“When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to Fly by those nets.” 
James Joyce

Making peace with the Twelfth’s Great Escape

Making peace with the Twelfth’s Great Escape

We’ve all heard the jokes about the Twelfth being a mass exodus for those who don’t participate. The roads to Donegal are packed in anticipation of those few days in July where time seems to slow down. This was even the subject of an (excellent) episode of Derry Girls.

For most of my life, I’ve been stuck in Belfast over this period and for a lot of those years, stuck truly meant stuck. Living in Ardoyne, my relationship with the Twelfth and those who celebrate it was never going to be one of great affection. I grew up seeing riots up the road making the evening news across the water, and every year was told by my very stern Ardoyne ma that I was “not to leave the house”.

On occasion though, I did.

I once took a leisurely stroll to a shipping container/shop a few dozen meters from my house only to be greeted by heavily armed riot police quizzing me, a 15-year-old wearing pyjama bottoms and a Paramore shirt, on where I was going and why. Not the kinda Riot! I’m into, guys.

I emerged from the shop a few minutes later with a can of Pepsi and a bag of Haribo, passing the armed police again, shooting smug glances to the police officers as if to say “fuck you entirely for assuming we’re all trouble”. The narrative was that we were. The police presence reinforced it.

A lot of people who lived in other areas of Ardoyne did manage to make that unholy pilgrimage to the shopfront on the Twelfth, and it would be entirely disingenuous to suggest that none of them had stones in their pockets. But for what I’d say was a sizeable majority, the journey’s main purpose was to let them have a nosy and see how things were playing out. After all, what else were they going to do? Being kept in could realistically only end up in curiosity, and there’s only so much daytime TV someone can handle.

 PSNI installing “wall of steel” around the Short Strand area in July 2018 (IMAGE: Brendan Harkin)

PSNI installing “wall of steel” around the Short Strand area in July 2018 (IMAGE: Brendan Harkin)

Things have become much more settled in North Belfast over the Twelfth period- last year’s Orange Order parade passed by peacefully- but a regularly large police presence remains to remind us that we better not fuck it up. The same tactics are used elsewhere in the city, most notably in the Short Strand area of the east, wherein metal curtains are used throughout the month of July to keep residents in- to protect them from what authorities perceive as their own uncontrollable desire to attack passing parades.

It’s really hard to make amends with the period as a celebration when it not only actively excludes you, but treats your presence as an imminent threat.. Realistically, I know that if I were to go out and about on the Eleventh Night, like many of my nationalist friends from non-interface areas do, I would be absolutely fine. I would be just another person in the crowds heading up to Cavehill to get that elusive bonfire Instagram snap. But years of being told to stay in line and stay at home cultivates a caged-in mentality that’s hard to shake even when the restrictions are no longer physical, and perhaps that’s the most difficult thing for a lot of us to come to terms with. It stays with you.

 The view from Cave Hill on 11th July 2017 (IMAGE: Brendan Harkin)

The view from Cave Hill on 11th July 2017 (IMAGE: Brendan Harkin)

My own position on parades and bonfires aside, if we as a society are to expect people to reconcile with the Twelfth, and to eventually- gasp!- participate in it, we should stop expecting them to either get out of town or stay at home with their doors and windows locked.

This year I will not be stuck, opting to use my time off work in the most productive way possible and detach myself from my looming dissertation deadline by heading towards the North coast.

I acknowledge this decision as part of the problem, but I’ll be casting a wandering eye towards Ardoyne through Twitter and Facebook in hopes that this year is as uneventful as the last, and that residents in interface areas all over Belfast and beyond can go to the shops without being treated like a prospective criminal.

This article originally appeared on Medium.

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