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Hockey Night in Belfast

Short story By: Derek Simon
Travel



Two Canadians visit their grandmother's hometown of Belfast, and discover some surprising connections between Ireland and Canada.


Submitted:Jan 4, 2009    Reads: 641    Comments: 2    Likes: 1   


"Yuppie condos. They're everywhere."

The cab driver pointed to a shiny new development across the River Lagan whose gleaming glass and metal looked somewhat out of place in this formerly industrial area of Belfast; a sign of how far the Northern capital had come from its troubled past.
I had left Canada in September and had backpacked around Europe for several months before making my way to Ireland. Although my eventual destination was Dublin, it was appropriate that my first stop was Belfast, the city my family had left almost ninety years before to make a new life in Canada. I had arrived the day before on a fast ferry from Scotland. The ferry's plush seats, televisions and short crossing time stood in stark contrast to the long uncomfortable ocean voyage my grandmother's family undertook so long ago. They would have traveled third class - "steerage" as it was commonly known. Family legend says they narrowly cheated death in 1912 when they failed to save enough money for passage on the Titanic. Had they had the money for their tickets, they almost certainly would have died. Very few third class passengers survived when the ill-fated liner went down in the icy North Atlantic.
Yet, despite the very different circumstances of my arrival, Ireland was probably no less alien to me than Canada would have been to my grandmother and her family when they first arrived. Growing up in Canada, I had always been aware of my family's roots in Ireland. But my upbringing could in no way have been said to be Irish. I knew little of Ireland's culture beyond the usual stereotypes. By the time I was old enough to remember, my Granny, the last living link to Ireland, was too far gone with Alzheimer's to tell any stories. Even if her mind still had been sharp, it's doubtful she would have remembered much anyway. She left Belfast as a very young girl. Her only memory of the trip to Montreal was the sound of plates breaking in heavy seas. Among the family itself, no stories from Ireland were ever passed down. I was 10 years old when my Granny died - and that last living link was lost forever.
In grade school, when I decided to do a class project on Ireland, there were no family resources to turn to. I had to prepare a "typical" Irish meal, but we had no recipes that had been handed down through the generations. I ended up using a cookbook I borrowed from the public library to bake a loaf of Irish soda bread. In fact, with no family records or heirlooms to speak of, virtually all the research for my report was conducted at the library. I even had to borrow a tape of Irish music from a friend.
Frequent trips to Canada's East Coast during my youth, however, where the Irish songs brought by generations of immigrants are still popular, first sparked and then nurtured my love of Irish music. In high school, I had picked up the habit of celebrating St. Patrick's Day with friends, and this carried over into university, where Paddy's Day was a prominent part of the campus pub scene. I joined the "Irish Student's Association", a club that organized Irish pub crawls, movie nights and trips to Ceilidhs. Despite all this, my experience of Irish culture was still very much second and third hand, and often in the nature of the stereotypes of shamrocks, leprechauns and green beer.
In 1999, my family learned we were eligible for Irish citizenship under the "grandmother rule," which allowed anyone with a parent or grandparent born on the island to claim citizenship in the Republic of Ireland. The rule was made famous by the Republic's national soccer team, which had used it to recruit players of "Irish" descent no matter how tenuous their link to the Emerald Isle.
Even though my grandmother had been born in Belfast, which is in Northern Ireland and not the Republic, the rule made no distinction. Regardless, my grandmother had left before the country was partitioned, so that distinction would have meant little to her anyway. So as tenuous as our own link was, my family filled out the paperwork, were approved, and received our passport. We had become what the Irish refer to as "plastic paddies" - citizens of a country none of us had ever set foot in.
Sensing that disconnect, I soon felt my new citizenship should be put to some use. After graduating from university, and saving some money, I packed my bags and moved to a country I'd never seen, to a place where I knew no one and had no living relations.
I admit I wasn't sure what motivated me to make the move. Certainly, it wasn't the age-old desire to find more branches on the family tree. The genealogical research had already been done, and there was little I could add. But perhaps I felt a need to earn the citizenship I had so easily acquired. Or perhaps I wanted to develop a sense of what, if anything, it meant to be Irish or to be of Irish descent.
So on a chilly December day, I arrived in my grandmother's hometown of Belfast, in a reverse migration, not really knowing where I was going or what to expect. Whereas my family had gone to Canada with a clear desire to build a better future, my goals were not so well defined. Was I here to explore the past, or learn where I stood in the present? A little of both, I suppose. Either way, I was on my own, and unsure where to begin.
I soon found myself with some fellow travelers on the standard backpacker's introduction to Belfast - the black cab tour. Conducted by local cabbies in classic old black "London" taxi cabs, the tour gave me a general overview of the city's famous landmarks - such as the Crown Liquor Saloon, with its elaborate tiling and stained glass, and the legendary Harland and Wolf shipyards, where the Titanic had been built.
The tour also delved into the darker side of Belfast's history - The Troubles, the 30-year period from the late 1960s to the late 1990s when terrorism and sectarian violence gripped the region. Having occurred long after my family had left Belfast, what I knew of those times came partly from friends who had emigrated to Canada, but mostly from the sound bites and images that one would see on the television, the palest imitation of reality.
The tour brought that reality much closer to life. We drove through the Protestant Crumlin Road, where the red, white and blue of the Union Jacks decorated homes, shops, curbsides and telephone poles, and along the Catholic Falls Road, where the green, white and gold of the Irish flag were similarly abundant. In each neighborhood you saw the walls covered with their respective murals - glorifying the violence and sacrifices of years past.
We saw the so-called "Peace Wall," erected to separate the city's various warring factions and keep them from lobbing rocks and explosives into the other's neighborhoods. We also passed the old Crumlin Road Courthouse, the scene of the trials of thousands of Republicans and Loyalists during The Troubles. No longer in use, the scales of justice had been taken down from its walls.
"Some say there was never any justice there anyway," our cabbie ruefully noted.
On that first day, however, Belfast struck me as a city largely getting on with life in the wake of the peace agreements of the past decade. There were still the occasional violent flare-ups, but overall the city seemed to be trying to keep its past behind it. Indeed, I found a very different Belfast from the one portrayed on the nightly news. Its downtown core - with its imposing Edwardian city hall set in a trim square - hummed and bustled with busy shops, cafes, restaurants and nearby market stalls.
The next day, dispensing with the guidebook, I headed straight to my Granny's old neighborhood. Although in the midst of redevelopment, Granny's childhood home was still standing - a nondescript house in a large estate of brick row-housing. Their drab, working class style having long fallen out of favour, they were being rapidly replaced by more modern, elaborate structures, further sign of Belfast's growing prosperity. I stood outside the door, but, not wanting my past to intrude on someone else's present, I decided not to knock. I merely took some photos and left.
From there, I grabbed a bus out to the suburb of Dundonald, to visit my great grandmother's grave. Mary-Jane Dupleix had died at a young age, leaving a widower and two children behind, one of them my grandmother. Mary-Jane's early death meant she was the only member of the family who had not made the trip to Canada - left behind in a grave that had originally been intended as the family plot. Her grave had no headstone, the only identifying mark was an iron railing which stated "family Burying Ground of W.H. Dupleix." William Henry, her husband, and the rest of her family were buried on the far side of the Atlantic. For the longest time, the family didn't even know where Mary-Jane's final resting place was located until a colleague of my father's tracked it down.
At the cemetery gatehouse, I got directions and found the grave with its rusting iron rail. Since my parents had visited a few years earlier, some of the adjacent overgrowth had been trimmed back. I couldn't help but have a sense of loneliness for this woman, separated from her family even in death, not even buried under her own name. I hoped a visit from a family member might ease a measure of that isolation.
Before leaving the cemetery, I jotted down detailed notes on the grave's location for those who would follow in my footsteps.
----------------------------------
I returned to Belfast almost a year later, this time accompanied by my cousin Brian. Although by now I'd become somewhat desensitized to the stark reminders of Belfast's troubled past, Brian experienced moments of culture shock. The abundance of barbed wire fences and the garish murals with their hateful messages took him aback. Even I was a bit surprised as we passed a children's playground and spotted a wooden tank as a plaything. Later, while shopping at a supermarket, we heard a loud racket outside, and looked out to see a parade of Orangemen marching by.
We visited my grandmother's childhood home, by now inching that much closer to demolition. Someone accosted us when he saw us photographing his house. Hardly surprising in a city that had been through as much as Belfast had. However, softened considerably once we explained our reasons for being there.
We paid our respects at my great-grandmother's grave, this time leaving flowers. We also inquired after the names of some headstone makers in Belfast for my father and aunt, who planned to finally ensure Mary-Jane's resting place received the recognition it deserved. The better life my family had sought and found in Canada now enabled us to come back and pay tribute to those who had made the sacrifices to get us where we were today.
Later that day, while taking in modern Belfast, we uncovered an unusual link between Ireland and Canada.
The Giants, Belfast's Ice Hockey team, are one of the most popular and successful teams in the Elite Ice Hockey League. In a city where hockey has no history, the Giants routinely sell out their 7,000-seat arena, the Odyssey. It is partly the lack of history that makes them so popular. In Northern Ireland, the established sports tend to carry with them sectarian connotations. Soccer and rugby are largely played and watched by Protestants, and Gaelic football and hurling by Catholics. Hockey, with no local roots, manages to cut across that sectarian divide. Both Catholics and Protestants can play, and with only one rink in town, they play together. A Giants game is a safe place to take the family without having to worry about the political and religious tensions that often accompany the more established sports.
Although Canadian players dominate the Giants bench, the community has wholeheartedly embraced the team, with Giants paraphernalia plastered all across the city. So what better place for two Canadians to go in Belfast than a Giants game? Had she still been alive, our Granny, a devoted hockey fan, would certainly have joined us.
Despite the game's recent arrival in Belfast, we found the locals as excited, boisterous and knowledgeable as any Canadian hockey fan. That day, the Giants faced off against the Sheffield Steelers, a fierce rivalry comparable to any back home. In fact, the announcer repeatedly reminded us there had never been a Giants-Steelers games without at least one fight.
As the third period wound down, however, with the Giants leading 3-2, it looked as if the Belfast crowd might not get the fight they had been promised. But the Giants saved a surprise for last. As the final whistle sounded, a fight broke out and quickly turned into bench-clearing brawl as players on both teams scrambled onto the ice, sending the crowd to their feet. The ice was strewn with discarded sticks, helmets and gloves as the players, fists flying, tussled with each other. In short order, the Giants gained the upper hand and sent the Steelers fleeing to the safety of their dressing room. The crowd cheered as the Giants did a victory lap around the rink, hoisting their opponents' gear up on their sticks, like Roman Legionnaires displaying the weapons of a vanquished foe.
As the crowd gave their team a standing ovation, I reflected that, in all my years as a hockey fan, I'd never witnessed anything like this. While I have never been much of a fan of fighting in hockey, in this case, I could see how it might provide a safe outlet for aggression in a community trying to heal the wounds of the past. As the Canadian descendants of a Belfast-Born hockey fan, my cousin and I were proud to be both Canadian and of Irish descent that night. Maybe our connection to the past had not been lost after all.




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