Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Graveyard Chronicles - Friar's Bush

"In ancient times as peasants tell 
A friar came with book and bell 
To chaunt his Mass each Sabbath morn 
Beneath Strathmillis trysting thorn"*

Summer, at least here in the northern hemisphere, is already a memory. In Ireland the nights are growing longer and the fading sun yields earlier each afternoon to the reign of the October moon. Darkness is ushering in the autumnal equinox, a time revered by the Celts because it was then they believed that the veil between this world and the other mysteriously lifted, allowing the souls of all those who had died during the year to pass beyond it. They called the festival Samhain (pronounced Sah ween); today we celebrate it as Halloween. As the date approaches I find myself casting more than a passing glance at the headstones in the City Cemetery and wondering. Its ancient pathways beckon, and momentarily I consider doing my own private midnight tour in honour of the mystery. But I don’t have the courage. It’s a dark and spooky place when the moon rises and that’s tempting, but it’s the living I fear, not “visitors” from beyond.
         Friar’s Bush graveyard, the oldest Christian burial site in Belfast and one of the oldest in Ireland, organises Halloween tours. “Safety in Numbers” I think as I pick up the phone and call the City Council. An official informs me that the tours have been cancelled for the foreseeable future; however, I can still visit the graveyard … during the day and in the company of its custodian, Gerry Ward.
         Gerry is retired and lives in the old gatehouse of Friar’s Bush. He’s delighted to have a visitor and disappears briefly into the darkness of his home in search of a thick jacket and the key to the padlock securing the iron gates of the graveyard. These gates have been closed to all funerals since 1869, excepting those who already have a family plot in Friar’s Bush. We step through them and on to Paupers’ Path, the only route through this two acre site. Dotted around us are headstones, some barely visible above the long grass and fallen leaves; a small number of Celtic crosses stand tall, in defiance of the encroaching ivy and blackberry bushes. A single magpie squawks noisily from high up in the nearby elder tree. An air of abandonment prevails.

We tread Paupers’ Path, following it to the centre of the graveyard, where a large bush, an entanglement of blackberry and ivy, marks the site that gave this graveyard its name. “In days of yore”, Gerry explains, during the times of the Penal Laws (1691-1793), mass was celebrated here by a friar who was smuggled into Belfast on Sundays. He was reputedly shot dead on the spot, in front of the very bush where he performed the sacrament, hence the name.
         Gerry tells me there is some evidence suggesting that a friary once stood on this spot, until 15th or 16th century. No trace of it, no ruins remain except for a single stone block, which he leads me to, just a few paces away from the spot where the friar was reputedly executed. It is relatively small and the well worn round scooped out section embedded on one side is understood to be the holy water font in the ancient friary. Something whispers that the solemnity I sense here was indeed born from the wise and dignified rituals once performed on this site… and from the immensity of human suffering that this graveyard has witnessed.
Numerous are the headstones here which speak of tragedies so appalling that words cannot begin to convey them. Poverty, sickness and starvation conspired to cut short the lives of almost two million people in and beyond the Irish famine of 1845-1850. Tombstones bear the names and ages, and that is all we need; our imagination does the rest:
James Bracegirdle erected this headstone in memory of his grandmother Susanne Donaldson, who departed this life on 23rd March, 1847, aged 83 years. Also six of his children. Susanna aged 2 years, Matthew aged 7 years, Jane aged 1 year, William aged 12 years, Jane aged 14 days, Also William Matthew aged 7 years.

The Bracegirdle’s headstone is a testament to their life and their death; hundreds of thousands of others were interred in anonymity. The famine pit is a large grassy mound beside the gate lodge where toadstools and Japanese knot weed abound. According to the plaque 800 people are interred here, victims of starvation, cholera and typhus, which spread throughout the city in the 1830s and 1840s. Gerry maintains that although the plaque states 800 were buried here, then he corrects himself, “dumped” here, there is strong evidence to suggest that the figure is closer to 2,500-3,000. Plans in the 1920s to “shave off” this part of Friar’s Bush and build a road across it were abandoned because of fears that typhus and cholera spores might be released into the atmosphere if the earth were moved. “It is thanks to these people that this land still belongs to Friar’s Bush,” Gerry adds.

I ask him about the ivy-covered mausoleum standing in the centre of the graveyard. “That was erected by a wealthy publican to secure his body from the grave robbers.” He affirms that many people were afraid the “resurrection men,” as they were called back then, would dig up their corpses and sell them to the medical profession for the purposes of dissection. Historically, the most renowned grave robbers were Burke and Hare, and they operated in Scotland, but “they were Ulstermen”, Gerry stresses. Another pair of body snatchers, Stewart and Feeney, was active in Belfast at the time. In 1823 the News Letter reported how, after a tip off, the authorities boarded a ship leaving the harbour one evening and found the concealed bodies of a mother and her baby, who had been buried that same afternoon in Friar’s Bush.
Gerry tells me he has lived in the gate lodge for twelve years. When I comment on his “unusual back garden” he smiles. “That’s true, but I have to share it with the residents”, he says, gesturing toward the headstones. Before he leaves, I ask about the Halloween tours,
“They were great fun and very popular. Busload after busload arrived at Halloween and we all laughed so hard, the ghosts and vampires probably as much as the visitors. I suppose we could have given somebody a heart attack, creeping around like that in the darkness.”
The Council, who own the cemetery, also thought that it was too dangerous; “and now it’s very quiet here at Halloween, just like every other night…” With that, Gerry leaves me to wander around on my own and take photographs.
I pause by the Bracegirdle headstone to imagine this site before the famine funerals, before the penal laws, before it was claimed by the friars, as it was then, as Cromac Wood. The forest stretched from Belfast city centre up through Stranmillis, where the cemetery is located, and further south to the affluent Malone neighbourhood. Leaves flutter and spin around me, falling like confetti when stirred by the autumn breeze. The lone magpie cries out again. Darkness is already descending even though the clocks do not change for another few days. The moon is rising and it’s time to go home, but not without a pang of regret that the Halloween tour is now, like the lives of all those interred here, history.
* An extract from the poem Joseph Campbell (1905) dedicated to Friar's Bush graveyard.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Belfast 3 Southampton 5. The winner is Belfast

 “Fuckin’  ‘ell” were the first words I heard on my arrival in England at the start of summer. A hearty welcome to that green and pleasant land, it certainly was not. Moments before, I’d stepped down from the train on to the platform at Southampton Central and had begun wheeling my suitcase – with its bright red “HEAVY” warning tag – in the direction of the lift. A sudden bump caused me to turn around. The case had collided with a set of male toes, fully exposed in a pair of blue and white flip flops. My mumbled apology only brought forth a look of disgust, so I hastened onward to the exit and out into my new life in Southampton.
         It was an ugly beginning to what turned out to be a great summer.
         Initially I’d been hesitant about accepting the offer of work teaching at the university. The move, even if it was just temporary, meant leaving the comfort of my own home and the company of friends for three months. I was weary of airports and reluctant to undergo yet more upheaval in my life. In the course of less than a year I’d moved out from Belfast to Tarragona and from Spain back again to Ireland. In the end, it was circumstances - no work at home - that forced me to pack my suitcase and head for Southampton.
         Like many others who arrive at a new destination, I tend to fall into the trap of making constant comparisons between where I’ve arrived and where I’ve come from. On that first afternoon it rained incessantly (and it was to continue raining for a further two weeks); even the weather in Ireland was better. Belfast 1 - Southampton 0. My student room was cell-like in size and austerity, and the coffin-sized single bed there did not promise a decent night’s sleep. 2-0 As soon as I’d unpacked I set out in search of a supermarket; cabin fever would have to wait for another few days before I succumbed.
The grounds of the student residences are bordered by dense forest and the picnic tables on extensive lawns presided over by ancient yew and pine trees suggested that one could hope for better/dryer weather. On that first afternoon, what struck me was how unusually trusting the blackbirds were. They remained unconcerned by my approach; at most, they hopped a couple of paces and turned nonchalantly to watch as I sidestepped the puddles and strode on toward the bus stop. And so it was for the rest of the summer. Each time I passed within a couple of metres of a blackbird, I pondered on the difference between the somewhat skittish Irish blackbirds and their more chilled-out English cousins. I found no explanation but I thought it a good omen. 2-1.
Standing at the bus stop, I was astonished by the number of cyclists who squished by under the deluge. Keen hardly began to describe these cyclists; stoic I believe was more fitting. Judging by the number of cycle lanes, Southampton City Council was endeavouring to accommodate them. The entire route from the halls of residence to the city centre could be travelled on a bike in cycle lanes that ran adjacent to, and sometimes through, the New Forest. 2-2
         When the rain eventually called a truce and the barrage of water between me and my new surroundings withdrew, a few tentative conclusions I’d drawn in the first days were confirmed. English gardeners are, generally speaking, keener than their Irish counterparts. 2-3 The care bestowed upon many of the household gardens I saw throughout my summer in Hampshire, the attention to colour and symmetry was a tribute to their owners’ creativity and perhaps a reflection of the nature of their connection with the land. Indeed, a number of the gardens had a certain ambience that only a scrupulous choice of shrubbery and plants could evoke. The ones I loved best, and there were plenty of them, were the mature cottage-style gardens. So, why is it that, generally speaking, Irish gardens lag so far behind those in Hampshire? It could be that the climate is harsher here or possibly that, historically, the value of land in Ireland is measured in agricultural terms, as opposed to the aesthetics of pleasing the eye and the soul. In a country which has suffered the loss of around 40 per cent of its population to famine, this is a plausible explanation. It’s also plausible that widespread evictions from smallholdings in the decades and centuries preceding the famine of 1845-1849, weakened the population’s attachment to land that wasn’t theirs, and for the vast majority of Irish it wasn’t.
         An awareness of aesthetics may also have played a role in the absence of “orange faces” amongst younger women in Southampton. Fake tans, poorly applied fake tans, are endemic in the north of Ireland. 2-4 Having white skin is eschewed in favour of hues that range from tangerine to chocolate brown. Joints, namely elbows, knees and fingers become a grubby mess of streaks that is an even darker hue than the rest. Combined with copious quantities of makeup and bleached blonde hair, the overall effect is artificial at best and caricatured at worst. The orange face syndrome is, of course, mostly class-based and therefore more prevalent in working class areas where young women mimic celebrities whose privileged lifestyles will forever be denied them.
         It seemed to me that the English love the word “no” and they also like the preface “Do Not”. Signs prohibiting this and that are posted liberally throughout the city and surrounding countryside. On a number of occasions while walking through a remote part of Hampshire I suddenly come upon a warning forbidding me to do something it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to do. Respect for the law and rule of law is much greater than in the north of Ireland. When I returned home briefly for one weekend in July I was struck by the prevalence of anti-state graffiti daubed on the walls throughout my neighbourhood. “F**K the RUC/PSNI“ (the police) and other such unambiguous messages made it abundantly clear how the rule of law is perceived in some parts of Ireland. 3-4
         Finally, there is no ambiguity at all about which city wins when I compare my journey to work in Belfast with that I took in Southampton. Daily, I walk a sullen treeless route to the university that crosses two warring neighbourhoods via the “no man’s land” of a motorway roundabout. In Southampton I followed a pathway through a forest of mature oak, pine, beech, sycamore and chestnut from the halls of residence to the campus where I taught. On the summer mornings when I started out early for work, birdsong and the occasional rustle of leaves stirred by the breeze were the only sounds accompanying me through the forest. Regardless of how many times I followed the path, it never lost its charm. 3-5.
         And yet when my contract at the university finished in mid September I left Southampton with few regrets. I was ready to return to Belfast. I’ve no plans to swap the comfortable familiarity I have with this city and the ways of its people for new terrain, no matter how enticing that terrain might be. It’s a cliché but for the time being at least, home is most definitely where the heart is and mine has fallen for a cold, damp, grey city in the north of Ireland. Warts and all.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Welcome home Fenian B*****d

One week ago my holiday ended. My flight left Barcelona at 6.00 in the afternoon in bright sunshine and temperatures of 27º. Just over two hours later our steward opened the doors on to darkness, wind and rain. Passenger after passenger descended the steps, many of them in flip flops, complaining about “Norn Iron” weather. Not me. I was elated, relieved to be home after an absence of three months. My spirits continued to soar even as I wheeled my suitcase through puddles in the deserted streets of Belfast city centre.
         Last Saturday morning the balloon burst and I came tumbling back down to earth. While on my way to the market in the city centre I crossed paths with one of the biggest marches by Orangemen in recent years. Around thirty thousand of them were commemorating the centenary of the Ulster Covenant, signed in 1912 by Protestants opposing Home Rule for Ireland. I halted at the kerbside while lines of marching men filed by to the sound of brass bands and military drum beats. Uniformed brigades were followed by their comrades wearing black suits, bowler hats, orange sashes and grim expressions.
         All this is standard for an Orange parade. I’ve seen many on television news clips but rarely have I been physically present at one, and if so, only by accident, which was the case last Saturday. An Orange march is not a place for a Catholic, for any Catholic, regardless of sex or age. Still, I wasn’t concerned for my safety as I deliberated on how I could continue on my way to St. George’s Market, for that was my plan. To cross the ranks of these men and they were, without exception, all male, is to run a risk. But I was becoming impatient, and so too was a man on the other side of the street, who stood regarding the seemingly unending parade with despair. Finally, after glancing at his watch, he picked up his suitcase, appeared to take a deep breath, dashed through the lines and headed over to the train station behind me. Dozens of bowler-hatted heads turned to follow him; there was murder in their eyes but, fortunately, all that rained down on him was abuse. Nobody thumped him (this time).
         It was while I was trying to summon up the courage to do the same that I overheard a remark about the “Fenian Bastards”. It’s a term of abuse used by Orangemen and their supporters for Catholics, and what stunned me was not the contempt, but the casual deep-rooted hatred behind the remark. I glared at the speaker in his neatly pressed black suit, orange sash and bowler hat, struck by the incongruity between his civilised appearance and his loutish bigotry. The rage I experienced brought an equally offensive rejoinder fluttering on the tip of my tongue, but it was fear that held it in check. “Had you spoken, they would have killed you,” my friend Roisin said later. I looked down at my green – all green – shirt and immediately felt vulnerable. When the march paused briefly, I dashed through the ranks murmuring apologies to the black suits and orange sashes. Minutes later I was surrounded by organic fruit and vegetables, relieved to be away from that sinister scenario.
         That same morning one of the bandsmen was pictured urinating in the entrance to St Matthew’s Catholic Church in east Belfast. At St. Patrick’s in north Belfast, where a loyalist band had played a sectarian tune that provoked days of rioting earlier this summer, the bands were bound by a legal ruling to play only hymns as they passed by. UTV video footage shows the Lambeg drum* being hit with such force outside the church that the hymn can barely be heard. The band was reported to have struck up the beat of The Sash** while still well within earshot of St. Patrick’s. Other video footage shows Nick Griffin (MEP), leader of the extreme right-wing British National Party, in attendance. “Fenian Bastards” was the term he used to respond to criticism from Irish Nationalists (Catholics) that day on his Twitter site.
         Throughout the summer, when I was teaching in the south of England and taking a holiday in Catalonia, my thoughts rarely dwelled on the political situation in back home, not even during those three days of rioting. When I’m here I take little interest in local politics because they are just too depressing. It’s a cop out, I know. By copping out I’m choosing to ignore that I don’t live in what passes for a normal society. The casual hatred with which that remark was made on Saturday morning, and subsequent behaviour, makes it very difficult to carry on pretending.
* A powerful drum popular with loyalist marching bands. Legend suggests that it was brought over from Holland by William of Orange’s troops, who fought and defeated the Catholic army of James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
**A favourite of marching bands which celebrates the defeat of the Catholic army at the hands of William of Orange. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Legacy of the New Forest

I’m standing on platform 2 at Brockenhurst train station in the New Forest, Hampshire. A mild scent of humid earth floats in the air from the grove of oak, chestnut, sycamore, beech and hazel that has edged up to the railway lines. The chorus of birdsong is dominated by the squawking and chattering of a population of magpies. I check in my bag for my ticket. The last time I stood on this platform I was laden with a rucksack and tent, thrilled to be going on holiday with my friend Jane. That was thirty years ago and the station doesn’t appear to have changed at all since then. Indeed, there’s a quaintness about it that I associate with early last century. Jane is with me today and she too notices the apparent timelessness of this place. I look at her and see only the features of my eighteen-year-old companion on the face of a woman whose adult life I knew nothing about until our reunion this morning. She has travelled down from the north of England to join me on a pilgrimage today, on a journey that pays homage to the sunshine-filled holidays of our youth.
My thoughts about our miraculous reunion are interrupted by yet another security announcement on the station tannoy. Momentarily, the birdsong ceases and I glance around at the half dozen or so travellers “loitering” on the platform, wondering how I might define suspicious activity and whether it would be suspicious enough for me to inform the police, as the tannoy urges. England has changed. Official obsession with terrorism is transforming this society into a police state where citizens are regularly encouraged to inform on each other. Trust is being replaced by a wariness that creeps just below the surface of the English tendency toward reservation.
At eighteen years old my reserves of trust were infinite. Three decades of life experience have depleted those reserves and I feel that loss now, standing in the place where I giggled excitedly with Jane in anticipation of what was up ahead, of our freedom. We travelled down from the industrial north each summer, escaping into a world where Nature was just a few footsteps away and where a rustic lifestyle still prevailed. Both of us were both passionate about the Wessex of Thomas Hardy; in it we were seeking a world more authentic than our 9 to 5 routine in a Manchester city centre government office. But we were also young and hoping for adventure. The New Forest gave us both.
The train to groans to a standstill and hisses before the doors open to the accompaniment of repeated warning beeps. We board an almost empty carriage. Our station is Lymington Pier, the end of the line, and just two stops away. Now, as then, we cry with delight at the first sight of New Forest ponies chewing unhurriedly on the heath land grass and deer that vanish with a single bound into the nearby hazel copse. Our conversation is pure nostalgia; nearly all our sentences begin with “Do you remember the time that …” and are invariably followed by prolonged laughter. Three decades-old photos we have brought with us prompt the memories, but some remain elusive. I have a photo I took of Jane standing by her bike, reading a map, but no recollection of that day. Today we are back together again, returning with our memories to the locations where they unfolded. 
The station at Lymington Pier has to be unique in England. Take a step down from the carriage and you are on the wooden pier-platform; take a few more steps and you can lean over the railings and gaze down into the sea. At the end of the pier, the Isle of White ferry waits with its bow door gaping, ready to accept passengers bound for Yarmouth. Jane and I head inland, in search of South Baddesley Road, which will take us to Norleywood, to the youth hostel where we pitched our tent, the base camp for our daily excursions. It’s early on Friday afternoon and this country road is quiet, so quiet that we can hear the bees hum softly on the honeysuckle and foxglove in the hedgerows. Horses whinny in the distance and a breeze flutters, giving us momentary respite from the heat.
The road takes us past Winter’s Wood, Church Copse, and Otter’s Hill Copse. I still recall the January afternoon I sought out the ordinance survey map from the previous summer just to touch these names, willing myself to be far away from Hulme, Salford and Bury. After about twenty minutes walking, we come upon a large red brick house with 18th century features, crowned by majestic turret-like chimneys. We both remember it. Perhaps Hardy passed by here, by this very “Gatekeeper’s Lodge” and it inspired him to create one of his many troubled characters. “You were troubled too, Karen” Jane remarks, “even back then.”
At the crossroads we turn left into an even less-travelled road. A Montessori School stands at the junction and Jane comments on the idyllic location. It is one of the very few buildings in a landscape of unbroken greenery and it too is ancient, an ancient primary school, the setting of what were possibly the happiest, unclouded years of many generations’ lives. The road becomes even narrower once it winds around to the right. On both sides there are pathways disappearing into forest glades that beckon to be explored. 
At “the splash” we pause on the bridge to take photos, posing in postures that match the ones in the snapshots I have in my bag. Then our memories fail us. Do we turn left or right after “the splash”? Jane raises her hands in surrender and so I suggest left. This takes us into the hamlet of Norleywood but no closer to our destination, the youth hostel. The homes we pass are a display of wealth; one or two of their owners eye us curiously as we stroll by. The single bus stop in the hamlet, under siege by encroaching privet and beech, gives us a clue to the location of the hostel. Beyond it stands the familiar large red brick house, but the height of the fence and the density of the hedge make it difficult to see into the extensive garden; the tall wooden gate does not offer a better view. We follow the hedge around into the adjoining unpaved lane. Toward the back there is another gate from where we can see the property. It’s definitely Norleywood Youth Hostel, or rather, was. The lawn remains just as when Jane and I camped there. I focus on the grass in the spot we always chose to pitch our tent, seeking some clue to the girl I was then. But memories are the only connection I have; they’ve brought me here and now I feel I’m a ghost.
“I think that’s a private house” a young woman smiles at us, while adjusting her position in the saddle. Her mount adjusts the position of the bit in its mouth. She doesn’t know anything about a youth hostel ever being in Norleywood,
“That must have been many years ago. I‘ve grown up here and for as long as I can remember that house has been privately owned.”
However, she does know where the East End Arms is and points us in the direction of a nearby bridle path that crosses the fields to the pub. We climb over the stile and follow the path through tall seeded grass studded with burrs. In the silence my thoughts dwell on our preparations in the tent for nights in the pub. Sponge rollers, spot concealer, eyeliner, lipstick, cork-soled wedgies and frantic efforts to smooth the creases from our denim skirts and gypsy-style tops preceded our unwieldy advance along this very bridle path and over the stile at the other end. 
         At eighteen, Jane and I caused a sensation among the East End Arms youth. For them we were exotic visitors from the North while they, for us, were the very rustics who populated the works of Thomas Hardy. In Pog, Peter, Ned and their friends we allowed ourselves to believe that we were reunited with the denizens of the woodland we had encountered in the Wessex novels. The friendship lasted three summers and memories sparkle with midnight strolls to a chorus of cricket chirping along the bridle path back to our tent, and parties in barns at the end of labyrinthine country lanes.
The pub hasn’t changed at all. The exterior is identical and even the arrangement of furniture in the bar where we sipped numerous Babychams matches my recollections. On the wall Jane finds an explanation: a large press cutting recounts how Dire Straits guitarist John Illsley purchased the property in the 1990s and vowed to keep the bar intact, just as it was. And he did. But there is no sign of Pog, Ned or the others.
         “We probably wouldn’t recognise them anyway, even if they did walk in the door now. They’re virtually old men,” says Jane.
I’d like to ask at the bar but the barmaid looks like she may not even have been born at the time we were flirting with the locals and, besides, I never learned “Pog’s” real name.
         After our final trip to Norleywood a few letters were exchanged but contact faded as all our lives took different courses; Jane went to nursing school and I entered university, while agricultural college claimed some of our East End admirers. As for Pog, he was too attached to the forest to leave it. I turn to Jane,       
“Where is Pog now? What kind of life did that farmhand from another era end up having?”
Neither of us responds to my question and now we’ll never know.
As each holiday ended our hearts began to sink; and the train journey back to Manchester Picadilly was often a silent one. Each time I returned, my life in that grim city seemed even grimmer, and I’m convinced that the happiness, the sense of feeling supremely alive, we experienced in Norleywood led to our determination to initiate change. And both of us did. That is the lasting legacy of those summers in the New Forest.