It was raining in Belfast when the British Airways Viscount from London slowed for its approach to Aldergrove Airport. The rain, of course, was not unusual. To my mind, it is always raining in Belfast, a fine, sad, steady rain, dirty with the smoke of mills and shipyards and a hundred thousand coal fires glowing in the front-room grates of the squashed row houses. The Belfast rain is dirty with other things, too. Hurting things. Old angers, unforgiven grievances, the ashen taste of death. And the rain never stops.
"Have ye been to Belfast before?" said the Scotsman in the seat beside me. I glanced at his florid face, his dying pipe and tweed jacket, as the plane bumped down on the runway. He looked like a man who could no longer sell what he had sold for years.
"Yes," I said. "It’s a tough city."
"Aye," the Scotsman said, "and a sad one, too."
I didn’t go on talking. I didn’t say that I had been coming to Belfast since 1962, stopping off on my way to or from other places in the world. I didn’t say that every time I came back, there was less of Belfast, or less of me. The bombs had leveled old bars where I had sung with relatives and friends in the tight, ageless, steamy world of mahogany and chased mirrors and mugs of dark, creamy Guinness. I didn’t tell the Scotsman about the little sailor from Bombay Street, who knew the verses of every Cole Porter song ever written and mixed them with sea chanteys and Irish ballads and laughter one long drunken night in 1965 until we all staggered back to the hotel together and passed out in the lobby; or how Bombay Street had been leveled in the fires of 1969, when the Murder Gang was unleashed by the Orange Order to pour into the streets of the Catholic ghetto, burning, maiming, and destroying; and how, in the morning ashes, the Provisional IRA had been born. The little seaman from Bombay Street was dead five months later, his body found in a country field in Antrim with his throat cut and a note about papist killers pinned to his chest.
I didn’t mention him to the Scotsman, nor did I talk about all those other streets of Belfast which had seemed so much like another home to me when I first went there to meet my mother’s brother Frank Houlihan: streets where everybody rode bicycles; where old men with cloth caps stood on corners and argued about soccer, or the effect of the Panama Canal on the weather of Ireland; where young girls left school at fourteen to work in the mills, and fell in love with boys who made them gaudy promises of life in America or Australia or London town. Those streets had filled later with Saracen tanks and British troops with thick polished boots, and some of the mill girls learned to assemble Armalite machine guns in thirty-six seconds, while the boys began again to sing ballads about dying for Ireland. Others had left home, joining the endless Irish diaspora; those who stayed were sadder and tougher each time I came back, and after awhile I, too, had come to think of the six northern counties as Occupied Ireland. But I didn’t say that to the Scotsman.
"Are you stayin’ long?"
"A few days, and then home," I lied. I don’t like people who ask too many questions on airplanes.
"Well, try to enjoy it."
The plane taxied to a stop, and we waited for the doors to open. Safety belts unclicked like the sound of rifles being cocked. Through the rain-streaked window I could see British paratroopers lounging against the wall of the main building, loosely holding machine guns, a few of them smoking furtively. In front of the main gate, six members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary seemed more alert and somehow more British than the paratroopers, standing tall and stiff and implacable, with the February rain running down their dark blue gabardine coats. The doors finally opened, and one of the RUC men came into the plane, planting his broad wet back against the cockpit door, searching the face of each passenger as we filed past him. I was glad that I was not too young or too long-haired or more than half-Irish. I was also glad that I was not packing a gun.
I went past him, carrying my Hermes 3000, and walked down the stairway. The Belfast smell blended with the rain, a compost of burning wax candles from too many churches, wet wool and unwashed feet and cheap cigarettes, cordite and ruined plaster and despair. The smell and the rain reminded me again that I hated coming to Belfast, and I went into the main building past the lolling soldiers to the customs area, feeling tired and dirty.
An Irishman in a British uniform pawed through my one bag, telling me to first open the typewriter and play the tape recorder, then directing me to passport control. A thin young man with watery blue eyes waited for me behind a dais. I handed him my passport. He looked at my photograph and then at me.
"You’ve lost some hair?"
"Nature of visit?"
"What business?" he said sharply.
"I’m a reporter."
"I’m doing an article on the, uh, problems here in Northern Ireland."
He blinked, stared carefully at my picture again, as if trying to remember some other photograph, and then stamped an inside page and passed me through.
"Have a good visit to Ulster"
I walked toward a narrow passageway that led to the outer waiting room and the baggage. I glanced behind me, and saw a large tweedy man with a red moustache speaking to the passport clerk. They were watching me.
Copyright © 1983 by Deidre Enterprises, Inc.