Ken had been in grad school majoring in nuclear physics. It was a field he loved and it seemed like a good investment too. But things don’t always go the way you imagine. By the time he got his PhD., government funding for research was cut and jobs in his field were almost nil. What were we going to do? How far away would we move for a job? We talked about the Peace Corps and even applied. I was hot to go someplace different. “Let’s make a different life,” I said.
I got Ken to apply with me and we were offered an assignment in Malaysia. I was geeked! Tropical, geckos… different! But Ken dragged his feet. One night when we were going over the few options again he admitted that he wanted to work in his field, not teach English or dig wells. Taking a deep breath, I asked him what he was thinking of.
I knew Malaysia was disappearing.
“Ireland,” he said. “There’s a two year Post Doc position in Ireland. and they want me.” Now when you think of Ireland, it’s almost a given that you think of southern Ireland. You know, all that green and sheep and happy Irish people singing in pubs. I certainly did. That sounded okay, more than okay. I pictured living in a thatched cottage outside of Dublin. He must have applied to Trinity, I thought.
Nope. He had NOT applied to Trinity.
He had heard about a position at Queens University in Northern Ireland. In Belfast to be exact. Who would apply to Belfast?
“Are you crazy?” I said. At that time, in the seventies, Belfast was NOT a tourist destination. It was a dangerous place. People were getting killed, not every day, but often enough. Who would apply to go there?
Image: Belfast Telegraph
“Mary, we’ll be fine. We’ll be at the university and we aren’t likely to be a target since we aren’t even Irish.” I was not convinced. But, Ireland it was.
The family was, as you might guess, not enthusiastic. But they held a farewell party and said they’d come to visit (if the situation improved). I teared up. Then I sobbed.
The pictures I had seen of Belfast (sitting on the floor of the library, frantically searching travel guides and newspapers) showed shipyards and gray buildings. There were people tossing rocks at each other. Not happy Irish people raising glasses in a pub. These people were angry.
They were exploding bombs. In Pubs!
Nobody would come to see us! They would be crazy to risk it. Still implacable Ken remained calm. He assured me that we would be fine. He pointed out that his position in Belfast was at Queen’s University. It did not place him in danger. The whole thing was overplayed for the news. I was unconvinced and he knew that, but I would go almost anywhere with him even though Belfast was pushing the limits.
We flew over the Atlantic. Ken drank a Guinness. He didn’t like it, said it took getting used to, but he downed it.”Gotta get in the mode,” he said. I drank ginger ale to calm my stomach. We landed at Shannon Airport. “Oh, I thought, I wish we could get out here.” But noooo. We changed to a smaller shuttle to go north, the troubled place.
For the first few days, the weather was great, sunny and warm. It was May, so I just assumed it would stay like that, a nice balmy seventy-two. But when the local paper used the weather as a headline and warned people to refrigerate their milk and butter, I suspected the weather was not the norm. Soon enough it went back to sixty, sometimes below sixty. It stayed there and the skies clouded over. I pictured people back home walking the streets in shorts, while I wore my coat when I went out.
We found a brick cottage at 10 Cloreen Park.
Image: Google Maps
It looks charming in the photo. It WAS charming, But, there was no need to refrigerate the butter. (We didn’t have a refrigerator anyway. Lots of people in Belfast didn’t back then.) There was no central heating and the house was frigid. It was also damp. The cupboards harbored mildew, no matter how often I wiped them down. I knew I had to make the best of things, so I put on two sweaters and got busy.
We bought some chairs and a table from a sweet young guy at a consignment shop. (He will be in the story later) We made fires of coal in the fireplaces huddled in front of the fire. The fires left a film of soot over almost everything and I understood better why maids were always dusting in 19th century novels. We worked to make a place for ourselves.
Three days after we arrived and settled in, Ken went off to work and I walked the neighborhoods scouting places to buy food. It was all so different! A shop might have potatoes and cabbage and apples. That was all. Lettuce was a rare treat. Often enough I couldn’t find it. Bread, delicious bread was sold only in bakeries.
So, I’d walk to Stranmillis road (pictured below) and buy our bread for the day. I learned to buy only enough for the day so food did not spoil. If I wanted meat, I went to a butcher shop where whole pigs and lambs and cow carcasses were hanging and the smell took getting used to. The butcher was nice and sympathetic to the strange American. He took his time in talking recognizing that I struggled with the Belfast accent. One day, he gave me a butcher apron blue and white striped, which I still have. The Grandkids put it on to make cookies. Things were going along okay from day to day.
Image: Google Maps
The first sign that the trouble was real, not imagined, happened when I went to a flea market with the wife of one of Ken’s colleagues, Bridget (pictured in blue dress in second picture from the left in the header). She was young and lovely and pushed her one-year-old little boy in a stroller. I was thrilled to make a friend.
The flea market was outside market filled with chairs, and lamps and china. It was another chilly day, so I wore my coat and a red and white scarf. We needed plates, so I stopped by a table that featured china while Bridget moved on to look at something else. I held up a plate rimmed with dog roses and considered it. The price was right. We could use about six of the plates. I reached for more plates when I felt myself jerked back by someone. Hard. I struggled to breathe and hold onto my plates.
A man’s voice, angry, threatening sounded behind me.
“Your not welcome here. Get out before I throttle you.” He kept tugging at my scarf while I clutched my plates. Bridget saw the ruckus and rushed over. “Go on, you, she said. She has nothing to do with this. She’s American.” The man let go of me and skulked off.
“He thinks your Protestant because of the scarf. One of the schools has red and white for their colors.” She looked remorseful.
“Oh,” I said for want of anything else to say. She seemed to think the whole thing was no big deal. I took the scarf off and crammed it in my purse.
I went home with the plates. We had potatoes and cabbage for supper. Very Irish. Very cheap. (Which was true of most of our meals that year.) Potatoes, cabbage, carrots, turnips were what we had to eat. Sometimes we had beef stew, but not often.
We didn’t have much money.
Post doc positions don’t pay much. In truth, we were poor. We made the rent on the house and had enough for food and occasional Sunday night suppers at the only place in Belfast that was open on a Sunday, the local Chinese restaurant on Ormeau road.
The night of the flea market incident, I told Ken the scarf story while we ate cabbage and potatoes. “Good thing Bridget was nearby,” he said. He gave me a hug, but he didn’t seem overly worried. I sort of wanted him to be worried. I wanted him to be aware that I was worried. If I could be accosted while I was shopping with a friend, what else might happen?
We would soon find out.
We slept in a bed we had bought from the sweet guy at the consignment shop. It was a monstrous oak structure with a carved lion’s head in the middle of the headboard. We had flannel sheets in a blue and white stripe, feather pillows and a blue blanket. I wore flannel pajamas. It was June by now and the house felt like December.
I was reading a travel guide to Northern Ireland that kept touting the Giant’s Causeway and figuring out when we could go to see it. Ken was reading the local paper. We were both scrunched down under the covers plenty warm if we did not get out from under the covers.
The bedroom window rattled. I held my breath. Again another Boom! There was a pub on the corner of our street. It was not yet closing hours. Sirens sounded. I knew what had happened. Exactly what I was afraid would happen.
If I got out of bed and went down to the front gate, I would be able to see the pub, or more likely, what was left of it. Ken did. I didn’t. He came back upstairs to say it looked like the bomb had done a pretty good job of it.
‘The people?” I asked. He was quiet. He didn’t know. Other people on our street had come out, but almost everyone went back into their homes quickly. Nobody wanted to stand out or be mistaken for an IRA person. I huddled under the blankets and listened as the last of the sirens faded.
“This is not a tourist destination, “I said to Ken.
“What a thing to say,” he said. What I wanted to say was that I thought we should leave, but I couldn’t quite say that, not then.
Ken, always logical, thought I was overly distressed. We were going to be fine.
Next day in the paper, there were photos of two men who had been in the pub and were killed when the bombs went off.
“See,” I said to Ken in my I-Knew-It-All-the –Time voice. “See?”
Our neighbors took Ken’s view. “ It’s the Troubles,” they said. “It’s just a bit of trouble. We’ll win out.”
I averted my eyes when I walked down Stranmillis, past the shambles of a pub, to the university where Ken’s department was holding a tea. I went up to Ken’s department. Inside Queen’s University, there was a fireplace with a fire lit. There were sandwiches and scones and, my very favorite, Ormeau Bakery coffee boats, a kind of shortbread with a creamy mocha frosting. I tried not to make a pig of myself. The conversation never touched on the bombing, which wasn’t all that far from Queen’s. The safe topics were bandied about, the latest soccer scores, and a new group of singers come up north to perform, the Chieftains.
Ken got us tickets to go hear the Chieftains who performed at Queen’s University. Their spirit, their music, lit a fire inside me that night. And, for a time, at least for that night, I believed it could be alright. We’d be fine. The troubles would calm down.
Okay. That’s a stopping place. We heard the Chieftains two more times, once with our children. This last time at Hill auditorium in Ann Arbor. They have changed. It’s been thirty years. We have changed. But their music still gives me hope. It makes people get up from their seats and clap until their hands hurt. It makes all kinds of trouble seem far away.