An Irishman's Diary


THE OPENING of a large hole in Belfast’s Cromac Street last weekend was a worrying omen, right enough, especially with the peace process stalled again. But it could have been worse. Imagine if that underground “air-pocket” had opened up a few hundred yards east of where it did, causing the collapse of another Belfast thoroughfare: Hope Street. The psychological damage to the North might have been permanent .

I often passed Hope Street during my tours of duty in Belfast, being, as it was, just around the corner from The Irish Timesoffices. It was a short street and, even more ominously, it came to a bad end, at least from an architectural viewpoint. Even so, it was always reassuring to see the sign. That there was an evangelical church on the corner, with a billboard offering advice on how to reach the promised land, added to its aura of optimism.

But back to Cromac Street and the reasons for the recent cave-in. Because what amazes me is that, until then, I had never heard of the phenomenon that caused the problem: “Belfast sleech”.

As I have since learned, this is the name for the alluvial soil on which most of the city is built. Engineers jokingly refer to it as “reinforced water”. But its shiftiness – or “quasi-thixotropicity”, as the engineers call it when preparing their bills – is such that much of Belfast had to be built on timber piles, just like Venice.

Freedom of sleech has long been a problem in Belfast, apparently. In fact, never mind Venice: thanks to sleech, Belfast can claim a slightly more convincing comparison with an Italian wonder.

In the Albert Memorial Clock, it has its own version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The former was built in the 1860s in honour of Queen Victoria’s husband. But it soon began to list and was four feet out of the perpendicular by the time of a restoration project in 2002.

There have been other such incidences, According to The Irish Timesarchive, Belfast sleech also featured in a 1909 court-case when one John Byrne, a publican, sued Reuben Payne, a merchant tailor, for alleged subsidence caused by the latter’s “large, American-frame style” premises next door.

This was a rare example of a pub-owner accusing someone else of dragging down the neighbourhood. And as it happens, he lost. But the site of the dispute was the junction of Arthur and Chichester streets, about half-way between the leaning clock tower and the hole in the road. So again, the shifting sands of the Farset river – underground at this point – were central to the problem.

That great bastion of Belfast unionism, City Hall, is also in the middle of the affected area. Indeed, the very name Belfast – Beal Feirste, or the Mouth of the Farset – alludes to the problematic conditions underlying it.

In this context, at least, one can admire the wisdom of Northern Ireland’s founders for building Stormont on top of a hill, well away from the city’s flood plain. It may look like something conceived by Mussolini: grandiose in inverse proportion to the institutions it houses. But its physical foundations were secure, if nothing else.

The great mystery, though, is where Belfast sleech has been for the past 15 years when we political colour-writers needed it. There could hardly have been a better analogy for what was usually happening overground: even at the moment of breakthrough in April 1998, when the Easter Thursday deadline for agreement slid into the early hours of Good Friday.

“The process has hit the sleech again,” we could have said, before describing how an air pocket – or “political vacuum” as we would have called it – had opened up, and how the governments needed to pump concrete into it quickly before a structural collapse occurred. But of course we didn’t.

New metaphors were badly needed at the time. As long ago as 1999 – probably during a wet day on Hope Street – I called elsewhere in this paper for the decommissioning of the peace process’s “deadly arsenal of clichés”.

This included an estimated 40,000 windows of opportunity, 50,000 variations on the theme of moving the situation forward, and perhaps half a million phrases to describe nothing happening: including such foreign imports as “log-jam”, “stand-off”, and the French-made “impasse” (which was smuggled in, probably via Libya, during the late 1980s but never deployed properly because most broadcast journalists lacked the necessary phonetic training).

And this was only the more recent material. If you went back further, there was any amount of other stuff lying around, like those old jokes about the “Carmelite and the ballot box” and the need to take “all the nuns out of Irish politics”.

Rust might have made these unusable, I thought. But even so: most newspaper readers would not rest easy until the material was put permanently beyond use. I recall wishing that we could just dump all the clichés “in a big hole somewhere, and pour concrete over them”. Little did I realise at the time that Belfast sleech was the answer to all our problems.