This post is a love letter to my favourite city in the world, Belfast.
Sometimes it’s easy to talk about Belfast. And sometimes it’s very hard. There’s much about the city to love. My mother’s family calls Belfast and the surrounding suburbs and villages home, and as a child I would spend days, weeks, sometimes a month or more there at a time. Travelling between my home in the Republic of Ireland and my family’s home in Northern Ireland presented challenges of its own, but I always loved Belfast. I loved the perfume of salt and briny sea mingled with the steel and oil of the Harland and Wolff shipyards. Coloured boats dotting the sea, people yelling with strange tongues wearing stranger clothes, the regal facades of the old municipal buildings, the severity of the church architecture, the life and colour and vibrancy of the gypsy enclaves, and the music, oh the music and the dancing and the laughter and the craic. Belfast was beatha, an baile, an gra.
But none of us ever forget that Belfast is a city defined by conflict. Even today when you walk through the city you walk along the peace lines, walls erected in 1969 to separate the warring Catholic and Protestant factions. The Troubles murals glare down at you, fierce and fresh and plastered in pain and loss. Belfast as a child was life, and it was death. It was pipe bombs and barbed wire. It was empty beds and blood in the gutters, shattered windows and shattered kneecaps. Belfast was Protestant gangs breaking the windows of Catholic boarding schools and throwing in firecrackers and cherry bombs, laughing and hooting at the screams of the young girls inside. Belfast was graffiti spray painted across a door, calling for the death of this tribe or that religion or this political ideology. Belfast was a blast of hot air and shrapnel flying through the streets. It was the cold bead of ice in your stomach when you went to the market for milk and fish and bread and you wondered Am I going to turn a corner and die because someone with a religious-political grudge wants to make a statement?
Belfast and its people are a seed that fell into the mud from the hands of empire and took root. Trampled and ignored and dismissed until new growth took hold and a strong sapling stood in the soil and the world asked where did that come from?
Belfast is bullet holes and new trees, three hundred years of war and sixteen years of peace.
My life in the city, among the Irish and the British and the Romani, taught me so many lessons, but three of them have stayed with me stronger than the others.
Belfast taught me about Church.
“There’s only two sacraments a Protestant needs,” said a deacon to a relative when I was within earshot. “A bullet in the left knee and a bullet in the right.”
I was seven or eight years old but the lesson stuck with me. I was Catholic. That was good. Protestants are bad. They are the enemy. They are not Us.
But my mother is a Protestant, I couldn’t help but think. And my sisters, and my grandmum isn’t even Christian. But they were the good kind of Protestants, so I thought. They were in America already. They weren’t the Protestants who marched through the Catholic neighbourhoods with war chants and banners. They were fine.
Red letters were scrawled on the walls with lurid paint as I walked from the bus station to a dance competition. KAT KAT KAT!
Kill All Taigs, Kill All Taigs, Kill All Taigs.
I was a Taig, because a Taig was a Catholic. They wanted to Kill All Taigs and I knew they meant me. The deacon was right. Protestants were bad, and dangerous, and they would kill you if they could.
Then one bright afternoon the bomb went off in Omagh and twenty-nine people were dead in the streets and it was Catholics, it was Catholics who set off the bomb and oh gods there was nowhere to go and we weren’t safe. And some churches were ashamed and some were furious and some ignored it and a few were quietly pleased.
Belfast taught me about Church. It taught me that I wasn’t safe.
Belfast taught me about heresy.
Someone I knew as a very young man was raped by a Catholic clergyman. I didn’t find out until years after the fact, when the family was moving away and the victim’s brother whispered to me that there was a counselor in Dublin who would help his brother because someone had done something to him and he was a faggot now. But the person who had…done things had moved. Where to, he didn’t know, but he didn’t go to jail or anything, he said. The family was too ashamed and the parish wouldn’t – couldn’t – didn’t let it get out.
I was thirteen years old.
I went to someone I trusted. Someone in the church, even though I no longer considered myself to be a part of the church. I told him what I knew. I told him how angry I was. I told him I wanted to do something, I don’t know what, something. Something to make them pay for hurting my friend’s brother, because I knew what it was like and how could they let someone get away with doing that to a fecking kid?
I received a lesson in forgiveness. About why we are called to forgive others. About why it’s best to leave somethings in the past and give forgiveness for transgressions, because when we don’t forgive others we are not forgiven ourselves, and are outside the fold of the Good Shepherd.
I didn’t forgive. I walked straight out of that fold.
And soon after I stood in front of a church building in Belfast much later at night than I was technically allowed to be out. It was late, no one was around, but there were lights inside the building and the stained-glass glowed like so many crystal jewels. The Virgin was staring down at me, her face soft and hands folded and eyes dark like coals. There were angels and apostles too, I think, but I remember her most of all,
In my hand, I held half a brick. I stared, and she stared back, and rage pounded through my temples, and she stayed serene and I raised my fist and hers was already raised.
As I held the brick up, my imagination gave her a voice in my head. Turn the other cheek. Let him who has no sin cast the first stone. Forgive, forgive, forgive.
I threw the brick.
And in my rage and my spite and the dark of the night, I missed. The brick broke apart against the stone wall and the crack echoed through the night and I ran as fast as my legs could carry me back home.
I’ve learned my lesson about vandalism and the willful destruction of property since then. I’ve learned how to turn anger into activism, rage into resolution, But on that cold night, if my emotions were given power, a hundred thousand churches around the world would have been nothing but smoking craters.
And in my darkest, most honest moments…I’m glad I threw the brick.
Belfast taught me that it doesn’t matter who you defend or what you believe. You’re always going to be a heretic to someone.
Belfast taught me about grace.
Grace: n, (in Christian belief) the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. (Merriam-Webster dictionary).
I recently had two separate conversations with Christian authors Rachel Held Evans and Benjamin Corey. They covered whether or not all sins were equal in Christianity, what made or didn’t make a True Christian, what the definition of Christian even is, and why it matters. They gave me good thoughts, explained some of their Christian doctrine with patience and good humour and I got some varied and quite diverse opinions.
(Except when I quoted a verse from the book of Romans, then was the response was identical literally verbatim, Look at you quoting your Bible!, thank you, thank you, it’s my best parlour trick).
Thinking of the Christians I had grown up with, the best and the worst, I led up to the question ‘Can a person be a Christian and a terrorist?’ After all, if a person can lie, cheat, steal, gossip, covet, and lust while remaining a true, if imperfect, Christian, why does that not apply to the worst of sins -murder, destruction, and terror? In this, Rachel and Ben were both in agreement. There are some things that exclude an individual from being a follower of Jesus, even if they claim otherwise. While I define a true Christian as someone who claims and believes in the label, they were in disagreement.
It didn’t change my opinion, or theirs, but that wasn’t an expectation between any of us. However, as I thought more on the conversation, the question I didn’t ask continued to nag at me.
What if you’re wrong?
What if a terrorist really is a Christian? What if the grace Christians so fervently believe in, the gift they want everyone to receive, is something a terrorist can already possess?
What if grace doesn’t just apply to the blogger who belittles you and insults you online, or the abusive pastor who disdains and degrades women, or the person with a voice and authourity who actively hurts an already wounded community? What if grace means that a person who is so twisted and perverted by his religion and his politics that he leaves children lying in pieces in a bombed out street has received grace? What if he’s already at the table? What if it doesn’t matter?
Does that cheapen grace, if its given to the worst of us even when every synapse in our brain says ‘no, no, not him, anyone but him, look at who he is, look at what he’s DONE!’ Or does it enrich it?
I don’t believe in deities, and that’s not going to change any time soon. I don’t believe in church or Church. I don’t believe in sins or the forgiveness of them, I don’t believe in salvation or the eternal soul or heaven or hell.
But sometimes I almost think that I believe in grace.
I believe in grace because I love Belfast, and more important I love it’s people. All of them. We are flawed, tribal, broken and healed time and time again and I can’t help them love them.
I believe in grace because I’m still a thirteen year old boy filled with hatred and anger, but there are fingers who are prying the brick out of my hand and some of those fingers belong to the religion I’m so angry at.
Belfast taught me about grace because it showed me grace, and showed me how to give it.
Belfast. Béal Feirste. Mother to a godless, grace-filled heretic, and I couldn’t be more proud of it.
Also we have Game of Thrones, so #winning.