I hadn’t been to Belfast since 1967 when I flew a bevy of Beavers over from their semester in London to taste the particularities of the Belfast Festival. Two high points have persisted in my memory: visiting the Ulster Folk Museum, where I bought a fireplace warmer for oaken cakes which has since had pride of place at my hearth for its simple elegance, and getting the Festival to lend me “some Ulster poet” to tape a swatch of North Ireland poems for the students who couldn’t afford the trip.
That poet was a somewhat awkward-looking 29-year-old County Derry farm boy, recently graduated from high school English teaching to a post at Queens College. He read some John Montague, and Paul Muldoon, and James Simmons, interesting enough stuff. Then he ended with a pair of his own: “Digging” and “Death of a Naturalist.”
BAM. I was weak in the knees, a sure sign that I had just encountered a genius. I had. The awkward farm boy was Seamus Heaney, who has long since abandoned Ulster for international fame as simultaneously the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard and Professor of Poetry at Oxford (a double header unprecedented in the history of Anglo-American verse) and persistently on the short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
And the Ulster Museum had grown, in spite of the Troubles, from a poky, if savory cluster of three old farm houses, to a mega-museum whose new Transportation Museum (it opened last October) is such a complex of wonders, architectural and trainwise, that it would warrant a trip from the United States just on its own.
That’s the good news. The bad makes me numb. It’s not just the hypersecurity apparat: A confidential informant advised me that security costs are bleeding the British treasury to the tune of £150 million a year. I checked into the just opened Novotel at the airport—and passed through the kind of security system you have to use in the airport proper. You can’t imagine what a pall that casts on a hotel lobby.
I also stayed at the Plaza in downtown Belfast, one street over from the Opera House and Europa Hotel which were savaged by the biggest blast ever in September. (The owner of the £10 million hotel sold it to the Hastings group for 4 million: he’d had it up to there with being the biggest target for the IRA as the largest and fanciest hotel in town.) Incidentally, shortly after the Plaza opened two years ago, IRA tacticians obliterated its third floor and its plumbing system—to let them know who was boss.
The government picked up the £2 million tab for reconstruction. I was told this was part of a £20 million a year extortion racket that has gradually, over the 25 years of the Troubles, insinuated itself into every nook and cranny of Ulster business life. My informant, who was socking every extra farthing into his own personal escape fund—£10,000, he’s off to the South of France—said that what began as a method of financing IRA operations has now become a cottage industry. The Hibernian mafiosa who run this racket have no other marketable skills, and that’s why he saw no end to the turbulence.
I made arrangements to meet the poet James Simmons at Lisburn City Hall on his lunch break from teaching a course at Maze prison, a facility first built to accommodate IRA internees. We never met because they close down City Hall now during lunch to minimize security problems—as a policeman taking bulletproof vests and riot shields out of the trunk of his car told me.
Belfast itself seems to shut down around midnight, a vestige of the 8 p.m.-7 a.m. curfew of the 1970s. Walking around downtown on a Sunday morning is a foretaste of an Apocalypse—there are movable barriers everywhere, purple signs advising everyone not to stop there. It is a police state in every sense of the word.
And yet the new infrastructure and new public housing bespeak a prosperity that is sadly at odds with realities. I happened upon a late-night Christmas party (I mean late—they were still going at six a.m.) of airport rental car managers in the lobby of the Novotel. I can only say they seemed to be a bunch of psychiatric cases, so shell-shocked were they. Younger people seem pathetically eager to talk with Americans, and when I casually told the British Midlands staff how much I enjoyed my visit their reply was, “How soon will you come back?” Not “Come back soon.”
Poor old St. Pat would have his hands full driving such writhing snakes out of Ulster. Yet oddly, the Ulster Museum exhibition inadvertently shows a way out, at the same time being a marvelous gloss on what pitifully little is actually known about the British Roman of noble birth who, at age 16, was kidnapped into Ireland as a slave.
Tradition has it that he died in 493 A.D., so this was a 1500th anniversary celebration. The most striking insight of the exhibition was that the cult of St. Patrick was begun in 1088 by an invading Norman noble who wanted to pacify his unruly subjects.
Before that politically inspired action, St. Patrick was just a bishop with an interesting kidnap narrative to fuel local folklore. But once this Norman noble had his way with his folk, Irish imagination took over, and there was a reliquary boom: various sites, but especially Armagh—the Rome of the Irish Catholic church—started worshipping parts of Patrick: his head, his nose, his hand, why even his thumb for God’s sake, because the focus of pilgrimages. Until the Reformation, when the Church of Ireland (an Anglican offshoot) started moving in.
It was a shock for me to discover on my last visit to Dublin that St. Patrick’s Cathedral was Protestant! And the equally non-Catholic noble order of St. Patrick, founded about the time of George IV—who was one of the 147 knights enrolled—was clearly set up to counter Fenian maneuvers in the 19th Century. It folded when the Republic succeeded in its secession in 1922. So poor old Pat’s veneration began as a Norman political ploy and ended when the Ulster nationalists could no longer use him for their beknighted purposes. It’s a long, long way from Tipperary!
This covert agenda of the Patrick Show is clear enough to anyone trained to read subtexts. It is served as part of a tasty multi-media smorgasbord of Roman antecedents, Celtic grave stones, even a animatronic St. Patrick whose lips move when he’s orating the Latin of his only two extant writings but become curiously silent when the English translation is being given!
There’s a wattle church, a huge Celtic cross recently retrieved from the attic where it had been consigned since breaking into little pieces, a slide and photographic show of stained glass windows of St. Patrick (little Hibernians are encouraged to color their own blank sheets on the spot), and cases full of the strange reliquaries, where a variation of the one True Cross bit plays its tunes.
The real snakes of Ulster are the complementary irredentist mentalities which refuse to see how the two warring parties have been abusing themselves and each other for over a millennium now. Give and take is not yet in their vocabularies. If they could just pack away their contesting prides for a second and see how this exhibition deconstructs their reciprocating false consciousnesses, their faulty consciences might begin to exculpate each other.
But don’t bet the farm on it. Each outrage is carefully stored away in the opposed collective memories, happily worrying over the conflicting traditions like dogs licking their own vomit. God knows there’s enough bad faith to go around.
Cardinal Daly, the Irish primate has just written a book arguing that the time for reconciliation is now; but the Catholic Church has been content enough over the years to consolidate its rickety power by passively encouraging its communicants to hate the Protestants as curses of God. And Ian Paisley perfects his counsels of desperation with every countermarch. Both sides have given religion a bad name. Can’t they see that St. Patrick was both an outsider and a political prisoner? Can’t they forgive and forget, in his holy name?
From: Welcomat, Hazard-at-Large