Birthday in Belfast

photophoto.JPG  hhhI like to read magazines in the bath and I love to travel which meant I presented my hubby with a page torn out of Woman and Home suggesting that we go to Belfast for my birthday (a much safer option than leaving him to choose a gift!). I’d never been to Belfast and after doing a bit of research I created a wish list of places to visit. The much hyped Titanic Belfast visitor centre was a definite ‘hop off ‘on the sightseeing bus tour but two other attractions were higher on my list.

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The iconic memorial mural for hunger striker Bobby Sands.

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A tattered Union Jack flag on a resident’s shed and a lamppost painted in red, white and blue.

I wanted to go on a ‘black cab tour’ of west Belfast to view the mural art and learn more about life for the residents of Shankill and Falls Road before and after ‘The Troubles’.

 

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Barack Obama told a crowd in Belfast: “There are walls that still stand, there are still many miles to go”.

This was particularly relevant to me as only the week before I’d attended the Glasgow Women’s Library’s Mixing the Colours conference which celebrated the work to address the issue of sectarianism. This is a recurring theme in my own writing so I was interested to learn more about Belfast’s history of sectarianism and how the communities are working to stamp it out.

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A chance to make my mark in support of Mixing the Colours.

As Bobby our driver highlighted, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s hero” and it will take time and effort to battle against sectarianism. As part of the tour, we stopped at the Peace Line and Bobby suggested that we join others and write our own message on the wall.

 

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The tunnel that connects the gaol with the courthouse on the others side of the road.

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4 wings of the prison radiate from the ‘Circle’.

 

The other tour I wanted to squeeze into our short trip was to Crumlin Road Gaol. The building, known as ‘The Crum’, first opened its gates in 1846 and for 150 years it was a fully operational prison, only closing its doors in 1996. During its history, the gaol housed murderers, suffragettes, loyalist and republican prisoners.

 

I’ve just finished reading the excellent book, The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester and this features the struggle of the suffragettes, some of whom were force-fed when they went on hunger strike in jail. This happened in Crumlin Road Gaol as well and the tour really helped bring scenes in the The Hourglass Factory alive.

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Oops! My glass is overflowing again…

Touring a Victorian gaol and a deprived area of a city ravaged by religious and political hatred might not be everyone’s ideal birthday treat but I thoroughly enjoyed my chance to understand more about issues that are important to me (and there was plenty of time for good food and drink too!).

Have you been to Belfast?

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Playing a Part in Mixing the Colours

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The last time Scotland experienced a solar eclipse was in 1999 and I’ve no idea where I was at the time. But I doubt I’ll forget the eclipse I witnessed on Friday morning. Luckily, I had time to pause on my way to the Mixing the Colours conference so I joined the crowds gathered in George Square. For a matter of minutes a gap in the clouds appeared and a cheer went up in honour of the eclipse.

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It was a memorable start to the day and the buzz continued during the conference. I’m a huge supporter of the Mixing the Colours project and attended one of their writing workshops at Glasgow Women’s Library to encourage women to write about their experiences of sectarianism. I have been the victim of sectarianism and it’s a key theme in my debut novel, Talk of the Toun, so the workshop stimulated me to write a short story very loosely based on childhood experiences. As part of the GWL project, I was chuffed to bits to be asked to record my short story for a podcast for GWL. You can listen to my piece, Smelly Catholic, here.

10245368_993640317314535_4791309367103094624_nThe conference was a great opportunity to present the project’s findings through a Knowledge Café exploring sectarianism in the context of wider gender inequality, presentations by Mixing The Colour’s Project Development Worker, Rachel Thain-Gray, Rosie Kane and Dr Margaret Malloch of Stirling University as well as a premiere of the Mixing The Colours film and the launch of the anthology of short stories and poems.

For me, the highlight of the day was hearing readings from other women writers, especially my friends, Ethyl Smith and Emma Mooney whose writing was entertaining as well as thought provoking. Pieces by Julie Robertson, Leela Soma and Marie-Therese Taylor also inspired me and I also enjoyed Magi Gibson’s performance of her specially commissioned Mixing The Colours – A Dramatic Monologue, and a poem by Nicola Burkhill which could be a new anthem for women speaking out about sectarianism.  You can watch Nicola perform her poem here – it’s a powerful piece!

The day of collective action against sectarianism highlighted the need for the inclusion and engagement of women in dialogues around sectarianism in Scotland and I felt privileged to play a very small part.

Have you used your writing to explore sectarianism?

Mixing the Colours – Writing about Sectarianism

I’ve been to lots of reader events in 2013 but it’s been well over a year since I’ve attended a writing workshop. I’ve deliberately avoided signing up for workshops as I felt that after finishing my MLitt course, my writing had been workshopped to death and the life critiqued out of it. I also felt it was hard to justify spending any more money and adding to the hunners and hunners I’d already spent pursuing my writing ambitions.

downloadBut I saw a workshop advertised that really appealed to me for several reasons. The main reason was that it addressed the issue of sectarianism and this is something I’m very interested in and it is a theme which features in my WIP. Also, the workshop was led by poet and writer Magi Gibson and I knew she was an excellent tutor. And the event was free! So it was a total no-brainer to head to the wonderful Glasgow Women’s Library.

The workshop was organised as part of the Mixing the Colours project to challenge the view of women in relation to sectarian issues in Scotland. Scottish writing has stories, poems and dramas that explore the Catholic/Protestant experience. It’s part of our history, part of our culture, but women’s voices are all but silent.

Magi asked the group to share their experience of sectarianism and what it meant to grow up as a Protestant or a Catholic girl in Scotland.  It was fascinating to hear the diverse range of experiences and I knew that the group would produce thought-provoking pieces of writing. As a prompt, we were all asked to start writing with, “I remember…” and put these experiences down on paper.

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The lively group of women went very quiet as we all scribbled furiously before sharing our writing. And what an inspirational group! The writing styles varied and meant that some of the tales made us laugh out loud whilst others made us gasp in horror. But the key feature of them all was a talent for giving a voice to the issue of sectarianism from a female perspective.

The piece which I produced was based on a childhood memory of being verbally and physically abused because I was brought up as a Catholic but lived in a council scheme dominated by Protestants. This was not an isolated case and I witnessed many forms of sectarianism on both sides throughout my childhood and as an adult in the workplace.

NBM-Boy-PosterI do believe that times have changed for the better and organisations such as Nil by Mouth are doing fantastic work to tackle the problem and to rid Scotland of the destructive social impact that sectarianism has upon our lives and upon our society. But I’m keen to be involved in any way I can to help raise awareness of the issue.

The group is going to get-together in two weeks after polishing our initial drafts and I’m looking forward to meeting up again to benefit from the energy and ideas of talented women. I hope to incorporate my piece into my WIP or as a short story so I’m glad I took myself and my writing back into a workshop setting again.

Is sectarianism an issue that has featured in your writing? Do you regularly attend writing workshops?