Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas Glamour: The Murph versus The Village

 This year, for the first time since I was a child, I’ve succumbed to the Christmas spirit. Usually I’m a reluctant participant in the jolly goings on, and while I don’t actually say “Bah Humbug”, I think it. That was all in the past. In recent weeks I’ve discovered that threading my way through throngs of shoppers under the glow of Christmas lights no longer exasperates me. I even hum along to a few lines of the carols played to enhance our consumer experience in this, the festive season. So when I’m queuing in the Continental Market and glance up at the domed silhouette of Belfast City Council – minus its Union flag - I find myself wondering whether the festive tunes dulled the war cries of the loyalist mob that attempted, and partially succeeded in forcing its way into the chambers two weeks ago. Furious loyalists were either intending to lynch whomsoever they came upon first or scale the dome and restore their beloved flag to its place.* They failed on both counts. 
         Since that evening they’ve been venting their frustration on just about anyone. Politicians have received death threats, political party premises have been gutted by firebombs, and protesters have halted the flow of traffic, infuriating both Christmas shoppers and employees trying to get home from work. Roadblocks and rioting, to the accompaniment of XXL flag waving histrionics, have become a daily occurrence throughout Belfast - and beyond - in the past fortnight. Many traders are bitter at the resulting loss of business. One Frenchman on the Continental market was heard saying, “I only came here to sell a few sausages and have a good time; I’ve not been able to do either. Merde.
         As this is the first year in decades that I’ve felt any enthusiasm for Christmas, I’m determined to nourish this feeling, to keep it safe from the “kill joys”. Inspiration urges me to indulge my enthusiasm by running my own unique yuletide competition on this blog. I’ll be the judge and I’ll have the power to select candidates and choose a winner. The prize will go to the most glamorously decorated house in a contest between two Belfast neighbourhoods, one Protestant/Loyalist and the other Catholic/ Nationalist: The Village versus Ballymurphy, aka “The Murph”.
         Both areas have a daunting reputation in the sense that good citizens from the south Belfast monied classes would never risk venturing into either of them unless accompanied by an armoured vehicle. But I’m not from south Belfast so I’m thrilled by the prospect of patrolling the streets of The Murph and The Village in pursuit of a winner. Since I’m in search of glamour, I’ll be particularly looking for colourful symbols of Christmas, brightness, and an overall effect that causes an impact. No comments will be made on kitsch. The Murph will be first as it is only a ten-minute walk from my home in west Belfast.
The area is set at the foot of the Black Mountain; it is hemmed in by the City Cemetery to the west, and to the north/ east by a 5 metre high fortified peace wall dividing the Catholics on this side from Protestants on the other. The Murph has the dismal distinction of being No. 1 on the government’s scale of multiple deprivation, a ranking it has held for many years. Unemployment rarely drops below 45 per cent in this neighbourhood; long-term illness or disability is a reality for 29 per cent of people of working age; and 62 per cent of residents have no formal qualifications.
Walking up the Whiterock Road, a steep hill that leads northwards and up into Ballymurphy, I glance at a hoarding that reads “Coca Cola: Open Happiness”. A few yards further on a couple of doleful looking horses are tethered to a caravan on a site belonging to travellers. I pass the technical college where Seamus Heaney once taught; all the windows have metal grilles fixed to them. A number of the houses have colourful graffiti art – depicting young people engaged in Gaelic sports - on their gable ends. At the summit of the Whiterock Road there is a handful of shops, mostly takeaways, a tanning salon, a newsagents and a pub. A chill wind blows down from the mountain dispersing half a dozen seagulls squabbling over the remains of a discarded curried chip meal.
Christmas is only a week away, so most homes now have their decorations in place. In early evening, when the lights have been switched on, every street brightens with colourful displays. This is the first time that I’ve regarded Christmas decorations with anything other than a fleeting look and I’m astonished at the lengths people have gone to. A number of the houses not only have the interior bedecked, but the exterior too. Some have two Christmas trees, inside and outside in their modest front gardens. Gigantic snowmen, Santa Claus, reindeers and sleighs have been festooned with flashing lights to produce an overall effect which is quite spectacular. One householder has created a mini Santa’s grotto, sprinkled with fake snow, in the front garden. I take a few notes and photos of “candidates” but deciding on a winner is going to be a challenge. There is no way to distinguish between the best, and there are about twenty of the best. 
On the following evening it is the turn of The Village, a twenty minute walk southward from my home in Catholic West Belfast. To get there I cross the motorway which serves as a boundary/peace line between the two neighbourhoods. As I’m crossing “no man’s land” – the roundabout – I notice a convoy of armoured vehicles positioned at the entrance to the (Protestant end of the) Donegal Road; this is the start of the area known as The Village. For the past two weeks loyalist protesters have been gathering here to halt traffic and make their views known about the removal of their flag from Belfast City Council. Rioting has broken out and the police have come under attack with bottles, bricks, paint bombs and fireworks. Fortunately, the protesters have not yet arrived so I hasten past the armoured vehicles and begin my search.
A few steps further on I am greeted by loyalist paramilitary wall murals glorifying the sacrifices of Ulster soldiers killed in the First World War. At the far end of The Village, in Sandy Row, there was, until recently, a mural depicting masked and armed men, warning passersby that they were about to enter paramilitary territory. These murals were referred to as the “chill factor” in a report by the local community group. The same report reveals that local residents have a poor opinion of their neighbourhood. Two thirds were either very dissatisfied or dissatisfied with its overall appearance, while the remainder did not comment. Nobody had anything positive to say. 
On the scale of multiple deprivation The Village is ranked 22nd. Lone parents head 66 per cent of households here; 14 per cent of young people leave school with no qualifications whatsoever and literacy and numeracy problems are rife; long term unemployment is a fact of life; while teenage pregnancies, drugs and poor nutrition are among other issues singled out in the report.
It’s getting dark now and I’m walking east along the Donegal Road, the main route through the Village. At a swift pace, it takes half an hour to reach “neutral territory” - Shaftesbury Square - near the university. The Village is much smaller than Ballymurphy and it is also older; homes are mainly two-up-two-down terraced houses dating back to the end of the 19th Century. I pass a number of churches; there are nine in the area, all Christian/Protestant denomination, a few takeaways, a tanning salon and a couple of off licences. Last summer, the saplings which Belfast City Council planted along the route bore fruit: plump bright red cherries. Now, minus foliage and fruit, the trees are swallowed up by a grim landscape of grey on grey.
I’m beginning to realise that it’s a risky venture being a Catholic and taking snapshots of homes in a loyalist area at night. Fortunately, there are very few people around. But nothing, so far, has impressed me; only a paltry display lights up some of the houses and in many there’s no hint of Christmas. No lights, no trees, no Santa nor snowmen. I wasn’t prepared for this. 
Then I spot a candidate. Multi-coloured lights flash in the darkness and a giant Santa Claus waves at me. I reach for my camera … and then I see the householder taking a leisurely smoke at his front door. I consider adopting an American accent and asking if I can take a photo of his “awesome” house but my nerve fails me. Ten minutes later, just as I had given up on The Village, I catch sight of cream, blue, and red lights winking in the darkness, and just beyond, safety and Shaftesbury Square. Approaching the house, I raise my camera and … and through the viewfinder I see beaming out from the living room window “ULSTER IS BRITISH”. Yuletide greetings it definitely is not. I’m looking at a monument to the loyalist cause. There’s no contest here. The Village loses. The Murph wins. Happy Christmas everybody.

* Prior to 23 November 2012, Belfast City Council hoisted the Union Jack 365 days a year. Following a vote among councillors it has been removed from the flag pole above dome on all but a few specific occasions.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed that. I followed your route on Google Maps where Donegal Road appears as Donegall Road. Is that a political thing like Derry/Londonderry?