Some say troubles abound
Some day soon they're gonna pull the old town down
One day we'll return here
When the Belfast Child sings again
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Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, was once a thriving industrial city producing linen, rope, and tobacco while dominating the heavy engineering and shipbuilding industry at the time. Since the early 20th Century, however, Belfast has become known for political unrest and bloodshed.
Belfast's bloody history began in 1886 after intense riots over the issue of home rule left the city divided. In 1919, the Irish War of Independence began, following the declaration of independence in Dublin and the murder of two police officers from the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). The Irish Volunteers – renamed the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – targeted British troops and barracks on Irish soil using guerrilla tactics. Even after 300 lives had been lost, the violence continued to escalate until the execution of 14 British intelligence agents on what was later dubbed "Bloody Sunday," caused a revenge attack that injured more than 70 people after the RIC opened fire on fans at a football stadium. In 1921, Ireland was partitioned and Belfast became the capital of Northern Ireland under British rule. But Belfast's troubles were only just beginning.
The Cenotaph in Remembrance Garden
Photo: Dean Molyneaux, Geograph Project, CC 2.0
After World War II left Belfast devastated, the survivors harbored grudges, and resentment between sectarians and Catholics festered. Violence eventually erupted in the 1960s into what became known as The Troubles. The main issue was the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the relationship between its Protestant unionist community and its Catholic nationalist community. The religious divide spilled into politics with the unionists wanting to remain under British rule while the Catholic called for independence.
On November 8, 1987, eleven people were killed and more than 60 injured when the paramilitary branch of the IRA detonated a bomb in Enniskillen at the town's war memorial just before a Remembrance Day service. This event was dubbed by the BBC as the turning point during the Troubles.
The tragic history of Ireland has inspired many artists and musicians such as U2 with their song "Sunday Bloody Sunday," but the bombing at Enniskillen directly inspired Scottish rock band Simple Minds who wrote and released "Belfast Child" to commemorate the events on Remembrance Day 1987. As Jim Kerr explained to Q
magazine in 1989: "...I'm trying to relate to people in Northern Ireland who've also lost loved ones. I'm trying to talk about the madness and sadness and emptiness. I'm not saying I have any pearls of wisdom, but I have a few questions to ask. When I'm asked on American TV who my heroes are, rather than saying Lou Reed or Bob Dylan or someone who goes without saying, I say there are these people called Amnesty International and what they are doing I think is rather heroic..."
East Bridge in Eniskillen
Photo: Dean Molyneaux, Geograph Project, CC 2.0
Running more than six and half minutes long, "Belfast Child" was the second-longest song to hit #1 on the UK Charts at the time. It was the band's first and only #1 hit on the UK charts – testament perhaps to the impact this song had on listeners at a time when Northern Ireland still floundered in political and religious turmoil. Released on 1989 on the band's eighth studio album, Street Fighting Years
, "Belfast Child," like most of the album, proved a departure from the Simple Minds' signature sound. While still maintaining aspects of arena-rock, Street Fighting Years
favored acoustic and soundtrack atmospherics inspired by Celtic folk music while incorporating more politically-themed lyrics including songs about the Soweto townships in South African, the Berlin Wall, and nuclear submarines stationed off the coast of Scotland. The album, and in particular, "Belfast Child," which borrowed its melody from the Irish traditional folk song "She Moved Through the Air," received rave reviews – a poignant reminder of the Troubles that were far from over in Northern Ireland.
Today, Northern Ireland is still a country divided. Take a drive through the suburbs, and the religious and political differences are immediately apparent. Catholic communities fly Irish flags, their sidewalks and bridges daubed in green, white and orange, while the Protestant communities fly Union Jacks with graffiti to match. Sporadic violence has continued well into the 21st Century with protests and demonstrations regularly turning violent. Earlier this year, tension between unionists and loyalists flared after the Belfast City Council decreased the number of days a year on which the Union Jack could be flown from city hall, a decision which resulted in balaclava-wearing militants taking to the streets armed with firebombs and rocks. This is the brutal reality of Northern Ireland, one that makes the final line of "Belfast Child" all the more tragic for the fact that the Belfast child may never sing again.Suzanne van Rooyen
August 21, 2016
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