Thank you

Thank you to everyone who has sent messages of condolence via Facebook and Twitter, everyone who has left comments and who has emailed me over the past couple of days. It is lovely to know of your thoughts and well wishes.

The weekend was spent with my sister in Geelong and keeping in touch with my parents and rest of the family in Belfast. My brothers have flown over, so a great deal of the extended family will be there.

I’ve been told that Granda has been lying in state in the lounge room in his best suit while the weekend-long wake has gone on around him. He has been kept close to an open window, mainly to keep the room chilled- it’s the first time he hasn’t complained about the open window and it being not warm enough :).

The funeral is Tuesday, and is being organised by my cousin Karen, with contributions from other family members- he’ll be getting a great send-off!

Review: Hunger

A combination of a free Quickflix subscription and a recent discovery of the uber-hotness that is Michael Fassbender* saw myself and Mr BG sitting down to watch Hunger, a film about the 1981 hunger strike in Northern Ireland which saw 10 prisoners die.

The film opens with a man preparing to go to work, getting dressed, eating his breakfast (a fry) and getting into his car. The street scene is a typical suburban Belfast street, with the hills in the background (so much like my granda’s street I almost did a double-take). You’re alerted to something being slightly amiss by the fact he checks under his car to ensure no bombs have been placed there, and the grazes on his knuckles.

The scene is further set by a new arrival at the Maze prison, who refuses to wear the prison garb and is taken into his new cell. You are there to witness his first look at the excrement-covered prison cell and his cell mate, virtually unrecognisable under a blanket and filth. You are thankful you can’t smell it.

Bobby Sands (Fassbender) makes an appearance about a third of the way through the film as he is dragged to a bathroom to be forcibly washed, shaved and his hair cut. Through the blood, the dirt and the hair, you begin to see the man emerge.

Much of the movie is without dialogue, and there is no incidental music. The silence forces you to simply watch and observe what unfolds before you on the screen. You see the physical deterioration (Fassbender lost up to 16 kg to play the role) – the silence adds to the reality. The only voiceovers you get is the voice of Margaret Thatcher and her hardline stance against the prisoners and negotiating with the IRA.

The greatest length of dialogue is between Sands and a priest, Dom (Liam Cunningham). With both characters backlit by the window, their profiles are in shadow. While it is frustrating in that you can’t see their faces, you are forced to concentrate on their words, the initial quick banter which leads to Sands outlining his plans to stage a hunger strike to force the British government to recognise those prisoners who have been imprisoned for acts of terrorism as political prisoners, rather than criminals.

In many ways it is quite sympathetic to the Republican cause- you develop an empathy for the prisoners who endure a great deal of physical brutality. However it is hard to ignore the reality that a toll is exacted upon the other players. The prison guard, who in an unguarded moment alone, stares blankly into the distance, one of the policemen brought in form a vanguard through which the prisoners must go, breaks down, and a hospital orderly’s tenderness towards a dying Sands are also revealed in this quietly powerful film.

The film also brought homeย  a long lost memory. My granny died in Belfast in 1981 and my dad went ‘home’ to go to the funeral. He also attended Bobby Sands’ funeral- one of 70,000 who did so. I remember my mum pleading with my dad to walk down the middle of the street to be safe from bombs.

*X-Men:First Class, Jane Eyre, and Band of Brothers are all Fassbender movies/appearances I can recommend. Saw Prometheus in Belfast and still wanting to see Inglourious Basterds!

From Titanic City to the Tricolour City

We left Belfast with a teary goodbye from my lovely aunties, and hopped on the train to Dublin. We had only travelled 100 miles, but when we hopped off at Connelly Station, it felt completely different. Some may say another country in fact, while others would puff up in indignation and say but they’re the same country ya fecking eejit, and then there’d be a bit of an argy-bargy which would last a couple of decades…

So rather than start another war on my blog, I’ll just tell it as I have observed, and your comments are welcome.

The flags are different. There’s a lot of the tricolour of green white and orange about at the moment, mainly around the pubs, and on cars and in house windows. In the North, much of the bunting and Union Jacks and Jubilee Flags that were a leftover of the Jubilee celebrations have hung on tenaciously as the 12th July approaches, and there have been additional touches such as the Ulster Flag in places such as Bushmills (makers of the best whiskey in the world since 1608, and as an official whiskey taster I can definitely attest to that)

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In Dublin the flags are for another reason, it’s Euro2012 and Ireland are playing. Thanks to the indoctrination coaching of my Auntie Moya, the kids are definitely team Green. There are 30,000 Irish fans in Poland (including my cousin Claire’s boyfriend), the opening match of Ireland and Croatia attracted an audience of 2 million in Ireland, and people are painting their houses in the Irish flag colours. It’s Footy madness, a condition with which I am entirely familiar, so it’s comforting rather than confronting.

There weren’t as many tourists in Belfast as there were in Dublin, which was something I did enjoy. Outside Belfast, though, it was a different story, with the Giant’s Causeway being a huge drawcard for heaps of tourists and tour buses alike.
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The kids clearly overwhelmed by the hordes of tourists…not really, just another excuse to put up a pic…

The accent is different. The Dublin accent is quieter, softer and sexier than the Belfast accent, though still not as sexy as the Scottish accent which can make me weak at the knees ๐Ÿ™‚ .

The street signs, bus destinations and official signs in the Republic of Ireland are in English and Irish, which I liked. It was a good way to learn a few more Irish words, other than being able to say the Hail Mary and swear in Irish ๐Ÿ™‚ .

The architecture also varies considerably. Belfast is a Victorian city, with much of the inner city’s main buildings built with a Victorian Gothic flavour. The architecture reflect the industrial powerhouse it was, and the docks still hold an inportant place in the skyline of the city. We loved heading past the docks and Master BG was so proud that his big papa used to work there. A lot of the old terrace houses have been pulled down and rebuilt-my dad’s old house in the Kashmir Road suffered this fate. The architectural flavour of Dublin is Georgian, which does lend it a classical flavour. We stayed in Ballsbridge in a little hotel with a bright red door, a classic Dublin house!

Ladies’ fashion was also another difference. The Dublin style trended towards flat shoes, trenchcoats and scarves, whereas the Belfast girls paid more attention to being fashionable than practical.

Checking out the men (well their hair) there was also a trend towards really short buzzcuts for men (like a number 1 or 2 all over) in Belfast that wasn’t as prevalent in Dublin.

The shopping on the other hand, was very similar. A lot of the chain stores and supermarkets in the North were present in the South. Buses too are the main form of public transport for both Dublin and Belfast, with the train services not as developed or extensive as London for example.

In the end, everyone was all incredibly friendly, the kids got free rides everywhere in Ireland, and I shed tears leaving both Belfast and Dublin.

Next stop is the land of Tartan- Scotland!

If it’s Wednesday, it must be Belfast

After four weeks of travelling via train, we flew to Belfast. The time it took to travel to Heathrow on the Tube was about the same amount of time we were in the air from Heathrow to Belfast. The security, the checking in of the bags, the waiting for a delayed plane, made us feel very glad that the majority of our travel has not been by air.

What we have called the travel day, or relocating from one place to another, has always been the most stressful. The best part of this travel leg was being met at the airport by my aunties Moya and Deirdre, who are kindness and hospitality personified. And as all aunties are wont to do, they love to spoil my kids ๐Ÿ™‚ .

We also have a car! After four weeks of relying on trains, buses, taxis and planes, it feels odd to be behind a wheel. I have to remember the indicator and windscreen wipers are back to front in the new car, as well as negotiating the myriad of carriageways, motorways, roads and one way streets of Belfast. I have to remember how to park again!

We have dinner with my 94 year old granda, whom the kids call Big Papa (because he’s their papa’s dad), with his robot chair(which is a chair designed to help him on his feet). I catch up with my cousins Karen, Claire and Bronagh and relax with a gin and tonic. The kids get reacquainted with their great grandfather and his bowl of sweets. Life is good.
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Our car, a Vauxhall Meriva Turbo, which has a sunroof, a cupholder and tray for passengers in the back and six gears. Looking forward to hitting the motorway…

Titanic City

In two week’s time I celebrate my 41st birthday, and one of the places I will be visiting when I head overseas will be my birthplace, Belfast.

This will be the sixth time I’ve returned, to visit my extended family and for the little BGs to get to know their great aunties and uncles, great grandparents and cousins. Mr BG is going along for the whiskey.

Yes the sun does shine in Belfast

Belfast is known for many things, not the least of which is the Troubles, which is the reason why my parents emigrated 40 years ago. There is nothing like worrying about whether or not your husband and father of your newborn daughter will come home from school to make you want to go somewhere where people don’t shoot at you. My dad lived just off the Falls Road when he was younger, and the scars of the conflict still show there as you get closer to the city centre.

Despite that, it really is a pretty city, especially around Queen’s University, and Stormont, the seat of Northern Ireland’s Parliament. I was also struck by how small Belfast is (about the size of Geelong). It’s surrounded by hills, which gives you the sense of the country not being so far away. There is the best science museum W5 which is even better than Scienceworks, the Linen Hall Library and the majestic City Hall.

Hurling in Belfast

The last time we visited, Belfast had started promoting its link to the Titanic as a means of garnering tourist dollars. After all, who wouldn’t want to visit the place where they built a ship that sank? Some of the tat souvenirs were quite funny- a t-shirt with a picture of the Titanic and the words ‘Built by the Irish, Sunk by the English’. I think that may have been trying to appeal to expatriate Catholics!

As I’ve mentioned before, my grandfather was an employee at Harland and Wolff, which was the shipyard that constructed the Titanic. He was one of a handful of Catholics who were employed there, and pretty much escaped a lot of the bigotry and violence that was meted towards Catholics. As such, he was a man more moderate in his political beliefs than other members of the family.

Last year Harland and Wolff celebrated 150 years of business. In recent years the company has focused on ship repairs and re-fittings, rather than construction , and have broadened their portfolio to construct things as diverse as oil rigs, wind turbines and tidal energy turbines. It’s good to know that they have reinvented themselves and providing much needed employment opportunities, and steering away from building ‘unsinkable’ ships.

*Is this a blatant attempt to cash in on the Titanic centenary of its sinking? Probably ๐Ÿ™‚

W is for…

W5

W5 is described as an interactive discovery centre. Located in Belfast, it’s like Scienceworks, only better (I can’t believe I said that) and was the only place where the kids did not want to leave. The first time we were there we stayed about four hours, the second time, about two.

Mummies and dinosaurs were great, but for the little BGs it was like an indoor play centre, mixed with kinder- fun and stimulating, with something new just around the corner.

We were lucky going in September, in that the school year had just begun and there were no school groups organised, so we basically had the place to ourselves, with the exception of a couple of grownups. There were five spaces, one of which was aimed at preschoolers, with the others aimed at primary school levels.

The preschool space had a mini supermarket (sponsored by Tesco), a Mimi Minor, a sound studio with a mixing desk and lighting desk, a mini cafe, a huge playhouse and a little castle.

The spaces aimed at older children had a flight simulator for an airplane, a giant table for building meccano (which was being used quite enthusiastically by dads, rather than kids), areas to experiment, with sound, weather, waves, wind, pulleys, animation, biology, botany…the list goes on.

We were lucky to chance upon a Wallace and Gromit exhibition which tied in with hands-on experimenting with stop-start animation. There was also a small exhibition on the building of the Titanic which was built at Harland and Wolff. With the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic approaching in 2012, the Titanic is being marketed quite heavily in Belfast.

It is a fantastic place to while away a rainy day- and as the photo indicated, we did have a couple of those…

S is for…

Stormont

Call itย  professional curiosity, call it a tax break, others would say ‘nerd alert’, but I like visiting libraries while on holiday.

My last overseas trip in 2001 involved me visiting libraries in Scotland and the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. This time around, it was the Research Library at the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont.

No, this isn’t the library, rather it’s tucked away at the back in a couple of rooms…

It’s set in huge grounds in the suburbs, unlike many Parliaments which are stuck bang in the middle of the city. The reason for this is largely due to history (as is always the case in Ireland), when Ireland was partitioned in 1920, and Belfast was established as the capital. No room in the city for a Parliament, meant locating it out of the city proper.

View from the steps at Stormont- clearly not in the city!

It being set apart from the city, and for over 50 years, also being the seat of Unionist power , meant that my family were a little puzzled for my interest to visit (they’re Green rather than Orange).

It was a great visit. The library staff were very happy to show me around and talk about what they were providing for their clients, their MLAs, and demonstrate their current awareness service, and their visits to constituency offices. Speaking to their e- Services staff, I learned that they’re facing the usual struggles with getting the Assembly’s IT department to do anything for them. What they have been doing is forging relationships with individual staff in IT rather than going through official channels to get things done.

The library is also trying to remain in the forefront of the MLA’s minds as being useful, with the prospect of looming budget cuts. Still tied to the United Kingdom, the Assembly is reliant on the UK for its funding. As a result there is a concerted push to integrate further with the European Union in the hope of getting further funding and autonomy. They are already squeezed for space, with collection spaces also designated as meeting rooms. This has forced them to embrace e-books and digitize their collections.

On the brighter side, the Assembly has been going for three years without being dissolved. This has allowed the library to employ more than a skeleton staff, and the continuity of service has meant the library staff getting to know their clients better. The interest in the EU has meant staff training and professional development in leanring how what to collect in this new area.

It is also a place in which political correctness is at its height. I was shown the Assembly’s chamber, which was upholstered in a lovely dark blue. Noticing the Senate chamber across the way which was in the traditional red (the former Northern Irish Parliament from 1921-1972 was a bicameral system), I asked why the colour scheme wasn’t green as is the case in Westminster-style parliaments. “Green is too politically charged a colour,” I was told.

I should have known.