Sunday, 11 August 2013

fada beo Béal Feirste

Google translate tells me that the title of today's post is the Irish translation of Long Live Belfast. I'm hoping it's accurate. It might not be.

I love this city. I really do. I have lived here for four years and seven days and I can honestly say that it has been one of the most enjoyable places I have lived. Most of the time. You may have seen recent reports about rioting, protests and contentious marches. These news reports and indeed the events that spur them come up several times a year, most of the time, clearly scheduled around 'historic' dates so that we all know when to expect it. Friends that I have spoken to in he past few days will know that as well as irritated with the disruption, these marches, the arguments, riots and protests leave me tremendously sad. 
I want to tell you why they make me sad; It is because that is not an accurate portrayal of Belfast, Northern Ireland or the vast majority of the people who live here. I fell in love with this city, and it was in spite of the horrible attitudes and violent nature of some of the people. It was because of the many glorious things that are at the heart and soul of the place.

Today I went to St Georges Market in the city centre. St Georges Market perfectly condenses the things about this city that I enjoy, and I believe is a true reflection of the country and the city in particular. Let me walk you through some of the things that Belfast and Northern Ireland have to be proud of, the bits and pieces which really make up its identity.

This is me, right in the centre of Belfast, happy, content and not on fire.

Where ever you go in Northern Ireland you can't avoid agriculture. Agriculture and farming contribute to over 2.4% of the economic output in Northern Ireland today compared to 1% in the rest of the UK, and this doesn't take into account associated businesses such as veterinary care, agricultural R&D, equipment manufacture etc. It is difficult to meet somebody who isn' in some way linked to agriculture (I may be biased here as I worked for the Department of Agriculture so my sample is skewed). Whether they work in a related industry or have a friend or family member who has a farm, used to farm, works on a farm, or they live near a farm, agriculture plays a big part in people's lives. This city centre market plays host to a number of Northern Irish producers, were the people who rear the meat or grow the crops are interacting directly with the public selling their produce. This is Northern Irish agriculture, from across the province, at it's finest and it is accessible to anybody who passes through the city centre.

Fresh vegetables from County Down

A farmer butcher from Country Antrim

Being a small wee island with a lot of coast and some interesting waterways (if you have a chance go and visit the Exploris aquarium in Portaferry. It explains the unusual and rich microcosm of Northern Irish coastal regions wonderfully) Belfast has a great tradition of fishing and the resulting delicious seafood. Fishing has been a part of Northern Irish and Belfast life for centuries and consequently the populace has a peculiar love for potted cockles. I still don't quite understand that but it seems essential to being considered a 'local'.

Delicious fresh fish, all from local ports: some from local waters, some from further afield

Let's take a break from food for just a moment. I know it's delicious, but I promise I'll be back with cake later. Music plays a huge part in the culture of Northern Ireland. Music is everywhere. From traditional pub fiddlers, through sectarian pipe bands, and into the commercial success of big names like Snow Patrol, The Undertones, Divine Comedy and of course Van Morrison, music is important.
It is beautiful, it brings people together, it tells a story. It gives hope and energy, it remembers and mourns. Music and the history of Belfast are inextricable and it wouldn't be a snapshot of Belfast life without including some music. St George's Market always has local performers, front and centre entertaining the crowds and breathing life into the atmosphere. Today we had a traditional act and people enjoyed it in the background or tapped their feet and nodded along with the drum whilst they  ate lunch (or second breakfast, or brunch, or a late hangover cure).
I am unable to comment on it
Sadly I forgot to take note of their names. Sorry!

I am unable to comment on the tradition or history here with any sort of authority, but Radio 4 also assures me that art and literature have their place in Belfast history. I can with certainty say that art and literature have a firm footing in contemporary Belfast. Visit almost any cafe pub or restaurant in the city and you will find the work of local artists hanging proudly on their walls. The market, especially on a Sunday, hosts a number of talented artists in many different mediums selling their craft. Overwhelmingly the artists subjects are local landscape and heritage. Artists taking pride in what is on their doorstep and capturing them on canvas, card cloth and even ceramics for people to treasure and remember.
Sketches, greetings cards and prints.
Some of my favourite images capture the industrial heritage of Belfast: the wonderful engineering of the docks and the flourishing Georgian architecture. This is the Belfast of the boom years that gave a rich manufacturing industry, that has lead to companies like Bombardier setting up and other engineering giants' contracting work to our dock yards. This is the city that made Samson and Goliath and developed a population of makers, crafters and ingenuity.

Enjoying the aesthetics of an industrial past.

People from elsewhere, in fact some people born and bred in Belfast, see the populace as white, working class, religious and either Protestant or Catholic. I can't deny that that description fits a massive portion of the populace, but it isn't the end of the story. Northern Ireland has a great number of different cultures living side by side and enjoying each others cultural traditions. 

Traditional Lebanese food anyone?
 Many people did grow up fitting themselves into Protestant or Catholic, Republican or Loyalist, but for many of them this is a trivial matter, it is a footnote in their lives. The origins, the religious persuasion, the side of the city simply doesn't matter. What matters or the things we have in common; a love of living, a love of life, a desire to try new things, to explore art, and food and culture. Belfast and Northern Ireland are, in general moving on. Nobody wants to pretend that 30 years of troubles didn't happen, that Home rule was never an issue, that people weren't neglected, shunned and attacked because of their religion or because of their national identity. These things happened and they were awful and they left scars. Now however, we are living in a time with an entire generation of people who were born after the troubles, or who were at least so young at the time to have little to no recollection of it. We have another generation of people who can clearly remember sitting at home with bullets flying through their living room window whilst their little sister was being fed and who, rather than being angry and wallowing in the past, revel in the present and use that rich and turbulent history to determine the future. 

All together now!

 People are coming together to enjoy the resources and rich vein of culture that Northern Ireland in general and Belfast in particular have to offer. People from all backgrounds, both sides of the divide, old and young, rich and poor, transplants and locals acknowledge the past with great reverence and respect but enjoy the opportunities that are in front of them. They enjoy each other, they enjoy the produce, they enjoy the skills, the crafts and the music that are available to anybody who what to reach out and take them.
That's Belfast. A city excited to see what opportunities lay ahead of them and eager to use the lessons they have learnd, and the heritage they have fought for in order to enjoy a life rich in Northern Irish culture.

Rich culture, rich chocolate. Traditional Northern Irish chocolate. This guy even speaks Irish.

That's why the protests and riots make me so sad. The people who claim that they fight and spew hatred and vitriolic statements about history and pride so often do so in the name of culture and heritage. They wave flags with an unbridled and intense passion screaming for the 'right' to their own heritage. I get sad because the heritage and culture, from every corner of the country, every walk of life is right there, being enjoyed by the people they attack. I just want them to open their eyes and lift this veil of misplaced and grasped at hatred and see their country for what it is: a beautiful, varied, eccentric and interesting hub of people.
St George's Market is a concentration of that history, tradition, cultural diversity and creativity and is thus one of my favourite places is in the city.

Oh I promised you more cake:
I call her the amazing cake lady
Look! Different cake.

Steampun k flavoured craftiness

Multicultural juiciness

The last traditional Flax and Linen mill in Norhtern Ireland.

I do love fudge.

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