Having just flown in from the island of the emeralds, my celtic batteries are sitting nicely at 100 per cent. Although we spent most of the weekend in Donegal, we bookended our trip by staying with friends in east Belfast which, those of you familiar with the demographic kaleidoscope of the city will be aware, could not be further, religiously or politically, from the island's picturesque north-west.
As with so many things in this dear, bruised land, where you are really depends on to whom you talk. Entering our taxi on arrival at Belfast Airport, we were immediately asked by the driver how things were going "on the mainland". We mumbled: "Fine," and thought no more about it. But his comment, of course, betrayed his Unionist standpoint. To Belfast's Nationalists, that would be as incongruous as someone arriving from Botswana and being asked the same question.
Mind you, I suspect the driver would not have let his underskirt show so swiftly had we had Belfast accents. He may have waited until we told him to which area of the city we were going. As Al Pacino memorably said in Glengarry Glen Ross, life's great lesson is knowing that "you don't open your mouth until you know what the shot is".
I only mention all of this because, visiting on the weekend when Gerry Adams was released from jail, does tend to offer an insight into a fractured society which, far from being all better now, presents all the symptoms of a stubborn malaise. The cough may not be loud enough to be heard across the water any more, but it's still there. However, I'm not qualified to comment on the region's enormously convoluted socio-political machinations, so I should probably just relate some delightful silliness.
When you get out into the near-lunar landscape of parts of Donegal, the lack of, well, any people is reflected in the way many local businesses double up; half-grocer/half-taxi office. This was best illustrated in a wee place called Church Hill, where the local boozer is also home to the local undertaker. Yes, it sounds like a pitch for a sitcom idea, but it's real. We also visited a half-pub/half-sweet shop ("Two pints and a bag of liquorice torpedoes, please"). Beautiful.
But it wasn't the most memorable instance of Ireland doing it her own way. Throughout the weekend, the local undertaker (who had recently passed away) was lying in waxy state in his erstwhile front room, while a traditional three-day wake went on around him. I was invited to attend, but declined, claiming that, as a Protestant, I wouldn't know where to look at such an occasion. What if I got nervous and said the wrong thing to the priest? Our host snorted: "Priest!? Nah, he'll just show up for 10 minutes, say a rosary and feck off."
You sense the future of Ireland isn't too bleak, given this approach to life and death.
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