The news from Ireland this week and Fearghal’s and Don’s blog have all conspired to take me back to the early 80s (1980s, that is; nothing to do with my age, despite my children’s opinions) when I went to work at the Ulster Museum in Belfast. I have many connections with Belfast as it’s my mother’s home town and I was born there, so it seemed a completely natural move to go there to work. I couldn’t understand why people kept saying to me “It’s probably not as bad as it sounds”. I went and had a great time there for four years and still have many close friends in the city.
But it wasn’t all sunshine at that time. During my first week, I was crossing the road in Stranmillis one lunchtime when there was a bang; everyone around me dived for cover whilst I just looked around, slightly bemused. It turned out that a sniper had taken a pot shot at the Lord Chief Justice outside the University; he survived. My mother wrote to him as she had been his first secretary when he was a young barrister and received a lovely letter in return. At that time, the entrances to pubs and hotels were barricaded and there was a security barrier around the city centre. I used to walk up to the Donegal Road to visit an aunt who still lived in the family home there; other relatives were horrified that I was walking through that area on my own. Bomb scares were a common occurrence at work and once or twice the whole building shook as a bomb went off somewhere else in the city. We had an encounter with the military at the South Armagh border crossing after one of our number bought a second hand car from one of the Belfast estates; the squaddies visibly relaxed when they heard our English accents. There was one dark, wet evening when I returned home late which I still remember clearly. As I walked up the street, a man got up from under a car; over here, you wouldn’t give it a second thought but in Belfast? What was he doing? Should I call the police? I didn’t, and nothing happened, but I’ve always felt slightly guilty that I wasn’t brave enough to pick up the phone.
Somehow, though, this all seemed peripheral as everyone was so friendly and the countryside beautiful. We spent our work days diving around the Northern Irish coast and weekends with tents and compressor across the border, diving the rest of Ireland. I got to know the up currents and down currents, the caves and the arch on the huge underwater cliffs of Rathlin Island. I found out what the Giant’s Causeway looks like underwater. I walked the Mourne Wall, the 12 Pins of Connemara, Croagh Patrick. I was introduced to bee orchids and saxifrages on the Burren and went looking for dolmens both north and south. I saw schools of basking sharks in the Irish Sea between Strangford and the Isle of Man and dived with a basking shark on Achill Island. I dived the Saltee Islands in thick fog and sat alone in the boat as a killer whale swam through the bubbles of my fellow marine biologists on the back of the Aran Islands. They didn’t even see a shadow! And I learned to identify much of the fauna and flora of our nearshore seas.
During those four years, the atmosphere in Belfast did become more relaxed, barricades began to come down and people began to go out more in the evenings. But noone ever talked about politics and the conversation would change abruptly if anyone brought up the subject. This was actively not talking rather than can’t be bothered. I caught up with a lot of my relatives – and, I can assure you, there are lots! Most of the population of Belfast, it seems. If I wasn’t related to them, my mother knew them or their parents or their second cousin and she could tell me who had married whom and what their children were doing. And occasionally I would meet someone who’d say “Oh, you’re Patsy’s daughter! She had the best legs in the tennis club!” But in all my time there, neither she nor my father would come over to visit and in fact she only returned when her youngest brother was dying. She kept in touch, though and I would phone home to find that she already knew where I’d been that weekend and who with. Scary!
I don’t get over there so often these days but when I do, I find a country that is so much happier than it was then. The city centre is bustling and restaurants and cafes have opened up all over the place. I’m sure I could walk up to the Donegal Road without a second thought and I wouldn’t worry about a man under a car. The only sign of driving across the border nowadays is that the roads get worse on the other side. I imagine that people talk politics occasionally these days. I still have lots of friends there and the diving is still as good.
But two final thoughts – I didn’t go looking for Atlantis – remind me to tell you this story sometime. And could I be related to that Irish Geography teacher at Ross High who shares the same surname as some cousins? I daren’t ask as the children would be mortifyingly (is that a word?) embarrassed.