Belfast City Hall
"Belfast" is an unlikely Irish protest song. Unlikely, in that it's by Boney M, a group from Germany, not Ireland, and equally unexpected because it was dance hit in 1977, at the height of the disco era.
Boney M was the brainchild of German record producer Frank Farian, initially centered in West Germany (back, of course, when Germany was still a divided country). You might also say the Elton John/Bernie Taupin-penned "Belfast" was a kind of an international protest over the volatile political atmosphere in Northern Ireland during that period because the group's lineup consisted of Marcia Barrett, the Jamaican vocalist that sang lead on the track, in addition to Maizie Williams (from Montserrat) and Bobby Farrell (from Aruba).
The city's name, Belfast, is taken from the Irish word Béal Feirste, which translated means "mouth of the sandbanks." It is also the capital of, and biggest city in, Northern Ireland.
Most likely, Boney M's "Belfast" hit song was a protest of what's come to be known as The Troubles in Northern Ireland. While these Troubles may have been given a religious overtone, where the Catholic is pitted against the Protestant, it's much more of a political battle, better described as republicans versus loyalists. It's also been put in terms of nationalists fighting unionists. However you want to draw the battle lines, though, this conflict mainly raged between 1969 and 1998. Significantly, Belfast experienced some of the worst Northern Ireland "troubles" in the '70s, as rival paramilitary groups organized on each side. Sadly, it wasn't uncommon to have bombings, assassinations, and general street violence in this city during that time. At its worst, the Provisional IRA set off 22 bombs within the city limits in 1972. This awful day has come to be called Bloody Friday because nine people were killed in the explosions. It's estimated that more than 1,500 people were killed as the result of political violence in Belfast between 1969 and 2001. If that's not reason to sing the protest blues, nothing is.
Houses in Pankenham Street
(thanks, Jeanne Boleyn)
Thankfully, unlike music related to hotspots in the Middle East, you don't hear nearly as many protest songs about Belfast these days. Of late, this region has experienced relative peace. Hopefully, Belfast is becoming known for its more positive attributes, such as industry, the arts and higher education. Belfast is a major port that dominates the Belfast Lough shoreline.
Being that Belfast is on the western end of Belfast Lough, and at the mouth of the River Lagan, it is perfectly situated for shipbuilding. For better or worse, in fact, the Titanic
was constructed in Belfast in 1911/1912.
Although the city's most violent episodes may be things of the past, the city is still segregated by ethnicity, political party, and religious affiliation. It's not uncommon to see these various sectors identified by such things as murals, flags and graffiti. The noise of conflict might have died down, but the deep divisions that inspired such songs as "Belfast" by Boney M - among others - still live on.
The success of Boney M's "Belfast" is a significant reminder that when people utterly fail to live in peace together, such conflicts reverberate far and wide. In the case of Belfast, these tremors even shook up a culturally diverse, German based disco dance group like Boney M.
~ Dan MacIntosh
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