(Continued from Wheatfield Gardens)
The morning after my arrival in Belfast, my predecessor Ryan took me for a get-acquainted stroll through my new neighborhood. The two of us were from totally different backgrounds. He was an affable city boy from Philadelphia, while I was a somewhat naive and laconic westerner who had only a couple of years experience living in Seattle. Perhaps he sensed that I would need to be shown the ropes, introduced to key people who would take me under their wings to keep me safe and make me useful.
There had already been one surprise awaiting me at Wheatfield Gardens: it turned out I was to share responsibility for running the house with another American volunteer, Len. He was much like Ryan, charming and friendly, and he seemed like he already knew his way around the area although he had only arrived a week or two before. I was a little jealous. While I had taken months to arrange my term as a volunteer, sending letters, making phone calls and doing interviews, Len had simply showed up in Belfast and been given a job!
The three of us left the Glencree house together on that bright morning, waving at the only neighbors who cared to mix with us, the Scotts next door. The street was lined with brick garden walls with little iron gates on pavements that led to semi-detached brick houses. The houses looked like they’d all been built from the same plans, and there was very little individuality to any of them. It seemed odd that all this urban landscape was crammed together so tightly around us and yet a short distance away the green slopes of vacant mountainsides soared above the city. Ryan saw me looking and took the time to point out Napoleon’s Nose, a peak with an Iron Age hill fort on it, within walking distance from my new home. He couldn’t have given me a greater blessing. Later on, when things seemed particularly bleak, I did like I did back home, but instead of climbing Saddle Mountain, I scaled Napoleon’s Nose.
We hadn’t gotten to the end of the street before Ryan stopped us and us listen. There had been a constant sound in the background of our conversation, and he pointed out the helicopter stationed over the west end of the city. During the year I spent in Belfast, the British army kept up an almost constant aerial patrol of the Catholic communities of West Belfast. Sometimes the copters hovered over Ardoyne instead.
This walk we were taking seemed like strolling down a street in a middle class neighborhood in Seattle, except that there was nobody outside the houses. The yards were clean but not very well tended. On a porch in front of one house I noticed a baby carriage parked in the sunlight beside the open door, a mound of blankets heaped over a slumbering infant. I would see prams parked outside of many homes over the next year.
It was when we reached the end of Wheatfield Gardens that the nature of my coming year became evident. We turned right and approached an intersection flanked by towering corrugated steel walls. The street in the gap was blocked by what the Irish referred to as “dragon’s teeth,” huge blocks of concrete that kept vehicles from passing through. There was enough space for a carefully aimed car to pass between the center blocks, but the street was littered with broken bricks, lumps of stone and shattered glass. Beyond the gap, row houses sloped away to the left, down a street called Alliance Avenue.
This would be the place where I felt most nervous during my year in Belfast. When I had attended a Youth Club, mingling with the local children until well past dark, I always felt eyes upon me as I left Ardoyne and headed for Wheatfield Gardens. One particularly gloomy night, climbing Alliance Avenue in a thick fog, I stopped suddenly as looming figures approached me from the direction of the gap. Those old Irish folk tales came to mind when two huge Irish wolfhounds passed me all by themselves, panting lightly and glancing darkly in my direction before disappearing in the mist behind me. They might have been púkas, legendary spirits in animal form.
Descending Alliance Avenue that first morning, Ryan pointed out the strip of wild grass at the base of the tall steel walls on our left. Stones and bricks and shattered glass were everywhere. There were bullet holes in the steel. The walls were called Peace Walls. They were erected to separate communities settled by Catholics from those composed of Protestants. But historically, the neighborhoods had not been so distilled until the Troubles began in 1969. It was then that Protestant families living in this part of the city moved precipitously across the invisible borders back into Protestant communities. Some set fire to their own homes as they left to keep the Catholics from moving in. As the Troubles progressed, the police and the army evicted residents from all the homes on the north side of Alliance Avenue, tore down the houses and put up the steel walls. This was supposed to protect residents of each community from violence, but it served to isolate neighborhoods from each other. It’s easier to attack a faceless victim, so Ryan told me never to walk too close to the walls, where rocks and bottles might come crashing down from the opposite side (if not gunfire).
We took a turning away from the steel wall and into the heart of Ardoyne. The corner house belonged to friends of Ryan’s, but we wouldn’t meet them until later. They lived in a house that had been a police post before the steel walls were raised. Ryan told me that they had to have a workman in to fix a leaking window recently. It turned out that there were at least thirty-six bullet holes in the window frame.
There was lots of life in the street here. People stood at the curbs in small groups, talking and watching. Mothers pushed their prams up the hill towards the shops or stood on their porches beside the prams while their babies got some sunlight and air. Ryan waved frequently. He seemed to know just about everyone. I would never become as familiar with the people of Ardoyne as he was, and I wondered whether it was just my reserved personality, or if the fact that I was raised as a Presbyterian made me untrustworthy.
Virtually everyone smoked, including children as young as eight years old. I am not a smoker, and I never picked up the habit. But later in the year I bummed a cigarette off one of the children I was playing soccer with so I could appear nonchalant while my kids stoned a pair of British army Saracens that had appeared on the edge of the stony field we were using for the game. I looked into the window of a small sedan that was racing after the Saracens and found myself gazing into the barrel of an ABC News camera lens.
Belfast was a town full of meaningful graffiti. Often you would see three or four letter tags that presumably announced who was in charge of a particular street: UDA or UVLF for protestant paramilitary groups, IRA and so forth on Catholic walls. The Provisional IRA, or Provies, held strong influence over Ardoyne at the time. Elaborate political murals covered the entire walls of two story brick houses, commemorating paramilitary heroes or historical events. You can find many of these murals online by doing an image search. Ryan stopped in front of a new mural. He told me that it was not against any law to paint the murals, but the artist who designed this one had to do his work under the constant surveillance of army and police patrols. It was a form of political harassment. Protestant neighborhoods had murals depicting the Red Hand of Ulster, King William II, paramilitaries and Oliver Cromwell uprooting the Ulster Catholics. Catholics favored cultural references, paramilitaries, exhortations and commemorations of those who had died in the Troubles.
As we walked down a residential street, a young man greeted Ryan and invited us in for a cup of tea. He wanted to discuss the heightened tension that gripped the city as Bobby Sands’ health failed in Long Kesh Prison. Samuel was worried that Ardoyne would be invaded by rioters from adjoining protestant communities. He had seen such things happen before. Only two years earlier Protestant serial murderers dubbed The Shankill Butchers had finally been convicted of at least thirty murders, mostly Catholics. Samuel had a young child and a wife, and a reputation as a loving father and husband. He was not a violent person, Ryan later told me, which made it all the more shocking that as we drank our tea, Samuel was disassembling and cleaning an illegal rifle on his kitchen table. We would all have been thrown in prison if the army happened to interrupt our chat.
Everywhere you went it was evident that conflicts were ramping up. Broken glass and burned out cars marked the borders between Catholic and Protestant enclaves. Some of the communities consisted of a single street where residents held out against the predominance of the other sect. A slogan frequently seen on the walls of Protestant neighborhoods was “No Surrender.” It referred to the Unionist demand that Ulster remain a part of the United Kingdom, but it also reflected the Protestant fear that government planners wanted to remove the entire Protestant community remaining in West Belfast and give the area to the Catholics.
The political conflict was closely paralleled by economic need. Unemployment rates soared in this province. I would learn later that the Northern Irish middle class tried to distance themselves from the problems of their underprivileged neighbors. But economic desperation surely played a part in the violence of those times. There was an unemployment rate of greater than fifty percent in catholic neighborhoods of Derry that year.
We returned to Wheatfield Gardens for a cup of tea. Father Kevin was due to return that afternoon so he could drive me around to meet some other peace workers in the city. It would be weeks before I really felt comfortable wandering these streets alone, and even then, I always had a heightened awareness of my surroundings. I automatically began checking out the places where an ambush might occur, looking carefully at young men approaching me in groups to see if there was any hint of threat. I tried to balance my work to include equal amounts of time on both sides of the walls, but there were no guarantees that I would ever be out of danger while I worked in Belfast.