You turned the corner into Donegall Square – trust the conqueror to add the redundant letter at the end of a place-name; yet another separatist sore thumb dismissive of the border county that birthed the O’Donnell line of High Kings right back to times in the mist. Across the park the Belfast City Hall hit you with a pain in the eyeball. A monolith to monolithism that some would tell you had been constructed as a declaration of whose prick was biggest. It looked more like a folly that the Shah would have built for himself in the desert with his oil wells. It was an offence in scale with the city’s poverty when it was erected barely a hundred years ago when the builder and his ilk hired only workers who prayed at the right church. Today this could be any former colonial city in the world and even the square held a beauty of its own but despite this, all you could remember was the last time you stood here; when pig-ugly Saracens and white Land Rovers encaged in protective mesh growled their ceaseless laps while queues formed on both sides of the sandbagged sentry points at every intersecting street and the anti-rocket nets stretched up as high as your room on the fourth floor of the Europa Hotel reminding the local architects that if they ever planned a second skyscraper for the city the place would end up looking like Beirut. The fuckers were everywhere back then and you had to watch which part of town you strayed into or the Para’s, the UVF, IRA or other assorted acronyms would have you up against the wall, palms forward, legs spread, making sure their hands brushed your balls to remind you of your vulnerability. You felt the electricity down your spine again and the need for strong drink. You could head for the bar at Ten Square but there would be no getting away from the history that stank the air because that now trendy four-star reeks of its old linen warehouse in Victorian times, making it older than even the brazen City Hall across the way. Linen was an ancient industry in that northern corner of Ireland where flax growing pre-dated the shipyards and heavy engineering works. Absent aristocratic owners with seasonal addresses in Kent, Kensington and Cannes packed women into multi-storey sweatshops to sew shirts and knickers in twelve-hour shifts without even windows to catch a quick gulp of air or a hint of sunrise and many were the fire-traps that came to their conjectured end. Phil Coulter gave you the sense of it in his memorial anthem to the times:
In the early morning the shirt factory horn
Called the women from Creggan, the moor and the bog
While the men on the dole played a mother’s role
Fed the children and then walked the dog.
The Irish would still record their miseries in song but Belfast would become a better town. The hatchet got buried, but not because of the publicised political regurgitations. What happened was that the new generation had woken up to the times. The kids wanted wide-screens not weapons. The teens wanted the music of the day instead of the monotone of history repeating itself. Adolescents wanted rave parties rather than religious pageantry. New husbands wanted careers and cars in lieu of bigotry and bullshit. Young mothers told their trigger-happy husbands to grow up or get the fuck out. All turned away from obsolete patriotic fervour – when you weighed tradition-weary faction-fighting against your quality of life for the third millennium your intelligence shamed you towards a very singular clarity.
But you still couldn’t forget what you once saw here in spite of your imminent return to your adopted Australia half a world away – or more likely because of it, considering that you’re history now. The young ones have shown old men like you how all the people could be Irish together. You chose the boat so there’s no place for you in Donegall Square today.