I really enjoyed Brian Walker’s thoughts on Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast”. While Brian has witnessed and covered many darker events, it’s always interesting to hear his memories and understandings. I would like to come to the film from a different perspective as one of the hundreds of “Buddys” who watched the film through Branagh’s own window.
I viewed “Belfast” with some trepidation as someone who would relate strongly to this time and place. I’m nine months younger than Ken Branagh. He was eight years old in North Belfast in that terrible summer of 1969. I was seven years old and living in East Belfast. August 1969 for me really stands out as the month my dad took me to my first football game (a 6-0 Glentoran win at Bangor), totally unaware that the troops had just arrived and our town would not be never the same. But I was entirely focused on my introduction to the Irish League, while Branagh’s was clearly on the girl in front of her class. That’s how it should always be for seven or eight year olds.
Some critics and people I spoke to criticized the film for lack of larger context. I have seen Catholics criticize him for not saying why the Troubles broke out and I have seen Protestants decry him for not showing that Protestants were also driven from their homes. But we have to remember that “Belfast” was not a historical piece. It is an evocation of the very real memories of an eight-year-old boy.
An eight-year-old has no larger context in his life, just the immediacy of the day and the restrictions of his immediate surroundings. In that sense, I think Branagh did a brilliant job of evoking what our town was like for young children and the frightening way it has changed so suddenly. The goal is to demonstrate HOW an idyllic situation has changed around Buddy. Not WHY it changed. Because Buddy didn’t understand why. That’s the point!
Branagh has been accused of idealizing the city streets of his childhood. But by their very nature, most people have a romantic view of their childhood surroundings. I sincerely sympathize with anyone who doesn’t feel that way. It has also been accused of reflecting only one side of the community. Again, that’s irrelevant. Anyone who has watched David Hammond’s BBC short “Dusty Bluebells” (1971) will see Lower Falls children dressed the same, behaving the same, singing the same songs and playing the same street games as us a few miles away. the Lagan. It is an accident of birth that we were born where we were. We could have easily been born across the river and our ultimate view of life could have become polar opposites. This is the context of this film and its tragedy. Normal, identical people are separated and forced into bitter tribal warfare for a reason far beyond Buddy’s understanding and against what his family clearly wanted and stood for.
We lived on the Braniel estate to the east of town but as my parents both worked I spent every day that summer (like all the summers of my childhood) at my grandparents’ house in lower Newtownards Road. In a street identical to Branagh Street. Branagh’s image of a close-knit working-class community reflects my own childhood memories. And probably reflects the childhood memories of people of a similar age and background in any similar town across the UK before heavy industry was decimated in the eighties.
The first time I heard of Ian Paisley was probably in 1969. There was a bonfire (it wasn’t eleventh night as it was during school term) at the bottom of the estate and we all gathered out of curiosity. There was a big man yelling at everyone and a few groups. That’s all I remember, but when I got home and asked my parents who Paisley was, I just got the answer “it’s a dead loss”. The next day at school, it seemed like all the other dads had said something similar. So I didn’t think about him anymore. The events that played to his advantage had clearly not yet occurred.
Our estate was the highest residential point in the east of the city. My room had a panoramic view of Belfast and I remember looking out over the city at night looking at fires not knowing what they were. I remember my grandmother listening every morning to the police tape on her radio to catch what was going on everywhere. I remember he took me on the road in the morning after some trouble and I burst into tears when I saw someone had set fire to a forklift in Seaforde Street (at this point , the height of my ambitions in life was to be a forklift driver), and I remember (just like in the movie) the estate dads getting batons (I don’t know by who) and they were now vigilantes to protect the domain (against God knows who because the area was almost impregnable).
I also remember the songs the older boys on the estate would sing in a darker tone. Someone once painted “UVF” on a gable wall near my grandmother’s house. I asked my wiser friend Jackie (he was ten) what that meant and got the answer “probably Ulster vs. Fenians or something.” It was 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 film because by this point Buddy and his family had taken the Heysham boat. They didn’t experience that.
The outbreak of The Troubles is actually a subplot to the story of a man struggling to support his family. Buddy clearly doesn’t understand why Catholic families are being put off the streets and his family is horrified but helpless to do anything about it. In our area, that didn’t happen until August 1971. I can think of three Catholic families on the streets around us – one to three doors away. The children of these families had been our friends since we were very young. We knew they were going to another primary school. We didn’t really understand why but that was no problem. Then they left one morning. No violence. No burns. They had just left. At this point, I was just getting to ten years old. We knew they were Catholic and we were Protestant, but we didn’t really want that to mean. Just that it made them different. Not so different though that we weren’t always inside and outside of each other’s houses. Then we moved about six months later and my first friend in the new area had been kicked out of Lenadoon Avenue. Her parents were very good people but obviously had a tougher outlook on life than mine. Like, I’m sure, the families who had to leave our estate. This is the result of what Buddy witnesses in “Belfast”.
Kenneth Branagh was under no obligation to provide context or pass judgment on the tragic events that began to unfold that month. It would have been dishonest to offer more than he did. Personally, I found the film worked brilliantly because it never left nine-year-old Branagh’s consciousness, and in doing so it recreated a Belfast we had never seen on screen. . I’m glad he did.
Ian Clarke spent 36 years in sales and marketing for newspapers in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland – including the Belfast Telegraph, Wolverhampton Express & Star, Northern Echo and The Herald (Glasgow) after graduating from QUB in political science. Supporter of Glentoran.