The first night I arrived in Belfast I was picked up by my landlord at the airport, and you should know this was already a special event. Airport pickup is not a thing that happens even with people who love you and he told me straight away, “I don’t do this for everyone but you’re a lady travelling alone” and now you know about the perks I sometimes get.
We drove and chatted, Andrew and I. We stopped at the supermarket so I could pick up overpriced pinot grigio because I’m always going to take a favor and ride it full speed right over a cliff. And then he told me something he felt was very important that went like this: “Don’t talk to people about The Troubles,” he said. “Nobody here wants to talk about The Troubles.”
Now I knew about The Troubles like everyone but I will tell you now I only knew what I saw in movies and was pretty much just happy they were over. Also let’s not forget that I have embraced the cliche of the polite Canadian during my travels and would never ask about something so personal and potentially painful.
No one in Northern Ireland waited for me to ask about it because they love talking about The Troubles always.
My first morning on the bus, sitting next to a man in a gold cap carrying a Gap bag full of laundry:
“Where are you living? Oh okay, I know the area. This used to be strict Protestant country here, a hard place. Grim, no visitors. I still have nightmares about it.”
At the pub where you have to be buzzed in by a security button after the barman decides if you’re no threat and there are bars on the windows:
“Canadian, are ya? Well you wouldn’t have wanted to be here during The Troubles… do you know I lost a brother during The Troubles?”
A different pub on a different night — also I drank a lot in Ireland but this is probably fine:
“Last name’s McGuire? You must be Catholic then. No, it’s fine, it’s fine. I’ve got two friends who are Catholics now. Do you know I was shot in the head during The Troubles? This here (knock knock on skull) is a plate and it doesn’t even bother me at all.”
I met a friend who I plan to keep even after I go who was a journalist during The Troubles. She was kidnapped accidentally by the Dissident Republican Army but it’s OK, I guess they were nice. Also she told me at breakfast this morning that sometimes she misses the bomb scares because you got a free day off work like snow days but with terror.
“And I won’t lie to you, I miss the bomb rummage sales. Those were brilliant. Do you know I bought a settee there and I won’t even tell you the price, you’d never believe me.”
Everyone is walking around Belfast talking about this terrible thing in their history like it’s one beautiful group therapy session that never ends. All anyone seems to want is to remember The Troubles and their role, their terrible befores and their hopeful afters. They wear their survival like a designer coat they thought they would never be able to afford.
And here is the magical thing about Northern Irelanders; they laugh. At awful stories that stop me in my tracks, of hiding in the dark, of loud knocks on the door full of menace. They laugh because this is what survival looks like for them.
They laugh because they’re still Irish and they’re still here and there’s nothing better than that in this world.