“Of all the places I have been, there’s only one to fill my dreams.
The place that lingers in my mind is the town I’ve left behind.
I’ve been away now for too many years, I’ve read all the papers they told of your tears.
Though I’ve left you with a heart that’s been torn,
I’m coming home now, to the place I was born.”
-Belfast, Gary Quinn
The acrid smell of smoke clung to the damp air like a cloak. A towering column of flame arose before us. It punctuated the smoky mantle and cast the city in an eerie orange glow. Before it was lit, the bonfire towered above nearby buildings, standing at least 60 feet tall.
“Should we get closer?” Erik asked as he fidgeted with the baseball cap on his head. We watched from the relative safety of the street corner. About two dozen onlookers paced about on the periphery of the vacant lot. They snapped photos unfolding spectacle while exchanging furtive glances and laughing nervously.
Erik and I grew up in the same town. We had shared many adventures, but this perhaps was our most ambitious. We set out from California to eat, drink and experience as much of Europe as possible. Now here we were in Belfast. Edging towards the action, we exchanged a mischievous glance and hurled our empty lager bottles into the inferno. Others did the same and the crackle and the hiss of the fire accompanied the sound of smashing glass. Our bonfire was one of hundreds that raged throughout the city that night. Thick with smoke, the air stung our throats. As the fires roared, we experienced the more controversial and misunderstood aspects of Belfast.
In Derry earlier that evening, we toured the Bogside and visited the museum of Free Derry. After a powerful tour of the neighborhood, we had a quick pint in a nearby pub before we caught the bus to Belfast. Standing at the bar, locals joked with each other. “Happy Holidays!” they exclaimed sarcastically. Erik and I ordered our drinks. For Catholics in a place like Derry, the 12th of July is a sensitive subject. The three men soon turned their attention to us. After a few jokes directed at us, Erik and I decided to take our drinks outside. The youngest of the three men soon came out and felt the need to question us. Surly at first, he softened his tone after a few minutes. “Be careful in Belfast.” he warned.
Erik and I sped towards the city of my birth. Ominous plumes of smoke arose from the otherwise tranquil countryside. My relationship to this place is complicated: My father is a Catholic from Dublin and my mother a Protestant from East Belfast, where mixed marriages are frowned upon. As we drove, I explained to Erik that the Twelfth of July is a celebration of the 1690 victory of Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic forces of King James. The night before the battle, Protestants lit bonfires to guide William’s invading ships. Over 300 years later, the tradition continues.
For many Protestants in Northern Ireland, this holiday is a celebration of pride and culture. To the Catholics who live there, it is a reminder of years of oppression at the hands of a Protestant majority.
“Seems like a slap in the face to me!” Erik exclaimed. Indeed, the holiday often leads to violent confrontations. Protestants, accompanied by fife and drum bands, march out of their neighborhoods and through Catholic enclaves in the segregated city. During the 30 year war known as The Troubles, July was always a particularly violent month. This conflict claimed thousands of lives. It pitted the nationalist Irish Republican Army against the British Army and Loyalist paramilitary groups like the Ulster Defense Association. Despite 14 years of relative calm in the region, the fragile peace is tested every summer on the Twelfth of July.
We arrived in a dark and empty city centre at about 7:30pm. The streets were empty and the businesses, including the pubs, stood shuttered. As we wandered the dead city, we realized something almost unimaginable: Finding a pint in this part of Ireland on a day like today was going to be difficult. If there is an Irish twilight zone, this was it. Abandoning our search for beer temporarily, we found a room for the night.
What’s in a name?
“If you’re going to Belfast for The Twelfth, don’t tell anyone your surname.”
My mother grew up celebrating The Twelfth of July in the staunchly Protestant heartland of East Belfast. She understood far better than I what awaited me on the streets of Old Smoke. An Irish Catholic last name like FitzGerald was something you kept to yourself when hundreds of drunken Protestants stood around a bonfire singing
“Oh give me a home, Where there’s no Pope of Rome,
Where there’s nothing but Protestants stay.”
Erik and I could hear the crowds belting out the songs in the nearby housing estates. After having a few pints at the appropriately named Filthy McNasty’s, our apprehension about investigating these battle cries began to fade. Liquid courage or stupidity, call it what you like, we were soon shielding our faces from the heat. We walked past the bonfire and into a Protestant neighborhood known as Sandy Row. We clambered through an opening in a chain-link fence. Greeted by the hard stares of a posse of locals, I whispered “Don’t make eye contact!” to Erik.
With their shaved heads, tattoos and blue polo shirts, these guys were not to be taken lightly. There were hundreds, all sporting a similar look. Some wore blue Rangers football jerseys. I had the foresight not to wear any green lest I be targeted as a Catholic, which I am technically.
Teens stood atop fence posts and waved the British Flag. Techno music bumped through a mobile PA system. Behind us, the fire seared the sky. Thick black smoke billowed through the drab neighborhood. The orderly, terraced row houses of the area belied the chaotic scene playing out on the street. Revelers sang, chanted and cheered as Irish flags and effigies of the pope burned. Wading through the jeering crowd, we were careful not to trip on the sea of discarded bottles that littered the pavement.
Erik must have sensed my unease. “Don’t look so serious Paul. Try to blend in” he insisted. Not wanting to risk an interrogation at the hands of the rowdy denizens of Sandy Row, I sucked up my pride and put on my best “I’m having a good time smile”.
Erik had a point. We needed to fit in and since we didn’t have the requisite hooligan look, more beer was in order. We found a stand at the edge of the crowd that seemed to be doing brisk business in beverage sales and bought a box of lager. A large mural of the British flag with the words “British and Proud” adorned the wall behind us.
On the opposite side of the street, stood a large advertisement. A giant gingerbread man exhorted everyone to “Text, Bake and Be Happy”. Under the circumstances, I found it quite humorous. I imagined the gingerbread man coming to life, draping himself in the Union Jack and happily baking himself in the heat of the massive blaze that raged a few hundred yards away.
Periodically, the incessant techno music was broken by the sound of a rousing Loyalist anthem. When the chorus came around, a sea of royal blue belted out the words
“Remember, our fathers brave and bold, As they fought for Ulster’s cause in far off lands” and punctuated it with the shout “Fuck Bobby Sands! He’s dead!
They were referring of course to Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker who starved to death in the early 1980s. We were told that the sectarian overtones often associated with The Twelfth were exaggerated, but it was hard to deny what we were in the middle of. Clearly everyone was enjoying themselves. I wanted to understand the zeal and vitriol around me. But I couldn’t help feeling a bit conflicted about being there.
“Where’re ye two from then?” a thin wiry man with a bald head questioned as he approached. We stood beneath a burned out streetlight, our box of beer torn open on the cobbles between us. “California,” I replied. Erik shot me a look. We had agreed not to get too personal with anyone, but this seemed innocent enough.
“Wha’!!! California!!! What the hell are ye doin’ ‘ere?”
“We didn’t realize all this was going on tonight, but we decided to check it out,” Erik fibbed. He was taking no chances.
“What about yourself?” I asked.
“Scotland! I come over ev’ry year fa’ the Twelfth,” he said.
He wasn’t the first Scotsman I’d seen that night. Like the Northern Irish, the Scots had a sectarian streak. It often reared it’s head at football matches and on the streets of Glasgow. In a show of solidarity with their Protestant brethren, thousands of Loyalist Scotsmen flocked to Belfast every year for the festivities.
We offered the man a beer. Colin, as it turned out had deep connections in the region. He even had family in the Ballybeen neighborhood where my mother grew up.
“I love it… when the bonfire gets lit… the flames, the heat. It’s amazing. I feel the pride of my culture. Of who I am,” he explained. His face was alive with excitement and I didn’t doubt his sincerity. Colin wanted us to understand. He seemed like a decent guy and I felt no hostility or ill will coming from him.
“This is just who we are,” he went on. “It’s a part of us”.
Then came the question.
“What’s your surname then?”
I looked into Colin’s pale blue eyes. I hesitated. At this point we were onto our second box of lager. I recalled my mother’s warning.
“You don’t want to know,” I countered.
“That was a different time.”
On every occasion where massive quantities of alcohol are consumed, there is a point of no return, a momentary zenith where the dynamic can change in an instant. Mix three parts strong spirits, one part sectarianism, one part flame, and violence is inevitable. Erik and I were in the middle of this heady cocktail and we had reached that moment.
The ever-present shouts of the boys in blue seemed to become more pointed. A scuffle broke out in the crowd and a rush of bodies ran in our direction. A bloody faced youth broke free from the group. His nose looked twisted and a gash stretched across his forehead. He seethed, cursing his foe through bloody teeth. His friends caught up with him and in an instant, they were on the hunt for the attacker.
Colin, Erik and I watched them roar through the crowd, where they found the apparent culprit. Surrounded and desperate, his immediate future looked bleak. Was he a Catholic? He’d be crazy to crash this party I thought, but then again, here I was. I’d never know the answer to that question. The fear on his face left no doubt about the possibility of hostility at this gathering. He dodged to the left and sprinted away, his pursuers howling after him. In the next few minutes, we saw several more similar scenes. The night had turned.
I had dodged Colin’s question, but clearly the matter hung over our conversation. We moved away from the crowd, closer to the flames. We were joined by two men from Belfast, one with a teenage daughter in tow. Erik amiably answered their queries about California while I attempted to explain my fragmented identity to Colin. I told him the story of my Catholic father marrying my Protestant mother in 1980s Belfast. He nodded and seemed to understand the risks they faced. He knew why they had left Belfast. The firebombing of mixed-marriage homes in Northern Ireland is a particularly disturbing aspect of the violence that plagued the region.
“It’s nae like tha’ anymore,” Colin reflected. “That was a different time”.
My gaze left the smoldering, glowing coals of the fire and I saw that Colin had tears in his eyes. We left it at that.
The eastern sky brightened with the promise of a new day as we left Sandy Row. Erik and I embraced Colin and stumbled in the direction of our room. Six hours later, we awakened to the rumble of drums and the shrill piercing whistle of the flute-like fife.
Bleary eyed and thick tongued or not, the parade was on. An endless stream of proud men and women marched through the streets of a festive, but edgy Belfast. A mild air of hostility hovered over the scene, but it was a far cry from the previous night’s revelry. The bands thundered down the city’s roads, but for the first time in decades, no substantial violence accompanied the Twelfth of July.