Part of the ILS 'Crossing Borders' commission series.
I’m going for a walk.
Because it’s half-past eight on a Thursday morning, late November, one of those mornings given to you each season to stand for all the rest, bright sun on a hard frost, breath and car fumes mingling outside the school where I have just said goodbye to my younger daughter, and the sky blue blue blue but for a staggered chain of pinkish plump clouds, like flying ducks plucked and tucked.
Because I have been putting off this walk for while, a long, long while.
Because a couple of nights ago at the launch of a book – Belfast: Twelve City Walks – written by a friend, Declan Hill, I was extolling the virtues of being abroad in your own city, something Declan – a man I have probably seen more often down the years outside than in – has made an enviable art of.
Because his book, unlike the majority of Belfast guides, directs its readers not just to every point of the compass, but to the very tip of every point, urging them to get the take the bus if necessary to the city’s edges to get the ‘wider view’.
Because I need a wider view, though I need to walk in the opposite direction to the one Declan recommends to get it.
I start down the incline of the Upper Newtownards Road, coming at the city from the east, the Belfast hills – Black Mountain, Divis, Wolf Hill – a solid blueblack slab on the western horizon, the city centre, the Lagan river and much of the inner core of housing, cupped in between.
About half a mile down, just beyond the McDonald’s Drive Thru arches – beyond-beyond Holywood Arches (a train line once one through here, but it disappeared long ago, taking the actual arches and leaving only a name) another road, the Albertbridge, veers off southeasterly, taking you – if you stuck with it – into town over the bridge from which the road takes its name.
A fitter person than me would be at City Hall in not much more than twenty minutes from here. Even I could do it in half an hour, and will, another day.
My destination this morning lies closer to hand, this side of the Lagan.
Because I have lived on this side of town for twenty-one years, in Belfast itself for all but ten of my fifty-five, and I have never in all that time taken a right turn at the point – a few hundred yards short of the Albert Bridge, within sight of the city’s Central Railway Station – where the Albertbridge Road meets Mountpottinger Road, slanting in from the right.
This is one of east Belfast’s main internal borders, the crossing point into Short Strand, from loyalist to nationalist, Protestant to Catholic.
If you did not live here, or know the city well, you could easily pass it without noticing. There is not – here at least – an obtrusive peaceline, although if you look carefully you can see over the advertising hoardings that occupy the corner (a commercial cordon sanitaire) the upper reaches of a fence where a single ‘Protestant’ cul-de-sac, Cluan Place, abuts into Short Strand just short of the Mountpottinger junction.
At the junction itself, traffic flows in all directions, most at this time – indeed all other times – of the day, in and out of the city, or round the front of Short Strand, where it hugs the River Lagan towards the M2 going north, but not a little of it along Mountpottinger and its direct continuation, to the left of the junction, Castlereagh Street. Castlereagh Street where, until recently, Protestants unhappy at the decision of Belfast City Council to remove the union flag from City Hall on all but a number of designated days, would gather (in ever dwindling numbers it has to be said) on Friday nights to show their displeasure and their own outsize flags to passing motorists and Short Strand residents a few score feet away.
What does not flow, even at this time of the day, is pedestrian traffic.
I see only two women coming towards me up Mountpottinger Road, past the Newmount Credit Union, the last building on Mountpottinger before the hoardings, which means they must be going out on to the Albertbridge, although I don’t check to see, concentrating as I am on the turn I am about to make, which feels (there, I’ve done it) as though I am having to overcome a bias – not a political one, but a psychological, even physical one, as though my body as much as my brain has trained itself to think this is not what you do here.
And, oh boy, am I embarrassed writing that, and no less embarrassed for suspecting I am far from alone in this city in experiencing that sensation. Nearly two decades after the end of the conflict here there are still dozens of sections of wall, or fencing, or wall topped with fencing, between areas identified as Catholic and Protestant. A few, it’s true, have been removed, and in a few other instances gates have been opened on a trial basis. Footfall – even where footfall is possible – is not heavy. In Belfast the shortest distances are still the hardest to travel.
The Credit Union windows are covered with protective mesh, as are the windows of the houses closest to it, as indeed are some windows at the end of Castlereagh Street. Violence, down the years, has travelled both ways. Back when I was the age my younger daughter is now a bus driver called Sidney Agnew, who was due to give evidence at the trial of men from Short Strand accused of hijacking his bus, was shot dead by two teenage gunmen at the door of his house in the Mount, a street running in a horseshoe between Castlereagh Street and the Albertbridge Road. It is often referred to here as the murder that hastened the introduction of no-jury ‘Diplock’ courts, which in turn led to calls for political status for paramilitary prisoners, which in turn led to the dirty protests, the hunger strikes, striking prisoners returned as MPs, Sinn Fein contesting elections... though there were many more turns in there, and many others that could have been taken for the better and weren’t.
If Sidney Agnew’s killers came, as was said at the time, from Short Strand they would have been there within minutes – possibly even seconds – after pulling the trigger.
It is that close, and political murder in Northern Ireland was as often as not that intimate.
By now I am a hundred yards down Mountpottinger Road. I have had Twelve City Walks in my pocket since I left the house and pull it out now as though to advertise that my business here is legitimate (yup, embarrassed by that sentence too), although it has the further, curious effect of making me feel as though I have suddenly fallen into company with my friend – Declan writes the way he talks – or rather that I have arrived here just a few seconds after him: look, there he goes, off to the right, up Madrid Street, drawing my attention to the fact (he hasn’t noticed I am not right beside him so is still talking) that the traditional Belfast terraced houses – dating from the city’s industrial heyday at the end of the Victorian era – are still in evidence here.
Much of the rest of Short Strand was rebuilt in the 1970s and 80s, rebuilt, in keeping with the times and the architecture of security, so that old lines of communication were cut (a phrase of Salman Rushdie’s, ‘the arteries of the possible’, floats into my head) and only two roads in and out were left: Mountpottinger and – I see it ahead of me running at a right angle to Madrid Street – Bryson Street.
No, that’s not true. What I see running at a right angle to Madrid Street is the peaceline in all its ignominy, maybe ten feet of wall and the same again of metal fencing on top. I try to hold at bay the thought that it is as monolithic in appearance as the hills I saw as I started down the Newtownards Road: if we put it up we can take it down. There is little here of the tourist graffiti that is such a feature of the peaceline in the west of the city, between the Shankill and Springfield Roads, suggesting that Bryson Street has not yet made it on to the Troubles Tours itineraries, which, given what I’ve just been thinking, may turn out to be a blessing. About a decade ago, while making a documentary on the Shankill I heard it said by residents on both sides that they hoped the wall never came down: it was the only thing that brought visitors to the area.
The [unloved] wall terminates in a new-built doctors surgery, which wraps around the corner of Bryson Street and the Newtownards Road and which – a more literal form of sanitaire – serves patients from both.
This is close to the sight of one of the deadliest and – inevitably – to this day most bitterly disputed outbreaks of violence in east Belfast’s recent past. (That is if the week after Brazil beat Italy 4-1 in the World Cup Final feels recent to you.) One June night in 1970 a gun battle broke out centred on St Matthew’s Catholic Church, whose grounds wrap around the opposite corner of Bryson Street and Newtowards Road. By dawn the following day when the shooting finally stopped two men had been killed on the Newtownards Road side and one in Short Strand. Until very recently the St Matthew’s perimeter fence itself – reinforced and extended upwards – formed part of the peaceline and though it has now been scaled back to something more befitting a place of worship there are still, on the houses facing it, more of those mesh grilles I saw earlier at Mountpottinger Road and Castlereagh Street.
And I realise – that same slight fizzle in the solar plexus – I am almost as nervous of this junction as I was of that one, because once again I am crossing the border, only this time I am crossing back, as it were.
I have only once been the victim of sectarian attack in Belfast. The summer I turned fifteen (the age of my elder daughter) I caught a train with a friend from the town of Lisburn to Finaghy, in the south of the city, where we both lived. Finaghy had been until after WWII not much more than a village, grown up around a crossroads formed by the Lisburn Road running through it north to south and Finaghy Road running through it east to west, though its two halves, bisected by the railway line, were known confusingly as Finaghy Road North and Finaghy Road South.
My friend and I lived in a housing estate off Finaghy Road South, but well into the 60s I had an uncle living on Finaghy Road North. The road was essentially two halve of the one thing. Once the Troubles began, however, the bridge over the railway line became Finaghy’s own borderline.
Getting off the train that day my friend and I were obliged to take the steps that brought us up on the northern – which is to say western – end of the bridge. A group of boys waited, our age or a little older. They wanted to know in that un-philosophical Belfast way what we were. We told them. It was, in their eyes, the wrong thing. They give us a kicking. Or a few kicks at least, a couple of digs in the bake. It was a Sunday afternoon. There were cars going over the bridge. One of them sounded its horn, as much, it seemed to me, to get us to move out of the way; our attackers stopped, or we ran off, one or the other, and that was that.
A few years later I started going out with a girl who lived at the southern/eastern end of the bridge in a street called – what else? – Finaghy Park Central. Every Friday and Saturday night for the few months we were together I had to walk towards the bridge and towards whoever had taken up position there, ready to run at the first sign of movement towards me, before peeling off up Finaghy Park Central.
(Oh, come on, you know what I mean.)
Worse, though, at the end of the night I had to walk back from – as it might have looked to any rival gang who had taken up position at the crossroads – a Finaghy Road northerly direction. And worst of all there was nowhere this time I could logically run, other than right through.
This is what – in capsule form – is in my head as I come out of Short Strand and turn right, back up the Newtownards Road towards home.
But it is early still – rush-hour – and people are more concerned with where they are going to than where I am coming from; and maybe actually when all is said and done they – like the people I passed in Short Strand who greeted me with a nod of the head – are inclined to live and let live, and walk.
I walk, in fairly short order, past a memorial to the Protestant victims of June 1970, a sculpture of three ‘Islandmen’ standing for the tens of thousands of workers who walked across every day from streets round about to the Queen’s Island and the Harland and Wolff Shipyard, and two enormous murals of UVF gunmen; there is a further mural, black and white like the UVF ones, to the SS Titanic – that is, the ship the Islandmen built rather than the wreck the iceberg created.
On I go, past the brand new CS Lewis Centre (now there was man could teach you a thing or two about crossing borders), past arches golden and notional, and then the Newtowards Road starts to rise, becoming Upper again.
People have been walking this route since the Bronze Age, an almost straight line over the Belfast Hills, across the Lagan valley, crossing the river at its most easily forded point (not far from the foot of modern-day High Street) and up the incline again into what in time became known as the Ards Peninsula, the Irish Sea beyond.
I don’t know what people five millennia from now will call this age. I don’t know what trace it will leave behind. Less than we care to think I suspect. For all the immense suffering that they brought, there is no guarantee that the decades of division in this city will register much.
Which makes my walk this morning infinitesimally small. Still, it feels like something. The clock when I when I step back into the house reads nine-twenty-nine. The walk has taken me under an hour. Well, an hour and fifty-five years.
I’m glad I didn’t leave it fifty-six.