Even though I have been to Belfast, I think it was very helpful for me to hear Kenneth Branagh who wrote, directed and produced the film Belfast explain the background to the film when interviewed on the Bill Maher show. Instead of shot from the film I include some of my own photos of Belfast taken in 2009 when Christiane and I made a wonderful trip to the wonder country of Ireland.
This photo is one of many I took of murals in Belfast that celebrate heroes of the Troubles. This one felt threatening. The rile held by masked man “followed” us by a the trick of an optical illusion.
The film Belfast has been nominated for Best Picture and it is a sad love story about the love of a Kenneth Branagh for his hometown which he had to leave a 9 year old boy. That was the same age as Buddy in the film. Just like the family in the film, his family lived on a street in Belfast. His family was Protestant but there were many Catholics as well on the street.
In southern Ireland the Catholics are in a majority, but in Northern Ireland which was part of the United Kingdom the Catholics were in the minority at about 40% of the population. Yet they got along well, at least until they didn’t.
This writing on the wall expresses the spirit of Branagh’s family.
Maher asked Branagh to explain the history of what happened in Belfast during the troubles. The troubles began in 1968 because the Catholics were dissatisfied that they were not getting the same economic and social benefits as the Protestants in Northern Ireland. It was not really a religious dispute, but religion helped to fan the flames of hate as so often happens. The Protestants were dominant in the north, and the Catholics there thought they were not getting a fair shake. From the mid-1960s there was a civil rights movement in Ireland as there was in the United States and Canada. People started to speak up for their rights and that can lead to trouble, or in this case, to the Troubles.
The film opens up on August 15, 1969 when the grievances suddenly spilled out into street violence. Until then the Protestant majority in the north got along well with the Catholic minority. They had the same kinds of jobs and the same kinds of homes. But in one fell swoop a Protestant mob came down the street where Buddy, the 9-year old protagonist in the film was playing with his friends, both Catholics and Protestants. This is exactly what Branagh experienced as a young boy in Belfast at that time. The story is also the story of his life in fictional form. The Protestants marked the houses of the Catholics with stones, and broke the windows on their houses. The message was clear, “We know where you live. It’s time for you to get out.” As Billy Clanton one of the leaders of the Protestant gang I the film said, “We want to cleanse the city.” Ominious words in the 20th century.
1969 in the US was the summer of love, but in Belfast it was the summer of hate. There was the greatest displacement of people in Europe since the second World War, up to that time. Thousands of Catholics were forced to leave and a dark period in Ireland began. It lasted for 30 years.
Branagh’s family was Protestant but they did not join in the violence against the Catholics. They were opposed to violence against their friends with whom they got along. Some of the Protestants did not like that. The Protestant leaders came to visit Branagh’s father and told him, “You’re either with us or against us. There is no middle ground.” Again these are ominous words, later adopted by George W. Bush after 9/11. Branagh’s father tried to stand up against the mob, but that was hard. As Branagh said,
“It was a really difficult thing to do to disagree fundamentally with someone, but not to translate that into hating them. Or rejecting them. But the even more difficult thing of actually trying to understand them. That was the example he set.”
That is difficult everywhere. It is difficult in the United States and it is difficult in the bible belt of southern Manitoba. Bill Maher claimed that this is what he tries to show on his television show. He always wants to show that he thinks for himself, not a tribe. “Im not with either tribe,” Maher said. His father said, “I’m not going to join you to hate the Catholics for reasons I don’t share. A 9-year old must be taught that.”
The walls, still standing in 2009, had to be built very high to stop people from throwing rocks and more dangerous things over it.
As Branagh said, a 9-year old can be simple and open in the stand off, but people forget that the effects may last for decades when violence rears its ugly head. The situation can be quickly polarized with ordinary people caught in the maw. Branagh said, when he grew up it was a beautiful day in the neighbourhood everyday. He did not understand why one day a man came and told him that he and his friend Paddy, who was a Catholic, could no longer play together. Why? He said it was buried in his mind for 50 years. That is why he wrote the story of the film.
3,700 people died in Ireland during the Troubles. Yet the world over people have showed that tribal pressure can be overcome by talking to each other no matter how hard it is. The same things happens everywhere. It happens in Iran, Palestine, Ukraine, Congo, and southern Manitoba. Every where there is a trouble spot. The good stuff of family, laughter, music, dancing, and partying can help. Insisting that we are always right and they are always wrong does not help. Religions though encourage such attitudes, at least when they are least religious.
This is the way the house still looked in 2009. First a barrier on top of the wall, and then supplemented by screen over the porch. Belfast was a hard place to live.
Belfast really is a lot like so many places around the world. From Ireland to Winkler, from Croatia to Rwanda. From Iran to the Middle East. Neighbours fighting neighbours. Neighbours hating neighbours. For no good reason. It just happens when we gather in tribes and it becomes us against them. It can be in the name of religion, or politics or creed whenever we try hard not to understand each other. And troubles can arise as quickly as prairie fire.
All of this is background for the film Belfast I want to talk about next.