|November 30, 2012 | Recent Events Dictate, Travels
We fly into Heathrow. Although the London Olympics are in full swing, the line moves quickly and we are processed efficiently by polite, cheerful professionals in a sleek, modern setting – the opposite of the typical American airport experience. S. takes off for Germany, and P. and L. and I get on a tour bus, a nice one with leather upholstery and an affable British driver. Did I win the lottery?, I think. I’m on tour and I don’t even have to work!
I tell my friends that I’m going to be spending a few days in Northern Ireland, living on a bus with some other dudes, no hotel rooms, and the reaction is either of polar opposites. People who are in bands/ crew/ staff, who enjoy touring, curse me for my charmed life. On the other hand, to those who don’t like touring or traveling ( which, by the way, are two different things : I’ve been to Australia, yes, but I wasn’t hiking in kangaroo country or, you know, enjoying myself, I was backstage, worrying about weird-sounding rented speaker cabinets and my chops ), this plan sounds, at the very least, distasteful.
We drive through the night and onto a ferry at dawn, and soon we’re parked in downtown Belfast, which is kind of similar to cities I’ve been to in northern England and Scotland. It’s grey and drizzly and we lock the bus and hit the street.
P: ” So, what do you guys want to d- ”
Me: ” Guinness. ”
P: ” But should we maybe eat someth- – ”
Me: ” GUINNESS. ”
L. agrees. Guinness.
If you’re into beer or have ever talked to somebody from Ireland about this particular subject, you’ll know that Guinness Stout does not travel well, and that, additionally, the stuff we get in the U.S. is pasteurized. That’s right, they BOIL it – and there’s a protocol to properly pulling a pint which must be followed to the letter, often not done so in America, absolutely done so here, under threat of, probably, lynching. I hoisted a few in Dublin when WZ played there in the 90s ( a gig apparently attended by just about everyone I’m meeting in Belfast, and one which I am roundly congratulated on — I do remember the show being totally out of control, in a good way ), and I’m excited to have another opportunity. I vow to drink as much Guinness as I can.
P. takes us to Kelly’s Cellars ( imagine an ancient Irish pub, and you’re probably pretty close to what this place actually looks like), and explains the situation. This tavern, he says, has been strongly linked to the Catholic, anti-British movement for over 200 years, and was a meeting place for the IRA in the 1970s. There are a couple of older hard men ( the current men’s hairstyle in Northern Ireland is none, as in, nearly every guy I see has a shaved head, which gives me the constant, subtle feeling that thuggery is imminent, and I guess that’s the idea ) at the bar who look like they could eat skinheads for lunch, but everybody’s ( we aren’t the only ones drinking in the morning ) friendly and in a good mood.
” Guys, hey, could you order? I don’t want anyone to hear me talk. ” whispers P. Why’s that?, we want to know, and he explains that although he’s from a Catholic ( Nationalist, assumedly ) family, the town he grew up in, about 20 minutes away, is a Protestant ( Unionist ) one, and if the people in here hear his accent, they will assume he’s Protestant and we’ll be lucky to get away with a mere beating. We wait patiently for, and finally receive, pints, and I’m drinking a Guinness in Ireland, and it tastes like, I don’t know – angels? Clouds? It is very, very good. I reflect on P.’s childhood, going to school with Protestant kids. Things must have been deeply shitty for him, although he is a jolly, wise-cracking guy and gives no indication of it. This place was a warzone not very long ago, but you’d never know it from talking to these friendly, frequently hilarious people.
( later ) We go to where P. is from, and if you have a picture in your head of what farmland in Ireland looks like ( bright green fields, moss-covered stone walls, ancient houses ), well, that’s exactly what’s going on here. It is so pretty that it doesn’t look real to me as much as it seems like something a movie director ordered up ( “ gimme an Irish countryside, and make sure it’s extra-charming “ ). The town, on the other hand, seems vaguely malevolent. Everybody I meet on this trip is Catholic, and I start thinking of Irish Catholics as ‘our team’ ( it’s stupid, but such is the fucked-up power of the political situation here that I can’t help it ), and there are British flags hanging from every window, and Loyalist murals ( we note one of Iron Maiden’s Eddie as The Trooper ), and, on our way to the chip shop ( P.’s been dreaming about this moment for months ), we pass an honest-to-god Loyalist drum-and-fife parade. It shouldn’t be anything more than a curiosity to me, but it’s kind of unsettling.
( still later ) Towards the end of the day, I’m still grappling with a nasty hangover, and P. has the bright idea of getting a local – I mean, he’s from this neighborhood, and he stops and chats with almost everyone who passes by – taxi driver to take us on a tour, which turns out to be one of the best ( definitely not ‘fun’, but definitely best ) things about this trip. Here’s the housing project with the bunker on the roof where British soldiers got choppered in, there are the big gates used to lock down the neighborhoods at night. Here’s the Peace Wall, which separates the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods ( things are quiet now, but the houses that back up on it still have chicken wire screens to prevent people on the other side from throwing burning stuff over ), there’s a fence covered with the names and photographs of people killed during The Troubles. There are a lot of names, and we take a good, long look.