Belfast, June 2017
Who the hell would say no to a Guinness and some real as real gets Irish music at Fibber Magee’s? This little bar is out the back of a Robinson’s pub on Great Victoria Road, Belfast. The infamous Europa (most bombed hotel in the world) is across the road. Fibber’s shingle reads, “Where there’s a whole lot of fiddling going on”. I strolled into Robinson’s, ordered a pint and headed out the back to Fibbers to soak it all up.
I was in Belfast for the week attending a conference. This was my last night in town. I found a seat directly in front of the band and arm’s reach to the bar. Mmmm, just right. There was about 30 people in the bar, gathered in couples and small groups. The band (a duo) had just started their first bracket.
They entertained us with a bunch of popular tunes and we (I mean me) didn’t need much prodding to sing along. Gypsy Rover, Girl from Belfast City, Carrickfergus, Whiskey in the Jar and many more besides, including my favourite, Black Velvet Band. The Guinness tasted like honey. Black gooey honey for sure but honey.
Punctuating the revelry, a guy in his mid-20s bellowed a specific request. I couldn’t understand what he was calling out for but his stubborn, bordering on boorish, insistence set me on edge. The band was polite and joked but appeared uneasy with the intrusion.
What I tell you next is a subjective interpretation of events, based on how I understand my heritage; my father’s family origins.
This was my first visit to the Emerald Isle. My father’s lineage originates further south in the Republic of Ireland. I must profess, when I flew into Belfast I was not prepared for my deep-seated feelings towards the rupture between Northern Ireland (as part of the UK) and the Republic (what my heart calls the true Ireland). My father’s grandfather came to Australia in the 1890s. Growing up we didn’t especially identify as Irish other than as a marker of our heritage. However I did grow up listening to my dad sing Irish songs like Dear Old Donegal.
So, what should have been a lovely trip to a brand new city threatened to be overwhelmed by an ever present internalised socio-political debate. Everywhere I visited seemed to throw up a new reference to wrestle. Belfast is a delightful city with so much to admire (it’s home to the Titanic AND Van the Man for goodness sakes) but the Irish problem weighed my thoughts down.
The guy hectored the band to sing his request. My prejudice interpreted him as a drunken lout demanding a patriotic Ulster theme. It seemed like the whole room was on tenterhooks. Finally the band relented. I felt uneasy. I wondered, would our Sunday evening bonhomie be turned in the blink of a savage moment into a den of despotic nationalistic fervour? Would the mood literally turn on a tune? The band called for some quiet.
Then, in a most respectful and mournful voice they started singing. It was a song based on a true event from the Easter Uprising of 1916 which marries the personal to the political, the blood of resistance to the marrow of love. They sang a song called Grace. “From our schooldays they have told us we must yearn for liberty/Yet all I want in this dark place is to have you here with me”.
They sang it with a melancholy and tenderness deserving of the tale. The room hushed. The heckler too. A collective, reflective quiet. Everything else was of little moment. To a person we lent in and absorbed the sad refrain and even sadder chorus. And, man, did the duo do it justice, chronicling the event, emphasising the heartbreak and giving the moment its due measure of foreboding, grief and love as our one indubitable truth.
The song, the performance and the pub setting swirled around in my mind. A glimmer of hope defying the long shadow of terrible centuries of bloodshed and refusal. Artists such as Seamus Heaney and U2, Gerard Dillon and Gladys Maccabe and so many others have gone deep into the darkness of the Irish soul. And I have followed many stories into that darkness. In this song, in this small pub in Belfast, in a moment I wasn’t expecting but needed more than I could really comprehend I came face to face with a story that took me beyond the troubles, beyond the unspeakable bloodshed, beyond our brute nature. And with that grace I came home.