March 27, 2022

Belfast: It’s Just a Northern Industrial Town

Billy Bragg has a fantastic song “A Northern Industrial Town”. It’s a fine tune with fine words describing any number of large towns/small cities in the UK that had their roots in the Industrial Revolution, when stuff was made, and people turned up in those cities to make that stuff, and perhaps make something of themselves in the process. Those towns are full of well-meaning, hard-working, never-rise-above-their-station folk who like a pint or three, have a toilet outside in the yard, and have one running cold water tap in the house. Their only blight is the rent-man coming every week to collect.

It begins like this:

It’s just a northern industrial town
The front doors of the houses open into the street
There’s no room for front gardens
Just a two-up, two-down
In a northern industrial town.

And you can see the green hills ‘cross the rooftops
And a fresher wind blows past the end of our block
In the evenings the mist comes rolling on down
Into a northern industrial town

You can picture it, can’t you? And Billy sings it so raggedly normal and straight up and down, cos that’s the way life is in a northern industrial town. We lived for a while in Sheffield, one of those such towns, and even though it had gentrified in so many ways after the closing of the steel mills, there was still enough there, still enough about the bones of the place, to remind us of its roots.

But there’s a sting in the tail of Billy’s song, and it’s wonderful:

But it’s not Leeds or Manchester
Liverpool, Sheffield nor Glasgow
It’s not Newcastle-on-Tyne
It’s Belfast
It’s just a northern industrial town

Merry Christmas, war is over
In a northern industrial town

Billy does what no one else dared to do during The Troubles of Northern Ireland. He normalises Belfast at a time when every second sociology PhD student wanted to earn their stripes investigating the sectarian horrors of places like the Divis Flats, Sandy Row, or the intersecting streets of two warring tribes, The Springfield and Falls Roads.

My grandmother, auntie and great-grandparents lived at that intersection. I recall the helicopters in the early 1980s, hovering over our car as we parked outside. Young British soldiers used to stop in with them for some Brethren hospitality of tea, ham sandwiches and Tunnock’s Tea-cakes, until that practice was put to an end by the brass.

Billy puts in one line that’s quite telling:

And there’s only two teams in this town
And you must follow one or the other
Let us win, let them lose
Not the other way round
In a northern industrial town

And that’s so true of northern industrial towns. In Sheffield it was Wednesday or United. And it made for some good banter.

But that banter takes on a more serious tone when that northern industrial town is called Belfast. I hear Billy’s ache to normalise the place, and indeed I share it, but there were only two teams in that town, and winning and losing was everything for hardline Loyalists and Republicans. We often think the two teams are Catholic and Protestant, and they are, but only as secondary causes. The political divide utilised the religious one to the point that it was hard to tell the distinction, though there surely was one.

With all that being said, I took my mum to see Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-nominated black-and-white Belfast during the week, a homage to the city he left at nine and that I left at six. Mum was brought up on the “right side of the tracks” – or least towards them, but Dad’s whole experience growing up – and Mum’s when she started dating him – was that street, with the two-up-two-down, the gas meter on the wall, the brick toilet outside, and every step and window polished and cleaned to within an inch of its life.

Even in 1982 my Dad’s mother had one single tap in the house, no fridge, and just one coal fire. By that stage we lived in Portadown, about thirty miles from Belfast, and we would drive to Belfast each fortnight or so to visit one of the grandparents. I still recall the quiet, gentle anthracite smoke curls coming from hundreds of chimneys on hundreds of roofs, just like every other northern industrial town. Back then it spoke of hearth-fire comfort. Now it speaks of cloying lungs and climate change.

Mum, Dad, me, David and Paul would drive up past the de Lorean car factory on the way, hundreds of Back to the Future extras vehicles mouldering unloved on the hard stand. Many lauded industries landed in Northern Ireland, lured by generous tax breaks, only to flounder once they got there. Something in the air I suppose. We knew the drive to the city was nearing its end when we passed the cemetery where many of the victims of The Troubles were buried. How many tears were shed for young men in that place?

A good friend and his wife were also in the cinema watching Belfast and we chatted after, mum ever keen to recount her childhood betwixt Dublin and Belfast (her life could make a good movie if I’m honest). My friend said it felt a little like a play, and I can see that, especially as most of the action takes place in the street. But I guess that’s where all of the action in life took place. It’s where the children played football up against the gable wall. Plenty of parks around, but the grass is so sodden with the constant mizzle that the gable wall guaranteed the ball coming back if the ‘keeper missed it, and it also guaranteed clean clothes so “your mammy” wouldn’t thrash you for getting your trousers dirty.

It’s hard to know what to think of the religious aspect of the movie. The preacher seemed a caricature to me of the fundamentalism I grew up with, but the painted gospel verses on the wall were a thing I recognised, while the talk of the “mission hall” brought back memories.

Ironically, from what I could tell, the least politically activated people were those who were old-school revivalists, most of whom were Brethren and Baptist. They were generally a-political, and lived quietly side by side with their Catholic neighbours. Others, less godly and more religiously driven politically, ended up in churches such as that led by the firebrand preacher-politician Rev Dr Ian Paisley MP.

Paisley mixed politics and religion like gin and tonic, or dry ginger and orange if you were a “good living” type. Good living was code for someone that took their Christian faith seriously, which no doubt Paisley did. Alcohol was as divisive as everything else in Northern Ireland: frowned upon or drowned upon.

Paisley went on to become the First Minister of Northern Ireland (the equivalent of a State Premier in Australia). My claim to infamy? Mum and Dad were married by him, were members of his church for six years, and my twin brother and I were dedicated by him at the front of his church, the Martyrs’ Memorial on the Ravenshill Road. Mum’s family were not backstreet people, they lived on “the main road”, a much loftier locale in Belfast, so Dad’s pedigree was suspect from the start (plus he smoked), so the well-shod foot was put down. Mum was forbidden to marry him.

Then one day my grandmother opened the door to the behemoth Ian (he stood 6 ft 5 in even at 88 years of age before he died), and in a loud booming Ulster voice he exclaimed “Hullo Mrs Curran, now what’s this you’re saying about Pauline not being able to marry Raymond?” After much excitement, shock, and not a few ham sandwiches and tea cakes, the deal was settled. So for my existence I have “the big Yin” to thank. Or blame.

We Preach Christ Crucified” was the curly-scripted writing blazoned across the main sanctuary wall of Ian Paisley’s church. Maybe. Maybe.

Certainly in the early days. Mum and Dad loved his electrifying oratory and his call for gospel repentance. But when Paul wrote those famed words to the Corinthians, he was meaning more than the words. He was pointedly alluding to the position he took of lowly, scorn-inducing weakness in the face of proud, pompous power. And, sadly, somewhere along the way Ian Paisley took a liking to that power. “The day I enter politics I’ll remove this!” he proclaimed from the pulpit, tugging at his white dog collar. He never did, so instead my parents removed themselves from his church.

And then somehow, a few years later, having moved to a town on the outskirts called Lisburn, as a result of Dad’s workplace being bombed out in Belfast, we found ourselves the fabled “ten pound Poms” mentioned in the movie, and moving to Perth. I still remember the day in 1973 that we left by ferry to mainland UK, Mum sobbing in the arms of her mum, knowing, like it was said in the movie, that returning would be as hard as going to the moon. Yet we did return and would do so again. And Mum would end up living between Northern Ireland and Australia on and off for quite some time. There’s a drawing power to the place that I for the life of me have never felt.

And to be honest, like the movie, I can’t help but think many from those streets who left to flee the capital “T” The Troubles, took their lower case “t” troubles with them. Especially the men. My Dad certainly did. There’s something about low grade, long term tension and strife, and a feeling of cultural inadequacy that settles into your soul like sediment, that then gets stirred up through the various stages of life. There’s even a phenomenon about the “Ceasefire Babies” – the bellicose version of Millennials – who, although they never experienced The Troubles themselves, have the highest incidence of suicide in Europe. Generational trauma abounds.

And a little for me too. Even into my thirties I would dream of that two-up-two-down of my grandmother’s in Grove Street East. And I would wake up from those dreams with a sense of displacment. And there’s something in my accent that people can’t quite pick, and to be honest, I can’t quite pick either. Sometimes I say “showaa” like an Aussie, and other times I say “shar” like an Ulsterman.

But I’m not an Ulsterman. Can’t lay claim to that any longer. I’m an Aussie. But even then I’m a citizen of a heavenly country that tends to put other allegiances into perspective. And my Northern Irish friends and acquaintances in Perth are Catholic and Protestant, and a number of them have been through such deathly extremes and horrors in Northern Ireland that I wonder how they manage. I lived the feels-like-a-play-version of the movie, more colour than black-and-white, and definitely with a bus idling outside the house ready to escape to the airport. With an Australian passport I have returned there, free to come and go in a way that so many were not.

But as the credits were about to roll, and Mum and I had finished our laughing, whispered reminiscences, and a little bit of sniffy tears, Branagh’s tribute to all Belfast people came up on the screen:

“For the ones who stayed. For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost.”

And that sums it all up beautifully.

Yet while I’d like to leave the last word to Kenneth, I really need to leave them to Billy Bragg, and his homage to the sheer ordinariness of life in one industrial town that happened, by accident of history and politics, to eke out extraordinary moments amongst the mundane horror of a war that was way too civil to finish quickly and not civil enough to ignore:

And there’s plenty of artists around
Painters, steal cars, poets, nicked guitars
‘Cause we’re out of the black and we’re into the red
So give us this day our daily bread
In a northern industrial town

In the name of the Father, Amen.

Written by


There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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