Saturday, 18 February 2012

Returning to Belfast

Wanderlust Blog of the Week

I've just come back from Northern Ireland. Recently, I've started using the trains again - and I'm discovering a new, vibrant Belfast.

Somehow, I have lost a quarter of a century between trains.
Back in the 1980s, the train from Lurgan to Belfast shuddered and creaked its way to the city. The seats were blighted with cigarette holes and knife slits, the floors covered in litter, the walls plastered with graffiti. Disaffected youths smoked in the no smoking compartments and no one dared challenge them. This was Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles: troubled, angry, defiant.
You ascertained where you were on your journey by peering through grimy windows. To disembark, you had to pull down the window, reach outside and twist the metal handle, pushing the heavy door outwards with all your might.
Here I am twenty-five years later, back on the train to Belfast. The new stock is state-of-the-art: shiny, clean, comfortable, smooth, fast.  Rolling neon lights flash up the destinations along the line.  A soothing English voice tells us our next stop. Automatic doors slide open effortlessly. The female voice recites the remaining destinations. Surely I must be in the home counties, not in my homeland?
But the names are the same:   Moira, Lisburn, Hilden, Lambeg, Derriaghy, Dunmurry, Finaghy, Balmoral, Adelaide and Great Victoria Street. They roll off the tongue like poetry.
I breathe out slowly, and soak in the past and the present. Across the way, a couple are speaking in the tongue of my childhood. A language half forgotten.  They punctuate every sentence with a verbal full stop.
“I’ve just got back from Australia - so I have.”
“I didn’t know that – I didn’t.”
“Loved it out there – aye.”
“You’re still in Finaghy – are you?”
“I am – aye.”
I smile to myself. When did my birthplace become a foreign country?
In Belfast, I met a friend at the City Hall. We dodge the ‘tour-of-the-troubles’ operators, touting for business.
Back in the eighties, you entered the main shopping area through a gated terrapin to be given a thorough body search – repeated in every store you entered. Shopping in the city wasn’t for the faint hearted. People in Derry refused to go to Belfast because they felt it was too dangerous. Belfast citizens wouldn’t go to Derry for the very same reason.
There is such an air of freedom and optimism now, I feel dizzy. We continue on to Victoria Square and the new centre with its glass dome offering 360 degree views: of the city, the river Lagan, the Lough, the sea beyond, and the Black Mountain on the skyline.

We walk on to the waterside. I had no idea it was so close to the city centre. During the troubles it was a forgotten wasteland.
By the Lagan, we gaze up at the Ring of Thanksgiving. The locals prefer to call it ‘The thing with the ring,’ ‘Nuala with the Hula’ or ‘The doll on the ball’. They have a way with words here. Peace and conciliation is the statue’s message.
I carry my fragile bundle of hope onto the train. Then it’s ten stops and home.