A Buddy’s eye view of “Belfast”

I thoroughly enjoyed Brian Walker’s thoughts on Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast.” As Brian witnessed and covered many of the darkest events first hand it’s always interesting to hear his recollections and understandings. I would like to come at the movie from a different perspective as one of the many hundreds of “Buddys” who watched the movie through Branagh’s own window.

I viewed “Belfast” with some trepidation as someone who would relate strongly to that period and place. I am nine months younger than Ken Branagh. He was an eight-year-old in North Belfast in that terrible summer of 1969. I was seven and in East Belfast. August 1969 for me really stands out as the month I was taken to my first football match by my Dad (a 6-0 win for Glentoran away to Bangor), utterly unaware that the troops had just arrived, and our city would never be the same. But my focus was entirely on my introduction to the Irish League, while Branagh’s was clearly on the girl at the front of his class. That’s how it should always be for seven or eight-year-olds.

Some reviewers and people I’ve spoken to about it have criticised the movie for lack of a broader context. I’ve seen Catholics criticise it for not saying why the troubles erupted and I’ve seen Protestants decrying it for not showing that Protestants were also put out of their homes. But we need to remember that “Belfast” was not a historical piece. It’s an evocation of the very real memories of an eight-year-old boy.

An eight-year-old doesn’t have a broader context to their life, just the immediacy of the day and the restrictions of their own immediate surroundings. In that sense I think Branagh has done brilliantly to evoke what our city was like for young children and the frightening way it so suddenly changed. The purpose is to demonstrate HOW an idyllic situation changed around Buddy. Not WHY it changed. Because Buddy didn’t understand why. That’s the point!

Branagh has been accused of romanticising the city streets of his childhood. But by their very nature most people have a romantic view of their childhood environment. I genuinely sympathise with anyone who doesn’t feel that way. Also it’s been accused of just reflecting one side of the community. Again that’s an irrelevance. Anyone who’s watched David Hammond’s BBC short “Dusty Bluebells” (1971) will see kids from the Lower Falls dressed the same way, behaving in the same way, singing the same songs and playing the same street games as we did a couple of miles across the Lagan. It’s an accident of birth that we were born where we were. We could easily have been born on the other side of the river and our ultimate outlook on life could have become polar opposites. That’s the context of this movie and its tragedy. Normal, identical people being pulled apart and forced into bitter tribal warfare for a reason well beyond the understanding of Buddy and against what his family clearly wanted and stood for.

We lived in the Braniel estate in the east of the city but as my parents both worked, I spent every day that summer (like all the summers of my childhood) at my grandparents in the lower Newtownards Road. In a street identical to Branagh’s street. The picture Branagh paints of a close-knit, working-class community reflects my own childhood memories. And probably reflects the childhood memories of people from a similar age and background in any similar city anywhere across the UK before heavy industry was decimated in the eighties.

The first time I heard of Ian Paisley was probably sometime in 1969. There was a bonfire (it wasn’t the eleventh night as it was during school term) at the bottom of the estate and we all trooped down out of curiosity. There was a big man shouting at everyone and a couple of bands. That’s all I remember but when I went home and asked my parents who Paisley was, I just got the reply “he’s a dead loss.” The next day in school it seemed all the other dads had said something similar. So I didn’t think about him again. The events that worked to his advantage clearly hadn’t happened yet.

Our estate was the highest residential point of the east of the city. My bedroom had a panoramic view of Belfast, and I can remember looking over the city at night watching fires but not knowing what they were. I remember my Granda listening every morning to the police waveband on his radio to pick up what was happening everywhere. I remember him taking me down the road the morning after some trouble and me bursting into tears when I saw someone had set fire to a forklift truck in Seaforde Street (at that stage the height of my ambitions in life was to be a forklift driver), and I remember (as in the movie) the dads in the estate being given batons (I don’t know by whom) and told they were now vigilantes to protect the estate (against God knows who as the area was pretty well impregnable).

I also remember the songs the older boys in the estate sang taking on a darker tone. Once someone painted “UVF” on a gable wall near my Granny’s house. I asked my more worldly-wise friend Jackie (he was ten) what it stood for and got the answer “probably Ulster Versus Fenians or something like that.” It was getting darker and I’m sure the rest of Belfast was the same, whether orange or green. But that wasn’t really dealt with in the movie as by that stage Buddy and his family had taken the Heysham boat. They didn’t experience that.

The outbreak of the troubles is really a subplot to a story about a man struggling to provide for his family. Buddy clearly doesn’t understand why the Catholic families are being put out of the street and his family are horrified but powerless to do anything about it. In our estate that didn’t happen until August 1971. I can think of three Catholic families in the streets around us – one three doors away. The kids from those families were our friends since we were toddlers. We knew they went to a different primary school. We didn’t really understand why but it wasn’t an issue. Then they were gone one morning. No violence. No burnings. They were just gone. By that stage I was just coming ten. We knew they were Catholics and we were Protestants, but not really want that meant. Just that it made them different. Not so different though that we weren’t always in and out of each other’s houses. Then we moved about six months after that and my first friend in the new estate had been put out of Lenadoon Avenue. His parents were very good people but obviously had a harsher view of life than mine did. As, I’m sure did the families who had to leave our estate. That’s the outworking of what Buddy witnesses in “Belfast.”

Kenneth Branagh was under no obligation to provide context or offer judgements on the tragic events that started to unravel that month. He would have been dishonest to offer more than he did. Personally, I felt the movie worked brilliantly because it never once stepped outside Branagh’s nine-year-old consciousness and in so doing it recreated a Belfast we’ve never seen on the screen. I’m glad he did.

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