The war is over. Feral boys are everywhere

At the vibrant Féile an Phobail, it was hard to imagine that the Falls Road was ever a war zone


There was a rose that grew in Clare, and when my father moved to Cavan he took a cutting with him. In Cavan the rose grew strong against the back wall of our house when I was a child. Later in life I took a cutting to Arigna and planted it beside a wild Leitrim rose. Over the years the two roses thrived and in time their branches intertwined.

I’m always telling this story. And the General always throws his eyes to heaven and says, “Piteous Christ! You are a sentimental fool!”

And maybe I am, but sometimes I look at those rose petals and think that, even if there is no God and we are alone, there is nonetheless something beautiful about how the universe evolves through time and how things grow together.

I was in the Rock Bar on the Falls Road last week, to do a reading as part of Féile an Phobail, with the playwright Peter Sheridan and Hollie McNish, a star of YouTube.

McNish, a thirtysomething English poet, performed poems about her body parts, and delivered one particularly wonderful meditation about a man’s penis. She performed as if the poetry was coming up through the floor; every chakra in her was on fire and the audience was mesmerised. They doted on her, this young English poet, as if she were a neighbour’s child.

It was hard to imagine that the Falls Road was ever a war zone. Although Gerry Adams sat in the audience, in denim jeans and an open-neck shirt, his expression was now tinged with the melancholy of middle age, and he glowed with that sense of belonging that politicians enjoy when they are among their own people.

When it was all over the writers went off to a fish restaurant for dinner. I sat in the back of a taxi with McNish as we passed a site where young boys in hoods were preparing a bonfire. They had wooden palates stacked 30ft high, and crowned with Union flags, which would burn later when the flames were roaring.

Now that the war is over, these feral boys are everywhere; teenagers without faces, a kind of vagrant orphanage on the rampage. They haven’t yet found a civic grammar with which to converse with their enemies: the other boys who live across the road in loyalist areas.

Danny Morrison joined us for the fish and chips, beaming like a healthy grandfather, and his conversation was erudite and witty. But no one mentioned the war.

Instead we talked of art and about the paintings of Sean McSweeney. McSweeney’s dedication to the Sligo coastline always reminds me of the Zen philosopher who painted the same reeds all his life. He hoped that eventually he would be able to paint not what he saw of the reed, but what the reed was in itself.

When the meal was over, I walked back towards my hotel, and had a nightcap in the Crown Bar, where Dermot Healy used to drink, when Belfast really was a war zone, and I muttered a toast to Healy and McSweeney as I held my brandy glass in the air.

“What are you doing?” the barman inquired.

I said, “I am toasting two Zen masters who live on the edge of the Atlantic.”

Morrison had suggested I go to a lecture the following day about the history of unionism in the Shankill Library, which was also part of the festival programme.

Féile an Phobail is a marvellous achievement. It started at a time when everyone thought the people of west Belfast were barbarians, but over the years the festival’s vibrancy has demonstrated the resilience of Belfast communities as they struggled to draw themselves out of a mire that was not of their own making.

Heading home I stopped at a shopping centre off the M1, beyond Lisburn. The aisles were as quiet as the cloisters of academia. No loud music disturbed the tranquility of elderly couples in the cafe. The buns were eaten with unrushed decorum, as if their sweetness might last forever.

And it seemed so far away from the city’s bonfires and the unruly poor that I wondered for a moment was I in the same country.

But then I saw a hooded boy at the door, with the uncertainty of a meerkat, and as I passed him I could see that beneath the fearsome cowl he was hiding nothing more than an adolescent tenderness, and cheeks as delicate as any rose.

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