Has Belfast changed or have I changed? – Back “home” after 15 years

Apologies for the long silence. As alluded to in my last post, it’s been all go here.  We’ve moved country, I’ve moved jobs, and in the midst of it all I was flattened by an episode of ferocious (and probably to be expected) depression which has made it hard to write, and think. I’m starting to feel a little brighter now, so lassoing the thoughts before they float off and freeze in a cloud. Hello anyway!

Moving country. Not in any exciting, exotic sense where I’m now blogging on a balcony with a view over some bustling European piazza. I’ve moved back home – sort of – to Belfast.

I’ve written before about my feelings on my hometown, and wondering whether it was time to return.  I don’t believe there always should be a time to return; we can make our home wherever, without ever returning to the original.  It’s the kind of place that, for me, made for interesting stories but unhappy memories. (Incidentally, Derry Girls pretty much NAILS IT in terms of the more ridiculous – and heartbreaking- aspects of growing up in Northern Ireland).

London makes it extremely hard to make it your home unless you are extremely wealthy, which is ultimately why we have to leave. Supporting one family on my very modest indeed charity job income (and all the freelance work I can get too just to make it harder for myself) became impossible. We lived in a literally crumbling 2 bedroom house we were trapped in because we were on housing benefit and the fact that we were on housing benefit at all when I worked 2 jobs just felt so stupid and pointless.  Here, it’s merely just very difficult so slightly less soul destroying. Upgrade!

Robert’s from London, so it’s been hard for him to leave.  I feel like I’ve always had one foot out of it, and never felt entirely at home there.  Now I’ve left, of course I realise I was at home, because I lived there for 15 years and you’re always quantifying it on some phantom of childhood or that one night you had on a roof with people you never saw again.

It’s strange to be back. It doesn’t quite feel like back. Back is gone. I’ve become a weird hybrid of Norn-Irish/English, and it grieves me to admit it. I have all these insipid Englishisms which are utterly at odds with the Norn Irish straight talk- I say, “let’s have a chat” instead of, “we need to talk”, “bollocks” instead of, “ballix”, “privy” instead of, “toilet”, “perambulator” instead of “pram” etc. I have developed the English reticence with strangers and orienting myself is tricky.  People talk to you and it takes me a second to respond because I’m not used to being spoken to by human beings I don’t know. WHAT DO THEY WANT FROM ME?

In work, everyone leaves at 5pm. Dogs to feed, kids to pick up, and generally life to get to. People eat dinner at 5.30. I don’t know if that’s just my workplace, but it was unheard of in London, even in the charity sector, to rarely ever work past your hours.  I love this. People go to church and aren’t the facsimile lefty atheists I’m used to in the London charity sector.

It’s been almost three months now, and we can see that Oisin is starting to adjust. His spirited brrm-brrm bus journeys around the living room has ceased calling at Brixton and now stop at Rugby Road, Shaftesbury Avenue, City Centre… He says, “cave” and “eight” with that crater-trip in the middle, like a Norn Irish person does.  He says other things in the mannered English accent of his dad (a speech impediment potato in his mouth enunciating rubbing off on young minds and mouths).  He’s very impressed by the weather, lover of storms and rain and defier of parental screech from the sideline and mocker of elaborate aged sighing.


“Back”. It is strange. I left when I was 17, so I’ve never been an adult here.  I rarely ventured outside West Belfast (where I’m from) and the City Centre. I think I went to a party in East Belfast once, and remember being called, “Emma” in Sandy Row since my actual name may as well be Fenian McTaig. But a lot of the city, and the country, is still a mystery to me.  My mental map, my topography, is London.  My childhood is West Belfast, and coming back has been occasionally wrenching.  It’s not as though I’ve buried grief about the things that happened there -namely, losing my dad – but cruising past the hospital he did in a bus, the funeral parlour, your granny’s old house, no longer as memories or memorials to be honoured at Christmas but places again, part of your day and life- strange.

It’s strange coming back to somewhere you’d sermoned about authoritatively for years to people who weren’t from there, and confronting your own total ignorance about it.

I live in South Belfast which is the fairly, “gentrified” bit- not a deliberate choice but necessity in that I had 1 day to find somewhere to live and was staying with my friend of the Ormeau Road. It all happened very quickly. We had one last muted Christmas in London and then in January, we bundled into a rented car with Oisin and the cats and got a boat and then here we were to very little fanfare.


Bedroom window view.

It’s gentrified but still has a flute hall and union jacks everywhere that I’ve pretty much stopped noticing already. I’ve always hated union jacks- to me growing up they signified I was in a place I wasn’t welcome, and every sodding holiday in the UK would have them plastered all the shop, equally hated there.

Quick aside for people who don’t know what the fuck I’m on about; basically Belfast still has bits which lean towards being “Loyalist” (ie loyal to the UK, the Crown, all that) and Republican (ie not loyal to the Crown, want a united Ireland).  They’re the political terms- others are Unionist and Nationalist.  And there’s a lot of grey areas – I’m not an Irish nationalist but I am an Irish Republican, if that makes any sense.

What denotes you’re in a specific area is flags and murals. I am naturally more comfortable around Republican flags (tricolour mainly) and murals because I am from a Republican area, grew up with it, part of the scenery, so I don’t find them at all intimidating. I understand totally why someone who grew up in a Loyalist estate would.

I do find other flags a bit intimidating.  Here’s a “Seaneen Shits Herself Hierachy of Flegs”:

Union Jack

union jack

Not even a tummy rumbling, especially since the Union Jack renaissance which, even though it remains a resolutely political symbol in Northern Ireland, is more closely associated with various, “Great British…” TV shoes.

Ulster Banner


Probably wouldn’t shout my name out in this area, but again, no stomach stirrings.

Orange Order flag

2000px-Flag_of_the_Orange_Order.svgThere’s a flute hall around the corner, so this wouldn’t induce a squeaky fart as it would have done back in the day, but I wouldn’t go knocking on their door collecting for Trocaire.

UVF flag


Cramps and diarreah.

I’ve resisted posting murals and graffiti but this is an excellent blog full of them which also gives them their context. 

What’s changed though is, when I’m trying to orientate myself, friends are encouraging nuance around these things. I really wouldn’t have walked into a Loyalist area as a teenager- it’s why I don’t know much of Belfast. I’ve been quizzing my friends about different areas I’d never have ventured into- how have they changed? What’s going on there? From street to street the answer is different (it has taken me all this time to realise why people here refer to streets!) but much more different than it ever was.  I know I sound like an eejit with all my questions (“You’re from here!” But I’m not; I’m from here in 2003).

I left in 2003, which was 5 years after the Good Friday Agreement.  My abiding memories of the time are the pamphlet coming through our door and the, “Time for Peace, Time to Go” adverts on TV.

That’s just, well, celebrated isn’t the right word, but had its 20th anniversary.  Having been away for such a long time I don’t feel qualified to comment too much on the complexities of life since then, but there are some thoughtful pieces on the Good Friday Agreement here, here and here, and an event here.  And some pieces on how Brexit may entirely fuck it up and how the government licking the hole of the DUP almost certainly has, so well done there.

There’s much talk of Belfast having changed and certainly, it has.  It can be glib and simplistic to think that because we’ve got a Wagamama, because capitalism is flourishing here and hotels are popping up and people actually want to come here, it’s all well and good. We’re normal! Just like everywhere else! There’s craft beers! Costa! WE’RE BASICALLY LEEDS! We have tourists who come and write facile slogans on the “peace walls”! There are buses going through the Falls Road! Come Home was set here and didn’t reference the Troubles! (Did half expect the ‘Ra to turn up at the end and claim custody, though.  I hadn’t really appreciated the bravery of my English husband in full make up, fur coats and often a dress moving to Ballysillan when he was 18, in 2000. It was despite fierce protestations from his family which at the time I was scornful of.

And I have to say I want that to be the case sometimes, too. I like finding a fancy wee coffee shop and going, “Fuck me!” at the price and then not having any more fancy wee coffees ever again. And I like the democratising culture here, that it really does feel like it’s for everyone, and for everything, when in London, because of being poor, not being university educated, I felt so constantly on the outside and unworthy of it.  I can’t say if that’s changed, because cultural life was not what a 17 year old me indulged in while I lived here. I can say that if we were truly “just another place”, it would be a huge shame. Because Northern Ireland is different. It is morbid. It is mordant. It is silly and warm and curious and it fosters a different kind of culture.

Morbid. Another piece written by my friend Lyra, and something that has been affecting me more than I thought it would, describes the, “Ceasefire Babies” – my generation and after. Suicide since the end of the Troubles has now killed more people than the Troubles themselves.  The suicide rate in Northern Ireland is higher than anywhere else in the UK, and highest in my generation, the children reared in and born after the ceasefire in 1994, and living in the shadows of trauma. Trauma in every sense; their parents, disconnected, unheard, unhealed. The communities; closed shops, tout graffiti, broken windows. Economic, social, personal.

Northern Ireland is a tiny country and every week there’s another, “sudden death”, “tragic death”, “died unexpectedly”. All coded words for suicide. I hear more detailed stories off the pages. That bald, Northern Irish way of speaking. “Poor divil”. But the divil is ancient and forever, and these people are young, so young.

I understand why they’re coded words. Part of me doesn’t want to understand it. There are many initiatives and charities to support people, such as PIPs, but no government to implement any cohesive strategy for something that’s so complex.

It is striking and it does, on a selfish level, scare me and sadden me.  I know myself how indiscriminate mental illness is, but it’s not entirely true that suicide is. Suicide is less indiscriminate than mental illness.  Suicide kills more poor people and more marginalised people. It discriminates.

I worry about raising a child in a place where suicide is so prevalent, and so amorphous.  I always think campaigners are immune to suicide in a way- since y’know ending stigma and “reaching out” and “speaking out” apparently cures suicide, but an alarming amount of prominent campaigners for mental health here have died, and partly I would imagine because they’ve become campaigners due to losing someone close to them to suicide. And so it goes on. I don’t know to insulate and protect Oisin from it. I don’t know how anyone in Northern Ireland can insulate and protect the people we love from suicide. I remember my dad’s devastation when a friend of his killed themselves. I remember mine when mine did, she was only 16. I remember how offended I was the first time someone suggested I might have 1) got the fuck out and 2) had mental health issues due to things like falling out of bed at night when a bomb went off and living with the British army at your front door. If we can’t admit to ourselves that it fucked us up, what hope is there?

Intergenerational trauma aside, further trauma ripples.  I’m almost more worried about Oisin killing himself here than I am about the Troubles kicking off again. If the Troubles did we’d get the fuck out. But you can go as far away as space and if you want to die you will still want to.

So, strange. And I don’t want to end on such a note in this brain dump post, so here’s some lovely pictures too.






















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