Belfast offers the thrill-seeker safe havens for exploration

October 11, 1992|By John Conroy | John Conroy,Universal Press Syndicate

In households that have been visited by great tragedy, there is often great humor. In neighborhoods where you would expect people to live in great fear, you find front doors left not only unlocked, but wide open. In a state of suppressed war, you are actually safe. Belfast is just the place for a curious traveler who thrives on an electric atmosphere, who enjoys a challenge to the heart and the intellect, and who delights in good company, humor and wit.

The Northern Irish capital sits on a natural harbor in a river valley bordered by hills. Historically known as a gloomy and threatening Victorian metropolis, in the last decade Belfast has become thriving and modern, a place where a shrewd business mind has not gone unrewarded. The city is strangely recession resistant: So many people are unemployed by the civil service, in large part because of the troubles, and so many people are long-term employed, in part because of the troubles, that industrial cycles don't seem to have much effect on consumer behavior.

And consumer behavior is much in evidence in the city center: The area surrounding the imposing City Hall supports more shopping malls per square mile than any city of comparable size could seem to support in a single location.

There is, of course, the safety issue. The fact is, you are safer in Northern Ireland than you are in most cities in the West. Some people from the Republic of Ireland go to Northern Ireland's capital for the shopping.

Because of Belfast's segregation by class and physical barriers, it is possible to stay in high-class hotels, play golf on fantastic courses, eat in good restaurants, go to the Opera House, and return to the United States without having seen anything that seems particularly daring.

The middle and upper classes in Northern Ireland live almost completely untouched by the troubles, and even in working-class areas, a visitor's chance of meeting harm is slim. While tourists are warned about muggers and rapists in New York, Washington, Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere, you'll never hear the words in Belfast.

The words you will hear are worth the trip. The Northern Irish speak a brand of English that is to be found nowhere else. A local university professor claims that the Northern Irish were fortunate to learn English during Elizabethan times "because Elizabethans became eloquent before they became grammatical."

Unfamiliar expressions

In any event, you can be sure to run into expressions and figures of speech that you've never heard before. On my last visit, a widow assessed her late husband: "He was mustard when he had drink taken." Someone else said they had been out for a "knees up," meaning they had been to a pub. A third party assessed the sanity of a journalist: "He has a slate off and one sliding." Later an insult was hurled: "Your head's a marley" (a marley being a marble), which was followed by the threat "I'll warm your ears."

John Pepper, a Belfast journalist, has been collecting samples of Northern Irish speech and behavior for years, and some of his collection speaks volumes about the nature of the province. He cites one particularly telling conversation from a Belfast radio call-in program.

A caller was asked if she had children, and she replied that she had two. The host then asked, "And what are they?" The woman replied, "They're both Protestants."

In Belfast, you can't escape it. The province is roughly 60 percent Protestant and 40 percent Catholic, and upon being introduced to a stranger, the Northern Irish begin looking for clues to their new acquaintance's religious affiliation.

Religious revelations

Many claim they can tell simply by looking, and I no longer doubt them. Others depend upon other cues. Some names are dead giveaways: Sean, Seamus, Kieran, Patrick, Damien, Eamonn, Malachy, Theresa, Bernadette, Deirdre, Finnoula and Colette will Catholic, while William, Sammy, Ian, Hope, Joy and Grace likely will be Protestant. A person's choice of words is often revealing: A Protestant may call the province "Ulster," a word Catholics rarely use, while anyone who says they live in "the six counties" will almost certainly be Catholic.

If a man refers to "the British queen," you can assume he is Catholic. If he refers to "the pope of Rome," he's Protestant. If he calls a cop a "peeler," he's probably Catholic, and he'll almost certainly call a prison guard a "screw." A child playing cricket will not be Catholic, and one carrying a hurley stick will not be Protestant. Once you get comfortable, you'll be able to guess religions by the newspapers people carry, by the soccer team they root for, by the bus they ride.

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