Sunday, August 30, 2009

"The Troubles" for Tourists

Belfast is booming economically - reflected in the graffiti commentary on the wall above. Not only has it shed its gritty past as a grey, industrial city, but has been peacful for the past ten years since the Northern Ireland Peace Process culminated in the Good Friday Agreements . It is significant that the Northern Irish peace agreement occurred on Good Friday, as it is a day that many Christian churches - both Catholic and Protestant - throughout the world stage peace walks.

I made several visits to Belfast during the troubles in the mid-1970's and early 1980's, and was witness to the devastation of the Troubles. That is why I have mixed feelings about "Troubles" tourism. I didn't have an opportunity to take a Black taxi tour in Belfast, and some appear to focus on the famous murals.There has been a great deal of "disneyficaiton" of historical sites in the Republic of Ireland, and I worry that this is spreading to the North.

I also visited Derry a city I had only passed through in the 1970's. On that day, I only got a glance of the famous mural YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY, and quickly left town. The hostility to strangers was palpable (understandably so).
There are recently created murals in the Bogside, the Catholic area where the Bloody Sunday killings occurred, and the site of many battles between the British Army and locals. Catholics established
Free Derry a self-declared autonomous Irish nationalist area from 1969 and 1972.
The Bogside Artists , three ar
tists, have created 12 murals in the neighborhood illustrating history of the troubles, and paying homage to peacemakers. While this is a tourist attraction, The Bogside Artists efforts do not come off as a commercial enterprise. I visited their gallery, and because it was a hour wait for a tour, and starting to rain, walked through the area on my own.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Book Paradise : Ireland

Ireland - Northern Ireland and the Republic - is a bookbuyer's paradise. Additionally, books one can find in the North may not be available in the south. Some writers easily cross the border such as Ciaran Carson, the Belfast poet. Other writers like Glenn Patterson, a Belfast novelist, are harder to find in the south. Could it be that Carson, fluent in Irish, a Catholic, and Irish nationalist is thought of as Irish in a way that Patterson, a Protestant is not? There are probably academic writings on the topic, and I will try to avoid simplistic conclusions here about such complicated issues. It is simply an observation, and I may well be totally wrong.

I spent more on books than I did on food in my 11 days in Ireland. Coming home, my bag of books was heavier than my suitcase of clothes etc. Now I need to take a year off to read them all.

Upstairs Books, Dublin

Ulysses and Me : Declan Kibard (Literary criticism)
• Language and Politics (QUB journal)

Queens University Bookshop, Belfast
Shelmalier - Medbh McGuckian [poetry]
Had I a Thousand Lives by Medbh McGuckian [poetry]
The State of the Prisons - (2005) by Sinead Morrissey [poetry]
There Was Fire in Vancouver (1996) by Sinead Morrissey [poetry]
• My Twentieth Century Night Life: A Padraic Fiacc Miscellany [poetry]
Pirate Queen the Life of Grace O'Malley by Judith Cook (2004)
Last Before America: Irish and American Writing by Fran Brearton and Eamonn Hughes (2001)

Waterstones Belfast
Derry Hodges Figis Dublin

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Belfast, devout and profane and hard

[Queens University/Botanic Gardens/Belfast at dusk]

The title of this posting is, very appropriately, taken from a poem by Louis MacNeice, a major influence on poets of Northern Ireland. From Sunday July 19th to Saturday July 25th I was in Belfast to attend the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry's 2009 Summer School.
During the week w
e had lectures and workshops from poets and writers including Ciaran Carson, Sinéad Morrissey, Medbh Mc Guickian, and Gerald Dawe among others. The experience was everything I had hoped for, though new experiences are full of surprises. A characteristic of Ireland - North and South - that I love is that there is no cult of celebrity like we see here in the US. Famous people, whether poets, musicians, actors, etc. still mingle with the public, and are not elevated way above the "common people". In turn, they are given their space, and folks interact with them normally. About 5 years ago a friend of mine saw Bono, The Edge, and their families eating at an outdoor cafe in a seaside town near Dublin. While the restaurant staff was attentive, they were able to enjoy their meal like anyone else. The poets and writers at the summer school were humble, and interacted with us extensively through the week. One of my classmates, Stephanie, and I even ran into Medbh Mc Guickian one day on the street. She recognized us, before we realized it was her. Americans are still a little sparse on the ground, so we stood out:).

Highlights of the week included writing haiku with Cieran Carson, and Sineed Morrissey's talk which explored her favorite poets including someone new to me, the Australian poet Les Murray. I loved Medbh Mc Guickian's exploration of Seamus Heaney's poems, which made his poetry so
accessible. Probably my favorite session was Gerald Dawe's discussion of his book My Mother-City in which he describes life in Belfast in the 1960's before "The Troubles". I was thrilled because he discussed Van Morrison's album Astral Weeks (which I have mentioned in past posts is my favorite album of all time). He analyzed the song Madame George - the best on the album in his opinion - in depth, and then played it. An insight I gained this week was that poetry, song, and music are not separate - at least for these poets. Astral Weeks is sheer poetry, and captures Belfast in so many of the references " on the train from Dublin to Sandy Row", "throwing pennies at the bridges down below" and places like Cyprus Avenue.

Some things to know about Belfast - it is peaceful, and thriving. There is plenty of shopping (I bought shoes - Echos on sale, went mad at the Lush store, and lots of books). It isn't easy to find food after 7 pm when pubs stop serving food. A pint of Guinness is only 3 pounds 10p (under $5 for 20 ounces) while a pint costs 6 euros or more in Dublin ( almost $8). People make a point of being post-sectarian though we had a 70 plus year old cabbie who acknowledged being a proud Prod, and to being a poet (he had a book of poetry in his glovebox). Cabs are plentiful and pretty cheap and won't turn their noses up at short runs. Often it is cheaper to catch a cab if there's 2 of you, than to take the bus (which costs a minimum of 1 pound 60 p). Our digs were a mile or so from campus and the walk home was uphill. The morning walk was no problem, but at the end of the day it seemed much longer.

It was great to spend a week in Belfast, and I came home with a load of new poetry-loving friends :)


[Kelli and Ritchie, Ciaran Carson at evening concert, some of the group out for dinner, party after the concert, Peter, Margaret and Stephanie; Peter, Colm and Em]

Monday, August 3, 2009

An Annual Tradition - Sox in Balmer

This past Saturday, friends Kate and Lee and their sons Daniel and Ryan drove down from Massachusetts (Arlington) to Maryland for their second annual Sox in Balmer outing with me and my son, Camilo. From left to right : Daniel (wearing no Sox gear), Camilo (with his subtle Sox knit cap), and Ryan (fully decked out in Ellsbury shirt and regulation Sox hat).

Of course on my trip to Ireland, I took my Sox cap. At the student dining hall at Queen's University Belfast, I saw a young guy with a Sox cap every morning. Finally on Thursday I asked him "Are you a Sox fan or a poser?". He answered in a genunie Massachusetts accent, "I'm not a poser" - of course pronounced 'posah' and we proceeded to chat about Sox news of the week (hard to get in Belfast especially when you are not online).

On the flight from Dublin to NY, there were 4 or 5 Sox hats and the flight attendant even gave me extra special attention because I was wearing mine:)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Ireland: Part I Dublin

I arrived in Dublin on Friday July 17th. Thanks to No Jetlag, a homeopathic product from New Zealand, I arrived tired but not disoriented. I was staying at Jurys Inn Christchurch which is adjacent to Dublin Castle (good) and Temple Bar (not so good-more later), and a great central location. After leaving my luggage at 9 am, I had to fill the hours until 1 pm check-in. So I wandered over to The Chorus Cafe for a light breakfast, so-named because it is adjacent to the site where Handel's Messiah was first performed. I then crossed over to Dublin Castle which I had never seen despite many extended visits to Dublin. I skipped the tour, and opted instead to visit the Chester Beatty Library behind the castle, home to many rare manuscripts, particularly religious books, and free admission.
Then I found my way to Powerscourt Center and This Is Knit, the well-known Dublin yarn store. The women working there were delightful. They now have two spaces in this shopping center that are across from one another. They moved into the new space recently, and closed their original store in Blackrock (a suburb south of Dublin). I bought one skein of lovely yarn from a hand-dyer in Wales. Independent dyers and yarn makers are very rare in Ireland (one is Dublin Dye Company), though the number is growing in the UK. The shop also carries British brands such as Rowan and Debbie Bliss, as well as the Irish Kilcara Tweed. But the prices weren't much less than U.S. prices.

Saturday I visited the James Joyce Centre with a small exhibit, and tiny bookshop, it is modest when considering the glory that Joyce brought to Irish literature, and the city of Dublin. Perhaps it is a reflection of the ambivalence of many Dubliners, and Irish towards Joyce. I met one of my former students for brunch at Odessa, a very nice restaurant with choices averaging 10 Euros - a bargain in Dublin. Later in the afternoon, I visited a friend I have known for over 35 years, who is now 80, and full of stories, and interesting political insights. She is well known in Dublin, and lives in a wonderful Georgian house she inherited from her aunt in the 1970's. Below is a picture of her door.