Citizen Ship 2013. Belfast. Nos. 16.
I’m working through my thoughts upon symbols, emblems and issues of identity, sparked off by the Flag Protests of late 2012/2013. Each article, poem and picture offers something towards a solution. As free expression isn’t part of our culture, while keeping your head down and saying nothing is, I offer these little thoughts up to the few, who have the ears and interest to listen.
The Wonder of Samson & Goliath.
When I was a boy, growing up in Belfast, they built two big cranes, to help build ships in Belfast. I could see them every day from my bedroom window.
The first to be built was Goliath in 1969 and the second was Samson, built in 1974. It seems kind of ironic to me, that the shipyard should choose, firstly the name of a big Biblical giant, a big rough and violent Philistine, brought low by David and a single stone, fired from a sling shot. It seems doubly ironic that the ship yard should call their second crane Samson, another Biblical figure who lost his strength through betrayal and the cutting of his long hair.
They say you get a good view of the city from up there, when you are on top. These two cranes dominate the skyline, yet even with all their hugeness, they are still only a small part of the city. For in effect, the city dwarfs them, with all its streets, avenues, motorways and cul de sacs.
In Belfast, the people can move about and go anywhere they want to go. In theory, you could walk around, almost anywhere in safety. What is it then, that prevents us from doing just that, even now?
For Samson and Goliath, they too have certain limitations as to where they can and cannot go. They were created to provide a certain service, to help build ships, to be the workers strength, to amplify what they could not collectively do themselves.
These two cranes stand now, like monuments to a lost industry. They stand like redundant workers once did, on street corners, waiting to be employed. These two cranes, with such potential to lift the heaviest of objects, can only go where they are allowed to go. They can only move upon the tracks created for them. To do the bidding of others, their makers, and those who once employed them.
So as awesome as these two cranes seem, they are vulnerable to anyone who might de-rail them or block their movement. It is sad to see these metal ghosts, hanging around in Belfast, when they could be doing what they do best, in a ship building yard in China, the far East or some other country, still alive with a ship building industry.
All the industry that we once took for granted here, over a hundred years ago, has almost gone. The cotton mills, the linen bleaching greens, the metal fabrication factories, the rope factories, shirt factories, the ship building yards and all the rest, have gone silent. Run down. All over Ulster the ruins of these places stand witness to change. To loss. That means pain, loss of income, the destruction of communities, migration and the loss of self esteem, when you don’t have work. It removes you from your sense of self.
This general loss, this deep social trauma was happening at the same time as the start of our current Troubles. Yet the media focused far less on this than they ever did on our violent selves. This quiet continous erosion advanced as deliberately as the the glaciers that once shaped this land. Grinding our mountains to dust and creating rich fields from the debris. The Troubles have done that to us as well. For most of us the result has been the wearing away of distorted thinking, the beginning of the end of sectarianism and the opening up of other possibilities. New soil, new fields and new openings to link them, together.
Like the scooped out husk of a fairground coconut, all our major industries, in Ulster, were either sold off, shut down, or moved to countries like India and other exotic places where labour was considerably cheaper. Who was responsible for this? Where did the money go? And where does it reside today?
The people who ran and managed our lives as workers, played lip service to “loyalty”, while all the time organising their own futures, after the last World War, in factories elsewhere, in other countries with other workers, for whom they had to create a new language, new symbols, deal with different politics and move on, for purely commercial reasons.
Sadly, they left the fabric and ideas of “loyalty” behind them, so deeply imprinted on their workers hearts, that we are now caught on the old barbed wire of abandonment. The broken biscuits, the twisted metal, the lost love, and the never talked about, sense of betrayal by our industrial masters. We are still caught on this sharp rusted metal, like the false teeth of an old guard dog. The dog has gone, these long years, but the teeth remain.
And where do you hang your cracked cup if it has no handle?
Last of all, our tattered and torn Union flag flaps from many lamp posts in the saddest of ways, for this is no celebration of identity. This is a “Keep Out!” sign, put there by the smallest of monorities. This flag, to many, once meant that we were loved. That someone cared about us, stuck out here in an unfamiliar land, so far from our imagined home. This symbol of the Union flag now seems to be under attack, to this minority, still under siege, but only in their minds.
So to understand all their journey, rather than just their journey over the months of the flag protests, is to understand and feel their deep bereavement for a dead industry, the loss of an “industrialsed culture”, a failed, two sided politics, and the misguided actions, pain and anguish of a people, utterly lost. However, I include myself in this too, and the whole of our community in Northern Ireland. For this loss has affected us all, not just one small part of it.
Sympathy and understanding should really be the tools we are reaching for, rather than ridicule and the middle class morphine of disengagement. To laugh at those with far less advantage, and less opportunity is just to make matters worse, for where is your solution?
The fear of the gigantic philistine still flies from our lamp posts. A material reminder of the days when we had to keep our heads down and just say nothing. When are we all going to realize that those days are over?
The Citizen Ship.
Belfast. Nos 16.
By Randall Stephen Hall ©