Tag Archives: Napoleon’s Nose

Belfast Volunteers

The contemporary view of Ardoyne is cleaner and has more nice cars, but the long blocks of terrace houses look the same.   © Copyright Dean Molyneaux and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The contemporary view of Ardoyne is cleaner and has more nice cars, but the long blocks of terrace houses look the same.
© Copyright Dean Molyneaux and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

I woke each day in the blue room on the north end of the house, on what the Irish referred to as the first floor. As an American, this translated to the second story, since I climbed one flight of stairs to get there. In the back corner was a cold coal hearth. I don’t think I lighted the hearth all year long. It was dirty and drafty, contributing to a constant chill in the room. Moreover, beneath its scorched bricks was the hidey-hole for the house cash box. But through my window I could look out over neighboring rooftops to the heights of those vacant mountains north of the city and the outline of the Iron Age hill fort atop Napoleon’s Nose. It was a reminder that however bad things got in Ardoyne, the world beyond considered other things equally important.

I had inherited this room from the former house master. Now I held the secret of the cash box. Apart from me, the only other one who knew where we kept the Glencree money was Len, the American volunteer who had beaten me to Belfast.

He had taken a small room at the top of all the stairs, one that lacked a door, but was so high up it seemed inaccessible from below. Beside my room was the bathroom, equipped with the longest clawfoot tub I’d ever seen. It was cold as an iceberg in that room, too, and with the tales that the neighbors told, about the old woman who had died in that tub, taking a bath became a heroic exercise. I knew that if the bathroom was haunted, the old woman’s ghost would have no difficulty in passing through the wall into my bedroom. Never noticed a thing. Continue reading

A Walk Through Ardoyne

A British Army patrol on the streets of South Belfast in 1981. Patrols that visited Ardoyne typically showed up in armored vehicles, wearing protective gear. This photograph courtesy Jeanne Boleyn, who released it to the public domain through Wikipedia.

(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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading