Stones are flung through our windows. I ask a group of 10 years-old hoodies what seems to be the problem. The children express their doubts about us being catholic. Welcome to Belfast. We’ll brew a nice hot cuppa when the wind finally ceases to blow. We’re slowly getting accustomed to the correlation between electrical supply and the wind.
When we first moved onto our street in the The Markets estate, Belfast City Council officials have advised us to contact Gerard, the unofficial leader of our neighborhood. Without his blessing, they explained happily showing they knew more than they were willing to divulge, we would have a very hard life down there. It had nothing to do with the electricity.
The peelers don’t come our way.
Look around and you’ll find rows of cozy redbrick terraced-houses. The sidewalks are filled with young mothers pushing prams, going up and down the street morning till nightfall. With their tracksuits and cigarettes in the corners of their mouths, but still letting their children have some fresh air. But hidden behind the hedges there used to live top brass Irish Republican Army members. In fact, they still do, but now officially as dissidents. The police don’t really come to the Markets. No burglaries, no violence. All problems get sorted, using local manpower only.
The City Council tells me, Gerard the caretaker used to be a member of the Irish Republican Army, an ex-inmate now member of a group for people who used to be incarcerated, which unfortunately also happens to be a paramilitary organization. No one says it out loud.
When The Troubles were officially over, many freed Catholics and Protestants started to hurtle down a slippery path. They took drugs, burgled. Not all of them, but enough to create many groups all around Northern Ireland, with sole purpose of explaining to children and adults alike that racism was rather naïve and that both Protestants and Catholics were going to have to learn how to live together in Ulster, United Kingdom. Millions were spent on that idea.
This living together hasn’t really worked out as planned. According to newspapers, the biggest number of suicides in Europe can be found among Catholics living in West Belfast. Protestants in the East are doing a bit better. Everyone has lost someone in Northern Ireland, no one is immune to a personal trauma. One’s father was incarcerated or died during riots, the other’s wife is dead. He didn’t watch his son get older or he feels that depending on where he happened to be born, Ireland or the UK are lost or at the very least under threat. So he hangs himself, despite of the hundreds of NGOs offering therapy. One suicide follows another.
We used to know a catholic republican ex-convict in town. He was a tough guy who couldn’t bring himself to telling his mates about his low spirits and suicide thoughts. He was too ashamed to even mention it. So he would drive into Shankill Road, which happens to be the most Protestant part of Belfast. He went from one pub to another hoping for one of his enemies to finally kill him. He only escaped with his life when he was helped by a protestant paramilitary loyalist. He grabbed him by his shirt, drove him into a republican part of town, kicked him out on the street and told him not to come back again.
Others have more luck. Our protestant friend, Alistair, was only 17 when, while following orders, he killed a catholic. Only after being jailed for theft, he started educating himself and later became a therapist. He now spends his days touring schools and telling children about conflicts and how not to be bullied into doing anything by peers. He carries and air of darkness around him and is plagued by constant pangs of guilt. He can never show his face around Shankill Road where he grew up. He’s mates with Gerry, a catholic, who used to plant bombs which killed protestants. They are very close to each other. They defend the fragile peace process in unison when asked by school-children, but also joke that had they met 15 years ago, one of them would have had to die. Alistair wrote a book “Give a Boy a Gun”, a very good read indeed.
30 thousand Poles leave for Ulster.
The move to Ulster was a godsend after three years in London where my my marriage didn’t stand the test of 3 years abroad.
We met at the university in Cracow. I was a lecturer at the Jagellonian University, teaching about the ideology od Ji-Had, Islam art and the Islam civilization. When my three-months scholarship at the University College London stopped coming we fell onto the very bottom of the social ladder.
We were poor as church mice. Because of our financial situation we suddenly found ourselves renting a flat along with five other people. We slept on a mattress. I got lucky, because I was offered another scholarship. I worked for a polish newspaper for a while. I would even occasionally fly to Cracow to give lectures at the UJ.
When I lost my newspaper gig, I carried on fighting as a freelancer. My husband however couldn’t wrap his head around it all. We started fighting. He started drinking. Finally he left for Afghanistan after a job and that was the end of us to be honest.
That’s when I met a woman from Belfast, who told me I could work for a polish newspaper there. The paper went bust and I was lucky enough to find this organization. I was supposed to look after people who were victims of hate crimes and work towards lessening cultural tensions. I was to provide information to Polish migrants about the British social services once they were faced with homelessness. I was also to send alcoholics to therapy or back home. I would also sometimes fill in benefit papers for those in need.
I created a support group for Women at Cross-roads, mainly for domestic abuse victims. I organised their time, workshops with different organization and therapy sessions with psychologist.
We’ll burn your house down.
So I went to Gerard’s place, knocked with a broad grin and explained that I was given his address by the Council and would kindly like to ask if I was going to have any problems living in here. I also added that I heard he was a renowned freedom-fighter. I obviously failed to mention other things I happened to hear, like the fact he was accused of taking part in a politically motivated murder.
Gerard was a towering 6’7 inches tall man. He remarked calmly that all the things I’ve heard about him were a load of rubbish. He used to be a member of the IRA but that’s about it. I happily told him that I understood and was very glad to have met him, while at the same time laughing inside as having red the IRA code I knew that one can never cease to be the member of this organization.
Gerard brewed a tea, he recognized me being from Poland, mentioned that he used to have some communist sentiments when he was younger and that he even has some till this day. He assured me that I’d have no problems fitting in with the neighborhood.
Me and the fiancé lived in peace for about three weeks. What followed were stones and rotten fruit thrown through our windows. We saw 10 years-old hoodies outside. The children expressed their doubts about us being catholic. They had us, I thought, as we consider ourselves of no religion. I wasn’t however about to offer a group of 10 year-olds with stones in the hands a deep discussion regarding atheism. We swore that we came from catholic Poland. The gang leader replied that they were going to burn our house down. When I asked him why he looked like he had no idea what to answer to that.
My organization helps Polish people get accustomed to living in Northern Ireland, but I also double as a voluntary negotiator when any attacks on Poles take place. I used to tell my countrymen and women to always phone the police. And now what? Should I call? They’re just stupid boys, but in this country they could end up in jail. Putting a gang of 10 year-old into a juvie won’t help me or them.
That evening I phoned Gerald. I told him that the children may have been misinformed about our intentions. He invited me to his office. He was very official. He didn’t offer me a cup of tea. He only said that it shouldn’t happen again and said goodbye to me. He must have found out that my organization which is working towards integrating Polish population into the local community has contacts with the police, and that my salary – as a person responsible for hate crimes, was paid by the PSNI. I’m quite sure that was it as, talking to the peelers in The Markets is considered a mortal sin.
Since then, no one recognises me, even though neighborhoods are very close-knit around here and people are very friendly. When I approach, all people put their heads down. We’ve become invisible.
Translation of an article from Gazeta Wyborcza, a polish daily newspaper.
Translated by @poleinbelfast
Polish version by: Ewa Winnicka 2014-07-10 http://www.wyborcza.pl