays. This is my first realization of what is meant by the "Belfast" summer.
Fourth MDM: Early September, 1956. I am standing in the schoolyard of St. Gall’s Primary School in Sugarville Street. There is broken glass embedded along the tops of the surrounding walls. There are bars on the overlooking windows. A smell of sour milk hovers in the air. A tall, thin man dressed in long black robes is pacing up and down the line of boys in which I stand, glowering at each of us. From a deep black pocket the knob of a leather strap protrudes. I realize I have been sentenced to spend an eternity — i.e. five years — in his care as part of my "education."
Fifth MDM: Early September, 1956. I am sitting in the classroom. The man in the long black robes, who I now know is called The Walking Lamppost, comes down to my desk. He requests the name of the second largest city in "this part of Ireland." I say "Londonderry" because that is what is written on my map of the Six Counties. He looks at me as if I have just broken one of the Ten Commandments. "It is Derry," he says. He asks me to put out my hand, palm turned up. I realize what the leather strap with the knob for a handle is for. I also realize what "politics" means in Belfast.
Sixth MDM: Sometime in 1958. It is just prior to my Confirmation. I am told I am to become a "Soldier of Christ" by a priest who comes into the class to instruct us. He tells us about a man who wore only barbed wire for underwear and a hair shirt to cover it. He hardly ever ate and spent his time wandering the streets in the rain praying for forgiveness until he collapsed and died. "His name was Mat Talbot," says the priest. "Now he was a soldier of Christ who punished his flesh every day." I realize what is meant in Belfast by a role model.
Seventh MDM: September, 1962. One of the prettiest girls in the street has been married a month. I am walking past the door of her house at the top of the street. It is about 10 in the morning. She is standing at the door. She is wearing a housecoat with a belt tied loosely around her waist. She has on a pair of battered, dirty looking slippers. Her feet are bare. Her hair is in curlers. A cigarette droops from her mouth. Eight months later she will give birth to the first of 12 children. I have my first experience of the meaning of working-class marriage, Belfast-style.
Eighth MDM: Late June, 1994. I am living in Belfast again after a long absence. It is early evening and with a friend I am strolling through the Ormeau Park in South Belfast. It is a Sunday, but the park is open. Hooray! Progress after 40 years. However, it is still drizzling. Rain drips from the branches. In the distance, the cheerful tune of an ice cream van tinkles through the mist and rain, only deepening the gloom. I realize that in Belfast some things will never change.