Thoughts from a Not-so-Distant Land

Back in June 1998 I moved to Northern Ireland with my wife and son to undertake a two-year posting. When we first told friends and family that we would be moving to Northern Ireland for two years, by far the most common response was ‘Why on earth do you want to go there?’ and ‘Who have you upset?’ For minds conditioned by media reports of the Troubles over the last thirty years, the concept of spending any time living in Northern Ireland was probably as appealing as trampolining in a neck harness.

The second response (inevitably) is that the weather is even worse than it is in England. Well, in that respect, any warnings turned out to be an understatement. There’s a saying that when God created Ireland, he forgot to put the roof on, which seems appropriate enough. My favourite is a saying from west Cork that if you can see Mount Gabriel, then it’s about to rain : and if you can’t see it, then it’s already raining! During our first week here there was one hour of sunshine – but I was in Holland at the time, so I missed it!! (Actually, it’s not that bad – it just sometimes seems that bad!)

We are currently living in a house in a quiet cul-de-sac in Lisburn, close to my place of work – Thiepval Barracks (yes, the one the IRA managed to bomb three years ago . . . . !!) Lisburn itself does not boast any of the architectural wonders of the world : the Rough Guide describes it as ‘an urban sprawl . . . best avoided’, which seems a little discourteous even if accurate. Its profile has been greatly enhanced (so I’m told) by the opening of a brand new state-of-the-art Tesco on the outskirts and a leisure complex with all mod cons including a fabulous swimming pool. From a personal point of view, there is a certain satisfaction to be derived from the fact that in the town centre is a hostelry by the name of ‘The Linfield Lounge.’ Although I have to say that the first time I walked past, there was a line of wheelchairs lined up outside : from the state of the pub it was difficult to tell whether they had a party of disabled customers or whether they were lined up ready for closing-time.

One advantage over living in England is that people normally spell my surname correctly. Whereas in England there is a strong tendency to place a ‘g’ or a ‘d’ in the middle in keeping with the placenames, over here the mighty Linfield FC (Manchester United with a twang) ensures no such mis-spellings. Not that I’m a football fan myself, of course – too much violence and kissing for me (and that’s just in the dressing room!!)

For those who have either never visited Belfast or not been there for a while, it is like a rejuvenated city. The youngsters in the office (yes, can’t you tell that I’ve just turned 40!) inform me that there is a good club scene, and there are numerous bars and restaurants catering for all tastes. Tasteful new apartment complexes are being built along the waterfront and new shopping centres abound. And as well as the lauded Opera House there are several venues for concerts, with ‘name’ bands appearing regularly. In my time here I have seen Dr John, Elvis Costello and The Divine Comedy while my wife Sarah has seen both ‘Carmen’ and ‘Manon’ (and before anyone starts drawing any conclusions about which of us is the more cultural, she also went to see ‘Grease’ featuring Luke Goss!!!!!!!!!)

There also seems to be a predilection for arriving in Ireland and falling pregnant – and we are no exception, with our second arrival, daughter Molly (good Irish name – not intended) arriving in May 1999. Living in Lisburn, we had a choice of two hospitals for the birth – either the Lagan Valley in Lisburn itself or the Royal Victoria in the good old staunchly republican Falls Road. Sarah chose the former – mainly because Mothercare was right out of maternity balaclavas.

Anyone who has visited Ireland (north or south) will know that it is an island with a great deal to offer. With a total population of only 4 million (less than before the potato famine in the mid-19th century), there is a real sense of space. The people are (with one or two memorable exceptions) very friendly and considerate and some of the scenery (particularly around the coast) is quite spectacular. We are surrounded by marvellous countryside within easy distance (such as the Antrim coast) and a two hour drive or train journey takes us to Dublin, that most bohemian of cities with its fine mixture of leisure and culture. For those who like to mix the two, the Literary Walk takes in a number of fine pubs on its route – which may go some way to explaining why James Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ is so unfathomable!!

Working for the MoD, obviously there are certain security precautions that it is sensible to take, but on the whole (particularly living here during a period of ceasefire) the only real threat we face is that of going into a shopping centre and hearing Daniel O’Donnell blaring out of the speakers. Currently the atmosphere is more tense, the peace process appearing to have reached crisis point, and no doubt there will be trouble ahead with the forthcoming marching season (good news for bowler hat manufacturers, bad news for absolutely everybody else). But with the current investment in Northern Ireland, and a definite feeling that a peaceful resolution is within grasp – slippery or otherwise – the province has a great future that, one can only pray, might ultimately compensate for its often tragic past

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