The summer’s long heatwave began early and brought forth runic symbols, which appeared in the parched grass around Neolithic court tombs and standing stones. It finally broke at the end of July with sonorous thunder and then days upon days of angry winds and endless rain.
In the relative calm that followed, posters began appearing around the parts of town that were draped with starry ploughs and green flags and old ghosts.
Well – not posters exactly – somebody had spent a bit of time and money on these: they were more like block-mounted memorials, attached to gable ends, the walls of different community centres, streets of interest.
The effect was unnerving.
It has been fifty years since The Conflict first broke out. The wild, the young, the brave, the bold, now pensioners. Hard pensioners - but older, tireder just the same.
A new generation had come through. And then a new one after that.
The Conflict itself had been mainly packed away, though no one could truthfully say peace had been restored; the region existed amidst a shifting, sullen ceasefire more defined by the absence of explicit violence than anything more tangible.
Yet to mark this half centenary, the pictures began to appear.
The thing was, though, that cameras back in the sixties weren’t up to much. Certainly not the types of cameras that people had on the streets and in the working-class neighbourhoods of the city, before the world’s media rolled in to record and document the Conflict.
No, these were pictures taken to commemorate a triumph on the football pitch, a fundraising night for the African missions, a wedding, a christening, something like that. They were out of focus. The men and women in the pictures only half-turned towards the camera, they and the photographer unaware that this particular picture would be called upon to serve for posterity. The colours washed out and sepia toned. The wide collared shirts and heavy eyeliner and miniskirts and shaggy hair that would just have been a passing fad had the photographed subject lived to outgrow it, encapsulated forever as the uniform of the martyr, the victim, the warrior.
And now their photos appeared superimposed, with Photoshop applied by an inexpert hand, against lurid, technicolour backgrounds. Tricolours, pastoral scenes of rolling hills: an allegorical Ireland – if it existed at all it was not a place that these young people from the city streets ever knew. Their names, the dates they died, and the role they played in the Conflict in bold, scripted text below.
We will never see their likes again.
Ní síocháin go Saoirse.
It is then we’ll see the rising of the moon.
And then scrawled indiscriminately across shuttered shop fronts, on bus shelters and under motorway bridges, in all quarters of the city, the words: YER MA.
Didn’t matter: it was clear first from the spread of urban territory they covered and then the manifesto which received 2380 re-tweets inside an hour and was the concerned subject of nearly an entire week of The Biggest Radio Show In The Country that these ones weren’t fucking around.
They were the Young Emancipated Radical Millennial Activists.
Fed up with love declared illegal, women’s bodies under siege, gender defined by Biblical norms and kids suffering seizures with no access to cannabis oil and a whole slew of other infractions on the back of which the Post-Conflict State was built.
And, regardless of how unlikely it seemed, they were coming for blood.
The aul ones looked askance at their offspring and their offspring’s offspring, their faces illuminated by the screens they always seemed to be peering down at.
Were they reading this stuff? Writing this stuff? Sharing it with each other?
Stories of the bad old days were much spoken of as a coded warning – don’t go back there.
And in them days, love, the only heat in the house was the fire. And ye threw everything in til it. We didn’t bother with them wee sticks and there were no firelighters. We folded up bits of newspaper to get it going. And then all day long, we kept it burning. Ye threw the very potato skins in there.
But nat the bread –
- No nat the bread.
My granny used to say bread in the fire was feeding the devil.
My da used to say that you burn the bread and ye’ll go hungry, bread is for the mouth and not the flames.
Is that because of the eucharist Mrs Watts, because your father believed bread is the body of Christ?
We’re nat Catholics in this house, love. But aye. That kind of thing.
My granny would read the fire.
Aye, mine as well.
Read it, Mrs Watts?
Like people read tea leaves, she’d see pictures, tell a story about what was coming to ye.
In the flames?
No, no. Ye’d te wait til the fire died down, til just the coals were red. Late on, before going up to yer bed. She’d stir the fire with a poker through the embers and then watch.
Ye’d be scared to go up the stairs to bed after.
Any wonder – we’d make toast at the fire, put the bread on a fork. If a wee crust fell off I’d be terrified I’d fed the devil and then she’d give me a bad look.
Oh it would be dark up the stairs then –
Mind the ice there’d be on the windees?
The city became enveloped by blindness; what the Germans called The City Without Eyes when they arrived to occupy Paris and the citizens just looked straight through them. But Belfast was not under siege or occupation. It was a city in which the people were blind to each other; it was a city blind to itself.
The young kept their own council but many of them seemed to agree, it was no longer time for words and stories – the time had come for action.
Never worry, the old guard of newspaper columnists and talking heads placated the alarmed suburbanites. Youth movements were filled with fervour, of course, it’s only natural. But they are characterised by apathy, an inability to translate this protest from social media platforms and onto the streets.