A Rasta refuge to restore one love to Belfast

 

A group of reggae enthusiasts from Belfast want Bank Square to be officially renamed Bob Marley Square, and they’ve secured the support of one of the Wailers – but the city council is not exactly enthusiastic about the idea

LAST YEAR, the first European monument to reggae legend Bob Marley was raised in Serbia, at a music festival uniting Serbian and Croatian musicians. As a report noted at the time, “the Balkans could probably learn a few lessons from Bob Marley and the Wailers’ enthusiasm for laid-back, earnest lovin’.” Now a group of reggae musicians and enthusiasts from Belfast are claiming that their own troubled native city could also benefit from Marley’s message of peace, love and unity.

They want Bank Square, outside Kelly’s Cellars pub, to be officially known as Bob Marley Square. In fact, they’ve taken the liberty of putting up their own (unofficial) hand-painted sign announcing the new name on a wall beside the bar.

Sitting outside Kelly’s on a rainy afternoon, chief campaigner Gerry McLoughlin concedes that it’s not the loveliest part of town. You reach it down a distinctly whiffy alley off Royal Avenue, and the area itself is bleak, all shuttered doorways and bad graffiti. “That’s the whole point – you’ve got grey walls and an empty square here, and we want to brighten it up and make it appeal to everyone. Bob Marley is a world cultural figure, an iconic figure of healing. Especially in the context of the recent racist attacks [on Romanian families] in Belfast, it would send out a non-racist, non-sectarian message of inclusiveness.”

McLoughlin would like to see the square opened up to graffiti artists, who would work with young people to create a series of ever-changing murals all year round. “Let’s put the colour back into Belfast, decorate the walls around us.”

Natty Wailer – one of Marley’s original band members, who lives in Co Galway – thinks it’s a fabulous idea. “Bob Marley Square was one of the first places I visited when I first came to live in Belfast. I needed to meet local musicians to jam with, and they took me to Kelly’s Cellars. Good vibes there, good people – musicians, artists, buskers, all passionate about reggae.” Natty believes that if the name were to be made official it would send out a powerful message of change to people visiting Belfast.

“I’m not a politician, I’m a Rasta man, and a Rasta man’s policy is one love. When I came to Belfast there were checkpoints at the airport, gates in the city. Now we have to remove the gates and walls in the mind, and Bob Marley Square would help make that happen. It would show Belfast is growing, looking outwards.”

But Belfast City Council remains to be convinced. On Tuesday afternoon, it sent a council worker round to erase the Bob Marley sign. By teatime the lettering was on display once more. “It takes about 40 minutes to get it back up again,” says McLoughlin. The council is engaged in a crackdown on the illicit use of wall space: its new policy of smearing fly-posters with thick layers of black or grey paint has outraged local musicians and promoters, and many people consider that the results are more unsightly than the posters themselves.

As far as renaming streets goes, proposals ordinarily should be sent to the council, who survey local residents and consider the local and historical significance of the proposed new name. A council spokeswoman tells The Irish Times, “we have not been approached to rename Bank Square, but are currently looking into this new ‘sign’.”

It may not benefit the Bob Marley plan, but the area around Bank Square is a very historic part of old Belfast. Kelly’s Cellars, founded in 1720, is proud of its status as Belfast’s oldest pub. It’s claimed that Kelly’s was a meeting place for Henry Joy McCracken and the United Irishmen when they were planning the 1798 rising; legend has it that McCracken hid behind the bar when the British soldiers came for him.

As historian Dr Eamon Phoenix points out, nearby Chapel Lane (then Crooked Lane) was also the site of Belfast’s first Catholic church: “It was built in 1784 as a gift by Belfast Presbyterians to Roman Catholic townsmen as the penal days were coming to an end.” Inspired by the spirit of religious tolerance and goodwill of that time, Phoenix suggests “Conciliation Square” as an alternative name for the area.

Yet Natty Wailer still cherishes his dream of playing with his reggae band at the official opening of Bob Marley Square. “From my years in Belfast, I know that when there’s a worthy cause, the people come up to the plate. We will get the support we need. I see a beautiful world coming.”