BELFAST — It is a balmy, lemon-yellow evening and I am standing outside a large glass and cement structure called Waterfront Hall, completed last year along the River Lagan in Belfast where people have the capacity to loathe a stranger based solely on beliefs or a baptism. Community input here means a funeral or a fire, yet it occurs to me that in the middle of shootings and bombings they have managed to achieve something that seems out of reach in Boston: They have built a convention center. Earlier, with the town in the grip of unseasonably warm weather, I am strolling White Rock Road in West Belfast, reminded again that a hot sun is truly the full moon for the Irish. Half the men out on stoops are nearly naked, their skin the color of boiled lobster claws.
Here is what you can get in the North: An Armalite-rifle. C-2 explosives. A bazooka. Hand grenades. Flamethrowers. Surface-to-air missiles. A majority voting for peace. And here is what you cannot get: Sunblock.
At the intersection of White Rock and Ballymurphy, Cian Moran is sitting on a milk crate outside his flat. He is wearing a tight blue Speedo bathing suit. He is a heavy man. It is not an attractive sight because his stomach is at war with the elastic waist of the swimsuit and from a distance it appears Moran might be eight months pregnant as he basks alongside his girlfriend, Claire Corrigan, who, incredibly, is not blind.
“Did you bring any of that Viagra with you from America?” Moran wants to know. “That would do the boys a world of good, wouldn’t it luv? That’s the worst moment of a man’s life, failing in bed. I vote yes for Viagra.”
“Worse moment of your life was when the Park View was shut for repairs,” Corrigan tells him, referring to a bar alongside Milltown Cemetery.
That cemetery serves as sort of a huge community center for a people raised on funerals and sad farewells. The caretaker, Sean Armstrong, talks about it as if he were the curator of a macabre Hall of Fame, pointing out where various people’s remains lie, how they died, and whether they were on “active duty” when they fell in the long fight against England.
“Oh, cemeteries are big stuff in Ireland,” Monsignor Denis Faul points out. “Big stuff.”
So are priests. In the absence of a true, old-fashioned political network, priests are a combination of state reps and city councilors who are wired throughout their parishes. Nothing happens without their knowledge. Not a birth. A death. A fight, a plot, a prayer, or a promise. Nothing!
Back in Holy Trinity Church, Mary Kelly sat with bowed head a few days prior to the biggest event in her life. She is 91 and could barely wait to cast a ballot for the future last Friday.
“Not so much for me but for the younger people,” she observed. “People like my son.”
“How old is your son?” she was asked.
“70,” she replied.
In one day, she sat through two Masses, a First Communion, and a gypsy wedding. The church is actually her second home. It is a quiet haven from the horrors that have stalked the old lady’s neighborhood for at least 30 years, filling the streets around her with an awful sadness and a nearly constant violence that leveled off only in the past three years but now, with a tremendous “Yes” vote, could actually recede to the point where children born today could assume a normal childhood tomorrow.
That sound — laughter — remains the hallmark of a resilient people who have survived a horrible history due, in some small measure, to the safety net provided by their own sense of humor. Their city and country have been mangled by murder and bigotry, but the people are still standing, some of them even hopeful, in a place progressive enough to vote for peace as well as build a convention center that can’t get off the ground back in Boston.