Skip the green beer, I’ll take the music and the craic

Upstairs at Madden's Bar, Belfast.
Upstairs at Madden’s Bar, Belfast.

 

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, a day when Americans of varied ethnicities celebrate an Irish saint by mistaking four-leaf clovers for shamrocks and getting wasted on bad beer dyed an unnatural shade of green.

For most of my adult life this is a day I never paid much attention to. Too many rookie drinkers at the bars here to make it all that much fun. Unless, that is, you’ve got friends playing music at one of those bars, and then the story is different.

One of the things I love about the research trips I make to Northern Ireland is that I’ve come to know and become friends with some astonishingly good traditional Irish musicians.

So in honor of St. Patrick and my friends in Belfast, here are videos of some of the folks I’ve gotten to meet, play a tune, raise a glass, and enjoy the craic¹ with. Ól, ceol, agus craic!²

¹Craic is an Irish word for news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. In short, good times. Often used with the definitive article — the craic — as in “What’s the craic?” meaning “What’s going on?” or “Enjoying a bit of the craic” meaning a pleasant time out with friends and acquaintances.

²Drink, music, and a good time!

Punks against the Troubles

Image: Ricky Adams/mediadrumworld.com
Image: Ricky Adam/mediadrumworld.com

 

On one of my first research trips to Belfast, back in 2010, I was in a conversation with a fellow about my own age (at the time mid-40s) and the topic turned, as it often does in these circumstances, to what it was like growing up in a place being torn apart by brutal civil violence.

As a working class teenager in the early 1980s living in North Belfast, he was of an age and from a place in which it would have been all too easy to get drawn into the turmoil of the times, winding up with a gun in his hand, probably landing in jail, maybe ending up dead. So I asked him how he managed to stay out of things.

“Simple,” he said, “I was a punk.”

N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2The punks stood apart.

I was reminded of this conversation today when I came across a set of photos taken in one of Belfast’s storied punk venues, a community center called, fittingly, the “Warzone Centre.”  The photos are from a recently published book by photographer Ricky Adams, Belfast Punk, which captures the era as it was drawing to a close.

The Guardian last month posted images from the book, with the photographer giving some commentary and context on each of the shots. In his review of Belfast Punk, writer Mark McConville emphasizes punk culture as a unifying force in a divided city and society:

PUNK is most often associated with anarchy but rare pictures have revealed unifying power of punk culture to bring together those from both sides of the conflict during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Rather than attempted to destroy society as the 1980s anarchists are usually portrayed, stunning images show Catholic and Protestant punks overcoming the problems of their community by mixing amicably and enjoying themselves at a Belfast youth and community centre, appropriately called “the Warzone Centre”.

In a long essay published by the Irish Times last December, Timothy Heron described Northern Ireland’s punk music culture as a nonsectarian common ground that allowed Protestant and Catholic youth to reject the violence and repression that surrounded them:

It is that ‘‘other nation” of ordinary individuals struggling to cope with the pressures of life which is the focus of this paper, or, more accurately, the ordinary youths, many of them school-age teenagers, who took part in an extraordinary musical subculture which helped them construct their everyday lives in the midst of the Troubles in ways which would conflict with and sometimes subvert the codes of the society they lived in: punk.

It is worth remembering that even under the worst conditions, people can often find ways to push back against the circumstances that might otherwise crush their spirits if not their lives.

The video below, for the Stiff Little Fingers (a legendary Belfast punk band formed in 1977 at the height of the Troubles) song “Alternative Ulster,” gives you an idea of what they and the other punks were rebelling against.

Mordor on the Lagan

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The scene from atop Cave Hill last July 11 overlooking East Belfast. (Photo from Reddit)

 

Tomorrow night Belfast will burn, again, just as it does every July 11th when Loyalists light bonfires on the eve of the annual celebrations of the victory of the Protestant William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

This is one more of the tribal rituals that mark Northern Irish society.  It is akin to  marching season itself, in which Protestant bands and fraternal organizations parade in often provocative, hostility-tinged displays of communal dominance over their Catholic neighbors.

In years past Loyalists have decorated their bonfires with statues of the Virgin Mary, Irish Tricolors, effigies and posters of Nationalist politicians, and other unmistakable symbols of casually brutal contempt tinged with not-so-subtle threats of violence. When a banner with the initials KAT, meaning “Kill All Taigs”, is hung across your bonfire, the message is pretty clear.

Loyalist communities defend these bonfires and marches as cherished parts of their culture and integral to their British identity. The bonfires are typically built in public spaces, often dangerously close to homes.  In recent years the towering bonfire structures have grown more and more massive as neighborhoods compete against each other to have the biggest conflagration in the city.

This year, more than 50 homes have been boarded up in one neighborhood and the residents encouraged to evacuate because the bonfire being built is so immense, and so close to residences, that there is real fear that the houses could burn along with the towering structure of pallets and tires.

It comes as no surprise that the committees which take charge of building the bonfires are cut checks from public coffers, with the money distributed as community development funds. It comes as no surprise that many of my Catholic friends will choose to stay at home on the night of the 11th, just in case.

When I was in Sandy Row in March, the young men who met me at the community center to take me on a tour of their neighborhood invited me back for July 11th to experience their bonfire. They described it as a positive, welcoming, family-friendly event, like a backyard barbecue and block party rolled in to one.

And they were astonished that anyone, anywhere, would consider it otherwise.

 

Back to Belfast

Pipes and mandolin in Kelly's Cellars.
Pipes and mandolin in Kelly’s Cellars, Belfast.

Tomorrow afternoon I board a plane bound for Dublin, and from there a bus north to Belfast.  I’m spending the next four and a half weeks, part of my sabbatical from Oakland University, continuing my research on the maintenance and stability of the Northern Ireland peace process.  This will be my sixth trip since 2008 but the first time I’ve been able to stay for an extended period.

My hope is that having more time in the country will make it possible for me to make more contacts, talk to more people, to follow up on issues that I haven’t had the time to before, and to immerse myself in an environment that I’ve spent a large part of my professional life reading and occasionally teaching about.

I’ll be using this blog initially to comment on my travels and the research I am conducting.  So stay tuned for future developments.