Pawel still hasn’t fully grasped the complexities of Belfast’s sectarian society. He is lying on the cold concrete of the entry. Yellow-edged, purple bruises are blossoming unseen on his body. Each breath stabs like a knife. He doesn’t know it yet, but they gave him two broken ribs. His left eye is swelling up and closing over. His vision is poor at the best of times, and he wears round spectacles that lend him the appearance of an early Twentieth-Century Irish writer. They lie broken nearby, ground under heel as a final parting gesture. Despite his bad eyesight, the glasses are easy to see; fragments of the lenses sparkle in the summer sunshine. As he retrieves them, and struggles to his feet to get help, he wonders what he is doing wrong, why this has happened to him again. He wasn’t bothering anyone.

When he was thinking about emigrating, Belfast had seemed like a good choice: there was work, and more importantly, an abundance of Irish Music. When he had become obsessed with traditional music, he’d quickly realised that there weren’t many opportunities for a Bodhrán player in rural Poland. So he had gone to the agency and landed himself a job in a meat-processing plant near Ballyclare. Thrilled, he packed up his drum and a few changes of clothes, and moved into a house off the Woodstock Road in East Belfast. He shared the two-up, two-down, red brick terraced house with another Polish guy called Mariusz. The family who owned the house lived there as well; their kids were grown up and had left, so there was space – just about – for two lodgers. The room was tiny, the floor space not much more than a gap that allowed them to squeeze between the two beds. They didn’t go downstairs and join the older couple to watch TV; they had never been invited. Most evenings Pawel and Mariusz were too exhausted to do much other than sleep anyway. The place was convenient though: the factory bus that took them to Ballyclare at 6.15 in the morning stopped on the main road a few metres from the top of their street.

He’d only been in Belfast for a week when it happened. He’d done some research and knew that there would be a music session in Farrell’s Bar that night, but he had no idea how to get there. Full of excitement, he’d carefully put his Bodhrán in its hard case, slung it over his shoulder, and marched enthusiastically down the Woodstock Road. Ahead of him, he could see a curtain of rain over the Short Strand, the streaming drops shining silver and white against the dark grey skies, lit by the evening sunshine behind him. He was just opposite Gowdy’s when he made his first big mistake. There was a group of four lads, in football shirts and hoodies, standing smoking and laughing beside the grassy area next to the bus stop. Pawel looked at the skies and decided to ask them for directions to Farrell’s. He needed to get there quickly; didn’t want to get soaked wandering around the city centre. The hostility was unexpected: Farrell’s? That’s a Taig bar. You a Taig, mate? Pawel didn’t understand. I’m sorry, I am Polish, what is Taig? he mumbled nervously. Taig. Catholic. said the tallest of them. Them Poles is all Fenians, chipped in a podgy one in a grey tracksuit. What’s in the case? demanded the tall one. Pawel started to tremble. It is Bodhrán, um, drum. One of the boys, in a blue Glasgow Rangers top, pushed his leering face close up to Pawel’s: give us ‘The Queen’ and we’ll let you go, Fenian boy. He began to reply: I don’t know… then it started: the head-butt sent him reeling, then they all laid into him. He took a few punches, and then instinctively curled up on the grass. The fat one got in the last dig: a vicious boot to his lower back. The attack didn’t last long; it was too public. Pawel picked himself up and limped home, defeated, confused, and scared. At least they hadn’t damaged or stolen his drum.

Over the next few months a determined Pawel went to sessions in Farrell’s, Madden’s, Kelly’s Cellars and the Hercules. He played tunes, made friends with local musicians, drank pints of Guinness, chased Irish girls, and went to house parties. As summer approached, he moved out of East Belfast and rented a room on the Lower Ormeau from one of his new friends, Michael, who owned a house in Farnham Street. This was one of the happiest periods of his life, despite the long hours in the factory. Ballyclare was decked-out with red white and blue bunting, and union flags. Flutes and fifes whistled, drums rattled and thumped through the streets as the Orange Parade season took off. Later on, there were serious riots in Loyalist areas of Belfast and other towns, sparked by the banning of some contentious parades.

In August, during his half-hour lunch break in the canteen, Pawel was shocked to see a news report that included footage of a young boy with blood streaming down his face, an innocent victim of the rioting. Outraged, he stood up and shouted at the TV: Fucking Orange Bastards! Immediately, the angry voices of his co-workers clamoured all around him: Go into a bar in Ballyclare and say that, see what happens to ye; watch your mouth; hey boy. Pawel realised he had upset most of the locals in the canteen, and in a conciliatory voice said OK, I’m sorry. Sorry. I didn’t mean it. One of the shift supervisors tried to defuse the situation, saying Jesus, Paul, you’re one stupid fucker. It’s just as well you’re not from here. Go back to work, you numpty. Pawel answered, I know, I’m sorry. But it makes me so angry. Look what they did to that boy. Fucking Orange Bastards. Lunch was over. On the way back to his workstation Pawel was sworn at, jostled, and finally pushed to the ground by a bulky, tattooed, skinhead. When he got home that night, he told his friend about the incident. Michael laughed at first: the image of Pawel shouting ‘Fucking Orange Bastards’ in a factory in Ballyclare was hilarious. Then the realisation struck him like a slap in the face. Oh my God, Pawel. That place is probably full of UDA men. If they come for you, we could end up getting burned out of here. How could you be so stupid? Don’t tell anyone you live at this address, alright? And watch yourself; they’ll probably be looking out for you.

Pawel looked at the floorboards and nodded passively; but he still didn’t get it.

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7 Responses to Drumbeat

  1. Love the way the bruises are described – a really punchy beginning to the story, like a slap in the face (forgive the puns).

  2. Ernie Swain says:

    Don’t think the mentality will ever change, unfortunately. Good story Jason.

    • jasonoruairc says:

      Unfortunately, it’s part of the human condition, Ernie – I was listening to a report on the radio today about Buddhists (including monks) participating in sectarian violence against Muslims in Burma. Really disturbing stuff.

  3. nedkelly944 says:

    I’m surprised I’m the first to comment on this post but it is an emotive subject. Unless you’re Norn Irish you’re as baffled as Pawel. The origins of such unfathomable actions are buried so far back in the past as to make the occupants of Ballyclare unable to distinguish this from acceptable behaviour unless you’re Norn Irish. God love us and protect us from ourselves!
    How come, Jason, you’re following my cousin and not me?

    • jasonoruairc says:

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that our own particular brand of sectarianism, with all its contradictions and complexities, must be baffling for anyone coming freshly into it. It still baffles me.

      I am, of course, following you – with the left side of my brain. The right side is following your cousin. I think I can switch sides if you like 😉

      • nedkelly944 says:

        No! On you go, big man, follow your instincts. As the girl at the bar said to me ‘I know life is too short but so are you. Now feck off!’ You wouldn’t see humour like that outside of Ireland!
        BTW I’m centre brained, feck you wimps that can’t do that!

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