And now for something completely different…
I grew up in a divided area of Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the tail end of what was known as “the Troubles,” a 30-year period of political strife, paramilitarism and sectarian violence.
My family’s house¹ was embedded within a small, segregated Catholic community dubbed “Parkside,” which consisted of four narrow, heavily concreted terraced streets.
The street sign for Clanchattan Street, where I lived from 1995 to 2002. The sign currently resides at Commercial Court, in Belfast’s vibrant Cathedral Quarter.
Parkside was situated on an interface adjacent the Protestant community of Mountcollyer, where – as legend has it – Jonathan Swift hatched the idea for his famous novel, Gulliver’s Travels, while admiring the view of “Napoleon’s Nose” from his home at Lilliput Cottage.
In the mid-nineties, the local council constructed a barrier, 150 metres long and 2.5 metres high, to separate the two communities. An industrial horror of brick and sheet metal fencing, it initially ran dead straight down the centre of an abandoned house; the perfect symbol for a community divided.
Evidently, this did little to ease tensions between the two warring communities. Sectarian riots were a nightly occurrence, and riot police backed by the British Army (stationed in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 2007) were routinely deployed to disperse rioters.
Much of the violence took place just out of the way of the main residential area, but there were a few isolated incidents that hit close to home.
The worst of these occurred during the early hours of Sunday morning, August 13, 2000, when armed paramilitaries wearing masks and balaclavas arrived in mini-buses and began attacking homes and cars with paint bombs, baseball bats and bricks. The loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA) was believed to be behind the attack.
The intensity of violence during this time was described by the assistant chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (defunct) Alan McQuillan as ‘the worst in 20 years.’
“Some of the rioting that we have seen in north Belfast this summer is the worst we have seen in Belfast really since the Hunger Strikes.
“It is that level of ferocity and violence. And when we are dealing with that level of violence and ferocity, we are going to find that there are casualties.”
Walking home from school during my teens, I’d slip down the alleyway next to my house to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.
When my sister was just eight years old, she was struck on her forehead with a brick while walking to the corner store with my mother. The boy responsible, who was reportedly in the youth wing of the UDA, died a short while later when a pipe bomb he was attempting to throw at Catholic rioters exploded in his hand.
Due to the high intensity of violence, in 2002 Parkside became the first interface area in Northern Ireland to have static CCTV cameras installed. These were mounted on top of four towering, 20-foot-tall Orwellian steel monoliths. The uneasy suspicion that we were drifting into a police state was brought sharply into relief when, following a series of nighttime attacks on residents, it was revealed the cameras weren’t actually turned on.
But measures to keep the community in check didn’t stop there. Parkside’s one saving grace, an exquisite Victorian park complete with ripe old conker trees and a quaint little duck pond, was thought to be the only park in Western Europe with a barrier (a continuation of the same one mentioned earlier) dividing it into two parts.
The park’s plush Victorian-era features visibly jar with the modern addition of the brutal “peace gate.” Alexandra Park as it looked in the 1800s…
…and the park as it looked a few years ago (the gate was officially opened in 2011).
Every now and then, the park would explode in a flash of violence. I remember playing football with a friend, when two local lads jumped over the gate on the far side of the park and sprinted past us. We watched in awe as a large man dressed in a tuxedo, his white shirt drenched in what appeared to be blood, appeared outside the gate.
He shouted to us something along the lines of “we’re gonna get you for this” – exactly like a villain from a bad movie. As we later found out, he was in fact a known member of a loyalist paramilitary organisation in Belfast. He had been attending a wedding reception; apparently, the two Catholic lads mentioned above had broken in and smashed a bottle over his head.
As a result of the ongoing conflict between the two communities, Parkside fell into decline. By the time we moved out in 2002, many of the houses had already been abandoned and were in a state of dereliction (cue Bruce Springsteen). Over the next eight years or so, conditions only grew worse.
In 2010, a local community television station made a documentary about residents’ attempts to force the council to implement a regeneration scheme that had been proposed in 2005.
After much kvetching, the council caved in to residents’ demands, and in 2011 the area was razed, then subsequently rebuilt, as part of a multi-million pound regeneration project.
My old street as it looked prior to regeneration…
…and how it looks today (feel free to scroll around).
While clearly a damn sight better than the Dickensian squalor it once was, it’s sad to think that I’ll never be able to revisit the streets where I used to play football with my friends.
Never mind. As they say in Belfast: dry yer eyes, mate.
¹My house was inadvertently photographed by US photojournalist Marissa Roth as part of a 30-year project examining the effects of war on women, titled “One Person Crying: Women and War.” Click here to see the photo (my house is the one on the corner, facing the camera).