My Love Letter to Belfast
By Sam Moore
Credit to Andreas F. Bochert
Like many students at a Scottish university who call Northern Ireland their home, I have spent my university days attempting to distance myself from the troubled country that birthed me. In actual fact, I was born in County Cavan in the Republic of Ireland and spent most of my childhood in County Kilkenny, but my family is originally from Belfast and we moved back there when I was fourteen, and so it is difficult for me to deny that Northern Ireland has always played a role, large or small, in my life.
Belfast is without a doubt an incredibly troubled city. Years of sectarian and political conflict have left deep scars upon communities still haunted by murals of intimidation and fortress-like walls intended to impose peace upon the areas of greatest division. It is a city often patronised for its tribalism, and while I find this way of viewing Belfast to be deeply unfair, such distinctions are still prevalent and strictly entrenched. I can still remember trying to explain to my classmates at age fourteen how I could claim the religious identity of Protestant while holding to the national identity of being Irish. However, in some ways, a new division has become apparent over the last couple of decades, between the old Belfast and the new. I spent my teenage years in a relatively wealthy, middle-class area of Belfast dominated by doctors, lawyers, journalists, and the grammar schools that their children attended. Many of these people understandably wanted to move forwards from the trouble that haunted their own youth, but at times it was difficult not to notice an us-and-them worldview which pitted the enlightened intellectuals of the new Belfast against the tribalists of the past.
And then there was the division within myself. As I’ve mentioned, my family originally comes from Belfast and so we would often spend school holidays north of the border. Our little unit of five was the only contingent of the Moore family to live in the Republic, and so the influence of both nations was constantly at play in my life. While living down south I felt as if too much of me belonged to the north. I remember when I heard that we were moving to Belfast in early 2012, and I thought that this might fix the alienated feeling that had haunted me at school, but upon moving to the north I almost immediately felt as if too much of me belonged to the south.
Along comes university: Scotland, the country that feels the most like Northern Ireland but (seemingly) without all the mess. Aberdeen, not my first choice of city but one which turns out to be almost as far as I can get away from Belfast while still studying in Scotland. As a result, my relationship with home became somewhat compartmentalised, a place to visit during breaks but to be pushed out of mind during term time. I thought I was finally freeing myself to feel at home somewhere for once in my life.
Then we all became aware of Covid-19.
Then the rumours of UK-wide lockdown began to circulate.
Then campus was shut down.
Then I was booking tickets back to Belfast for what I thought would only have been a few weeks but ended up being five months.
And it was the best thing that could have happened.
My attempts to push Belfast to the periphery of my existence, constantly painting terrible pictures of it to my friends and doing what I could to spend shorter and shorter lengths of time there, had in turn spawned a crippling cognitive dissonance that was affecting not only my relationship to a city, but also to my family and all those who lived there that cared about me. It was not liberation; it was a self-absorbed need to feel perfectly content which no doubt would have left me feeling the same way about Aberdeen and about wherever else I may have ended up fleeing to in the future (I had been toying with a romanticised notion of moving to the United States which, safe to say, I’m happy to leave alone for the time being). The imposed time at home reminded me of how much I cherished the land of my birth on both sides of the border, its sense of community and family, its stunning natural beauty, its passionate and rich history, and artistic culture. I stopped trying to see it as the root cause of my troubled sense of identity (which turned out to be myself, not Northern Ireland) and started to see it as it truly was.
I’ve been running from Belfast for as long as I’ve lived there, but now I can’t take my eyes off it. I thought that leaving it behind could heal my troubled relationship with it, but the distance only made the dissonance even more extreme. As alien as it may make me feel at times, it is undeniably the place where my roots are planted, and so it is also the most familiar place in the world. I want to start listening to Ireland again, both north and south. I want to know my history, the tales of those whose lives have impacted my own long after having ceased. No one ever feels perfectly content with a place, and in many ways it is only right to feel such confusion when relating to Belfast. It is a city built upon a perilous foundation of conflicting dichotomies, to feel as if you stand upon solid ground whilst walking its streets would be madness. Yet, to make yourself ignorant of its existence when your own is so intimately connected to it would be an act of self-destruction.
Belfast both frustrates and fascinates me, and I think I’m finally beginning to feel at peace about that.