Wheatfield Gardens

(Continued from To Belfast)

The ferry to Ireland passed through a couple of light rain showers, but by the time it approached Larne the sun was glistening on the Irish Sea. Green hills rolled into the distance beyond the town: oil tanks and smokestacks, docks with freighters and yachts tied up at them, parking lots with cars and trucks and buses pausing in their duties. Shipping containers ranged along the shoreline. My train waited at the landing and I gathered my belongings, dragged my suitcase on its tiny wheels, my backpack stuffed to overflowing strapped to my back, my shabby concertina box clutched under my arms. I jostled down the ramp towards the station, leaving the sleek ferryboat behind.

As I left the ramp, though, two men stepped out of the crowds toward me. One, bulky in a down coat, red-haired and grinning; the other was a black-coated priest smoking a cigarette. “Are you Mark Danielson?” the man in the coat asked.

This encounter bewildered me at the time. I wasn’t expecting to be met at the ferry, and I had taken an earlier train than the one I had planned to be on. Even now, years later, I wonder how they knew I would arrive on that ferry. Was it by chance, or had they somehow been informed? It was the first of many mysterious events that took place that year in Ireland.

I would come to know these men reasonably well over the next few days. The man with hair the Irish called “ginger” was Ryan, an American volunteer who had been running the Glencree House at 14 Wheatfield Gardens in Belfast. It was my understanding that I would be taking over his position. The priest, Father Kevin, was the Glencree representative. I would never see him without a cigarette in his mouth. I should mention right here that I’m using pseudonyms, not just to protect the identity of those I worked with, but because it was thirty years ago and I don’t always have the most accurate memory!

Father Kevin set about putting me at ease. He asked about my hometown, my family. “Do you have any Irish in yeh?” Well, no. Most of my family were German or Scandinavian. “Ah, sure, they’re all the same North Sea bastards.” I had been adopted as an Irishman pro tempore.

I imagine I grew up with the same romantic vision of Ireland that most non-Irish Americans developed in their childhood. To prepare for this trip I actually spent quite a bit of time reading Irish folk tales and legends. The drive along Belfast Lough was no disappointment. Blue water, green hills, flocks of sheep and attractive ruins alongside the motorway. Ryan pointed out that John Paul Jones fought his first battle against the British navy in these waters. We slowed to pass the ruins of Carrickfergus Castle, dating from Norman times. Then the city began closing in.

Samson and Goliath are the massive cranes that dominate the Belfast waterfront. These were the cranes that were used to build Titanic and her sister ship Olympic, and they are still being used today.

Later in the year I climbed to the top of the Iron Age hill fort on Napoleon’s Nose, north of Belfast. I snapped a photograph of the city and sent the film in to be developed. When I got it back, what I had was a picture of gray haze with a few vague blotches of housing. Belfast was like that, almost a vision of Mordor beneath gray clouds of coal smoke and exhaust. The waterfront was drab Victorian brick, smashed walls, heaps of stone and rubble, graded fields where nothing grew. Looming above were two massive iron hurtles, H & W painted on the crosspieces: the cranes beneath which the Harland & Wolff shipyard built RMS Titanic and her twin the Olympic sixty years before.

Ryan gave me my first lessons in how to survive in Belfast as we circled the center of town. He pointed out the checkpoints you had to pass to go into the center of the city. Some, he told me, were manned by the British army and others by the Ulster Constabulary. The Catholics we worked with always recommended using the army checkpoints. I watched as we drove by one of them: armored cars with machine guns mounted on top parked on either side of a solid metal wall. Razor wire tangles crowned the structure and barred metal passageways led pedestrians towards armed and helmeted soldiers. Not for the last time, I wondered if I would survive this year.

Ryan pointed out the Smithfield Markets. Black taxis sped past, and he recommended that I never use one. The Black Taxis, he claimed, were run by the Ulster Volunteer Force  or UVF. This was the legal protestant militia. Ryan made me understand that the drivers were not to be trusted. Later in the week he showed me where to flag down a Catholic taxi, a tiny motor car that looked like any other. Catholics had developed their own public transport. To keep within the law, the driver and passengers introduced themselves so they could pretend to be buddies taking a drive together if they were stopped by the police or army.

Ryan pointed out the murals that covered entire walls of terraced houses. These would indicate to the bewildered American which political bent the neighborhood ahead maintained. They were intricate works of art, beautifully executed even to the eye of a visiting graphic designer. But virtually all of them extolled paramilitaries, machine guns and masks, political slogans or martyrs and folk heroes. “If you’re ever in an area where you’re not sure of the politics,” Ryan told me, “go into the pub and go straight through to the restrooms. Read the walls. You’ll know what to do.”

Father Kevin drove his little blue sedan through The Falls so I could see the largest of the Catholic ghettos. Here there was no hint of that romantic Ireland we were driving through a half hour earlier. Grimy, graffiti-covered walls, smashed glass, bottles and bricks, scorches in the paving where cars or buses had been burned, towering blocks of public housing with broken down cars beneath. No grass. No trees or bushes. Everywhere, youngsters in shabby clothes and dangerous-looking young men eying us as we passed. Everything looked gray and threatening to me.

Father Kevin took us out on the motorway that heads south. Along the way he pointed out an immense parking lot filled with DeLorean automobiles waiting to be shipped. DeLorean, he told me, had taken advantage of tax breaks to build a factory for his luxury cars. He kept it open long enough to build what would saturate the market, then locked up. Now the Belfast workers who were supposed to have benefited from having the factory in their neighborhood were unemployed again, and looking at cars they could never imagine owning lined up behind hurricane fences. It would have been better, Father Kevin told me, to have built lawn mowers.

Before heading home, we drove past Long Kesh. Behind the razor wire and bars of the prison stood guard towers mounted with machine guns. I would become familiar with architecture like that in the coming year, but seldom in the context of a prison. Ryan and Father Kevin quietly filled me in on the status of twelve IRA hunger strikers inside this prison. They were demanding treatment as prisoners of war, rather than as terrorists. They wanted to wear clothing of their own choice. Their leader, Bobby Sands, had been on strike for far too long. He was weak and failing. Any day now, Sands would die and the city was tense, anticipating violence. He would die two days later.

The drive back into Belfast took us through Short Strand, a tiny isolated Catholic enclave south of the River Lagan. Then we circled downtown and headed up the Shankill Road. The landscape and the architecture looked the same: broken down Victorian urbanism, damaged modern concrete, shattered glass and graffiti with paramilitary slogans. But this was a Protestant slum, home of dire enemies of the people in the Catholic neighborhoods. Official policy at that time was isolation. Huge corrugated metal walls loomed over the streets that marked the boundaries between neighborhoods of different religious affiliation. Entire blocks of houses had been knocked down to provide a cushion of air between the walls and the homes of the unemployed people on both sides of the walls. Ryan pointed out that the separation simply exacerbated the problem. Children on either side of the walls didn’t know each other as people, merely as stereotypes. A favorite pastime for youngsters was throwing rocks and bottles over the walls.

A more recent view of the upper Crumlin Road with the twin spires of Holy Cross Ardoyne in the distance. © Copyright Paul McIlroy and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

“What we do,” Ryan told me, “is try to get the kids from both sides of the wall together. We take them on overnight trips and excursions. We run activities that combine kids from communities on either side of the fence. This summer you’ll take part in some of those when we have the Summer Scheme.”

The Shankill Road ran into the north end of the Crumlin Road. The twin towers of the Catholic Holy Cross Ardoyne stood close by. A glance down the Crumlin Road looked no different than the Shankill Road, but Catholics dominated the upper Crumlin. A line of tattered shops stood near the intersection. Prams with young mothers rolled past the graffiti, old men smoked in bricked up entry ways. These were the local shops for my new home.

A few blocks further on Father Kevin turned onto a middle class street: Wheatfield Gardens. Here the properties were neat and trim. Recent makes of automobiles lined the curbs and shrubs showed in the well kept gardens behind brick walls in front of the houses. We pulled to a stop before number 14. It was a rather unkempt version of the houses around it. It could have used some tender care. That would be part of my job.

Recently I visited number 14, Wheatfield Gardens again. Thirty years later, the house is far cleaner and it showed signs of loving care. The window frames were painted, the fence and gate repaired. The sagging wooden shed at the end of the long driveway on the left had been torn down, replaced by neat brickwork. The front door stood partially open and new wall paper showed from the front hall.I saw all this from the comfort of home by looking up the street view of the address on Google Earth.

To the relief of the immediate neighbors, the Belfast House of Glencree is gone and a middle class family has taken back the property. Sad, in a way, but promising, too. Perhaps today there’s not as much need for those steel walls dividing Belfast into enemy enclaves. Today there may not be as much need for foreign volunteers to coax children from neighboring streets to play with each other instead of throwing stones and bottles, or even shooting at each other.

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