Belfast: Money

3360 words, 14 minute read

It was sunny. That was the first bit that completely threw me. It couldn’t be. What it was supposed to be was grey, like the rest of this castaway quarter of Northern Europe, with leaden skies hanging low and ominous only stopping to swallow billowing black smoke from bonfires below. I was expecting smoke and tires burning, kids in 70’s haircuts everywhere throwing stones in technicolour skirmishes. Bombs. That sort of thing. What I got was an insidious normality served with kind, sad smiles and no answers whatsoever.

The sun could almost have been described as beating, if thats even meteorologically possible there and especially in April. It burned through the mid-tier franchise shops and sought out pallid, freckled flesh interspersed with bad tattoos without quarter.

I could have been on a spaceship for all it mattered, with people walking around with three legs and four arms, but as if those people with three legs and four arms were completely normal and were the sort of people you grew up with or bought a used bike off of. It was just close enough to feel like you were in the right place or that you knew what was going on, but then close enough to make the edges of it quite visible. It was where two greys met and make a hard and dark black line, not very wide but extremely sharp. I had just landed in Belfast and tried to relax.

I wandered about for a bit, walking from the bus station to what used to be some sort of 19th century gas plant where my hotel was and saw an air conditioning van perform one of the most superb parallel parking jobs I’ve yet to witnessed first hand in this country or any other. I admired it from a distance. I could have never pulled that off, not in that van, or any other for that matter, or in a VW Golf a third of its size. Two guys got out. It was a normal thing you would do in a normal place. But it was an air conditioning van, and if you know anything about Ireland or the British Isles, you know there is no summer or reason for one of those things around those parts.

I was still officially in the United Kingdom although I was not in Great Britain and this is where the complications and confusion begins. Nobody knows about this place outside of this place or seems to care. I kept on thinking even though the flight was classified domestic I was going somewhere exotic and utterly foreign.

The entire city seemed to be one big hen do. I was drunk as well, because Ireland. I should have specified to myself that I was drunk because “The Isle” as is the proper parlance. In any case, it looked like everyone else was in the same sort of sloppy tizzy blinking in the shockingly bright day.

The make up was slathered on thick and hard, like the hope and disappointment of a couple of onerous centuries lashed to another island that could give two shits about you. The slap drifted and melted in the sun and lager sweat like the lilt in their speech. I wondered quietly to myself if there was a lot of pain under all that coverup and hair extensions. I wondered if the heavy veneer helped them manage. I wondered how many of them were on the same side, whatever that was or meant, and how the subtexts and signals of loyalty played out in their conversations. I wondered how difficult it might have been navigating family, religion and neighbourhood just as it was navigating rough streets in soaring heels and skirts that hiked their way up with every wobbled stride.

Then I realised that all these women were just out on the pull, half in the bag with the hour not even four in the afternoon fully ready to party till they puked and could care less about The Battle of the Boyne or what happened in 1922. I looked up and remembered why.

The Great Fireball in the sky was out, and like elsewhere in the UK, it united all its denizens with a desire to drink hard whilst enjoying that one good sunburn of the year. It brought with it something, perhaps a notion of a future, whether for just until the hangover the next day or that the amount of shown skin could pull that cute guy in the corner. His surname and how it was spelled or where he went to school might not even matter until tomorrow. This is how people seemed to live.

I packed a paper book, what I thought was the perfect book for the trip, Hunter S Thomson. For some stupid reason I thought I was especially cool that it was a paper book. I had fantasies tucked in the back of my mind thinking about the trip. I pictured Kabul with Tescos and track suits. I got the second two and to my well deserved self embarrassment, not the first at all. I don’t even remember which book it was exactly so that tells you something.

While I may have spent the first day more or less drunk and walking about industrial estates lost amidst paramilitary murals nothing happened. I was completely disoriented and it had nothing to do with the second pint at noon, but might have been because of the pocketful of money I didn’t completely understand, albeit it being clearly labelled in English.

I’ve travelled a bit in my day, maybe not as much as some but a lot more than others. Among these sorts of travels, mainly confined to Europe, I got used to changing money a lot as a young man. I’ve been really bad at math(s) my whole life but when it came to how many gilders you had to spend on a falafel versus how many koruna you had for beer, I could change it mentally at speeds that I can’t even fathom in my old age.

This was different though. Within the span of an hour and a half I had three different looking notes which were somehow all of equal value and from the same place. One had a picture of a viking ship which got me excited but still made me uneasy because it didn’t look like the other ones.

Each bank of Northern Ireland produces their own currency. That’s right. Each bank prints its own money. I was told that they all are worth the same and that its even worth as much as those Bank of England notes that I had in my pocket.  Maybe they all just decided to disagree simultaneously in a mutually and distrustfully cooperative manner and not make a big fuss about it anymore.

The hope in Westminster as its ruled this part of the world, whether on the really big island I live on, or the smaller and unlucky shamrock ridden one to its left, has always been that only through driving the populace to a careening consumerism could unrest and territorial loss be avoided. Their money was exclusively their own as were the shopping malls they had delivered to them. Perhaps it worked though. Maybe the fancy shops and hackneyed urban renewal schemes got people spending instead of bombing. Maybe it got people to reach for more things they weren’t sure they needed instead of more places they couldn’t have.

I had arrived a couple hours before at George Best Airport. I had no idea who the guy was, so asked the internet on my phone. He was a wildly popular and successful footballer and alcoholic, known for various stunts that have become all to uncommon in professional sports leagues these days.

Why they named an airport after him was something I wondered hard and long about but came to the conclusion that he might have been protestant, and even had a father in the Orange Order, but he didn’t play politics, he played football. He was a party guy everyone could get behind. He lived as fast as he played, so maybe didn’t have time for politics. What mattered most to the people paying for the airport was probably that he was from Belfast, famous and not a politician. He had a sharp, cheeky smile and a legend that proceeded and remained long after him. In the end, he not only had regional infrastructural development named after him, he also got his own Ulster Bank £5 note.

There was one thing I couldn’t get over in Belfast, and that was that it looked more or less just like any other British town I’ve ever been too. There was every requisite and unapologetic stab at making a pound at every damn corner in the centre. Walking through the Victoria Square Mall there, I felt like I could be in the grand era of late 90’s American malls in second tier cities..

It was very clear, Money or its close and evil cousin Shopping equaled Peace.  This was modern Britain, whether half of the people there wanted it or not. The chain shops and restaurants were all installed to ensure the peace. The shops are a bandage, sealing it up for as long as it can, but at some point you have to take off the bandages and hope it doesn’t open up again.

I was in Belfast speaking at a history education conference for the European Association of History Educators. I was talking about how technology can help in history education, can enliven stories buried in our pasts and allow us to see things from different perspectives. I would have liked to do a lot more of this myself for those four days in Northern Ireland. I had a lot of drinks with a lot of international types, not jet setters, but mainly history teachers and bureaucrats. Good folks, but none of them “of the Isle,” and they say “of the Isle” because apparently saying “Irish” in a place with the word “Ireland” in it is deeply political.

Those of the Isle, went about their lives around us. They took us on tours, they answered questions as dutifully as they could and tried to walk that hard, dark, desperate line in the middle.

Walls are enjoying a bit of a resurgence these days you could say. One could even say that we’re in the midst of a Wall Renaissance not seen since the the Cold War. The issue in the UK with walls though is that the majority of British people care more about Hadrian’s Wall built almost 2000 years ago than any of the five meter high ones topped with razor wire still in use today in their own nation.

It’s called a Peace Wall though. There’s not just one wall in Belfast though. In fact, they’re not even officially walls, they are called lines. Many peace lines in fact, apparently up to 59 of them, totalling up to over 34 km in collective length scattered throughout the city separating Catholic/Republican and Protestant/Unionist enclaves.

The funny thing about the wall they took us to, the famous Peace Wall between the Shankill and Falls Road neighbourhoods, is that it’s not that long. It looked quite easy to drive or even walk around if you were let’s say a paramilitary sort of guy with a gun. Like the Great Wall in China that the Mongols just went around or the Maginot Line that Hitler side stepped walls don’t do much except remind the people on either side that they are indeed different and have every reason in the world to think so. That is what walls do.

Most of the famous, modern walls like these ones are now weirdly tourist traps, and most of them bear the graffiti of well meaning souls leaving messages of peace before being driven in their safe, officially neutral black cab back to their hotel to get plastered. This peace wall is no different from the Berlin Wall and whatever you call that monstrosity in Jerusalem. Every little bit of it is covered with paintings, stencils, post-its, posters and every bit of detritus stuck to it.

The conference tour took us to the Falls Road (Catholic) neighbourhood first. It could be after seeing nuns walking down the road, and since attending primary school in what was essentially a convent in rural Ohio, it felt more at home. That affinity quickly faded once the tour got underway. The brown brick is pervasive as it is everywhere else in Britain and Ireland, and the people still drive on the left side of the road and all that, but there was something making it look weirdly foreign, namely Gaelic.

The Catholic/Republican neighbourhoods were clearly labelled in it. The famous murals that seem to be at every other turn around Belfast in that part of the city are at least partially written in Gaelic. There were even streets signs in Gaelic and most interestingly franchised shop signs.

We drove past one of the big grocery shops of the UK, Sainsbury’s, and sure enough it had signage in Gaelic below the English. I asked one of the volunteer tour guides provided by Queens College who was hosting the conference about groceries as you do when you’re touring a place that was up until only 20 years ago sort of a war zone. I told him that I noticed that there weren’t any Tescos around like everywhere else in the UK and he explained that Sainsbury’s had become the default Catholic brand, despite their orange branding.

The hilarious and telling thing about Sainsbury’s and the peace line is that its neutral territory on Sundays. The gate through the peace line and the DMZ is open for a couple of hours so people from the Protestant side can easily do their grocery shopping in the super store. Shopping apparently heals all wounds.

How a massive grocery chain comes to the conclusion that they will decide one side of a wall or the other is one of the most insane corporate decisions ever if you ask me. Was there market research? The guide couldn’t answer. He then let me know that he was Protestant.

Once we went to the other side of the wall to the Protestant Shankill neighbourhood, sure enough there were no Sainsbury’s, but there was a Cooperative that I bought an iced tea at. There were all the shops that you see in every other part of the UK, but then you look around the corner and there at the end of the street was an armoured car and razor wire.

I had just stepped out of a full size bus, spilled out into a neighbourhood like on safari amongst a gaggle of middle aged history education types surrounded by mural after mural of the Queen, the Ulster Volunteer Force, or King William of Orange, and realise that a couple decades ago this place was probably on fire most of the time. There would have been razor wire and empty lots full of burning tires and roadblocks. Not many people from Cleveland buying iced tea.

We couldn’t see any walls anymore once we were driven back through the leafy and well manicured middle class neighbourhoods. That was because the walls were for where poor people lived. No walls, no murals with balaclavas and kalashnikovs in those parts of town.

Done for the day, making it back to the hotel, I stopped for a pint or two in the middle of nothing purely because I couldn’t pass that bar given the sheer number of pentagram shirts being worn there. I sat outside, the Great Fireball was still up there roasting the pasty flesh of my fellow rockers and metalhead as we drank away the remains of an afternoon not saying much. I stared out across the road at a weed filled carpark and imagined to myself there are some things that really bring people together and one of them is rock and roll. Maybe they didn’t have enough of it back then and I would hazard a guess that we don’t have enough of it now.

I left the rock bar and a kid, likely no older than 18, striped head to toe in an Adidas shell suit walked my way. I didn’t know what to expect. The kid smiled and randomly gave me a high five and said, “fucking wicked, good lad,” and went on his way. That was Belfast. Never sure what it all means but we’ll muddle through other people’s shit in one way or another.

The Titanic is a ship that is most famous for sinking and killing over half of its passengers and crew. It was built in Belfast in 1912. Belfast opened a museum to it in 2012 called Titanic Belfast as a monument to Belfast’s maritime heritage on the former shipyards where the ship was constructed.

The Game of Thrones TV series which premiered in 2011 and due to be complete 2019 is filmed in large part in Northern Ireland and its southern neighbour regular Ireland. You can’t go anywhere from the airport to the centre of the Belfast without seeing pamphlets promoting seeing the real Winterfell, Kingsroad and River Run. One of the main story points of the series besides incessant backstabbing, infighting and shifting loyalty is ironically a massive wall.

If you have a place that nobody would otherwise really visit you take what you can get when it comes to tourism. Northern Ireland fits that slot way better than it ever should have to with exceeding enthusiasm. What Northern Ireland, despite its natural wonders and rugged, beautiful coastline, flogs as a reason to go there is the exact thing that the malls and the money were supposed to wipe away: disaster, misery and war.

One never knows where places are headed, but one thing is for sure, there are a lot of extraordinarily nice people left to deal with the fragments of ages old decisions made far away for personal gain. This is no more true today where Northern Ireland has it’s fate hanging in the balance over a border because of a couple of politicians playing debate team bully for personal gain with entire countries futures. Who knows what will come out of Brexit in the end when it goes down in any number of ways. One thing is for sure, Belfast will get screwed hard in some way.

On the last day waiting for my airport shuttle I found an appropriately generic high end coffee shop. The polished concrete and reclaimed wood welcomed me to the standard of coffee that I’ve regrettably become too accustomed.  I still had Northern Irish notes in my pocket. By law, all Pound Sterling notes, whether Bank of England like the ones I usually use, Bank of Scotland or any of the banks for Northern Ireland are completely interchangeable. I knew this not to be the case as shopkeepers in England often times won’t take other pounds which pretty much sums up how things work. I had even two different types of notes in my pocket and started to think how I could get rid of them to avoid this.

“Oh hi, I would like a coffee, flat white I guess,” I said.

“Sure, that will be £2.20,” the young man of his early twenties, freckled as much as he was smiling replied.

“Sorry about this, but I um, is there any English notes you could give me change in?” I felt myself flush, but figured I was okay. I had a Northern American to Transatlantic accent, a big backpack and was clearly not from there. He would understand.

“Its okay, its okay. We get that from people. No worries.”

They get that from people. Belfast.