Sunday, February 20, 2011

Beyond Belfast

For some reason, quite unknown to me, I have always been attracted to Ireland. It started with the celtic music when I began Irish dancing, and I soon fell in love with the country. Everything from the culture to the language, the pubs to the rolling green hills, there was just something about it that drew me in. I had been looking for a book that was set in Ireland, and had been having trouble finding one until this week. I walked into my favourite Chapters store and started browsing the tables that were so optimistically labeled; new and hot fiction, read it before you wrap it, stores twenty bestsellers, when I noticed a bright yellow book with an oversized green shamrock on the cover. Unable to ignore it, I walked over to see that it was titled Beyond Belfast. After reading the short summary I realized that I had finally found the perfect book to fill my Irish craving. This book was lively, knowledgeable, opinionated, disrespectful, debatable and immensely readable.

Beyond Belfast, written by the savagely hilarious Canadian author, Will Ferguson, is offbeat and charming, and filled with humour, insight, and a wide array of eccentric characters. It tells the story of one man's misguided attempt at walking the entire Ulster Way: a 560-mile path that circles Northern Ireland, from the city walls of Derry to the moorland heights of the Sperrins, from the green glens of Antrim to the Mountains of Mourne. Along the way, Ferguson, grandson of a Belfast orphan, uncovers his own hidden family history. There are clues about a lost inheritance, a mysterious photograph, rumours of a vast estate: the truth when it comes is both surprising and funny

Taking place the year after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, his journey captures something of the atmosphere of Northern Ireland at the beginning of a precarious and uncertain peace, or, as Ferguson remarks, "the absence of war, which is not quite the same thing". The narrative is punctuated with historical and political musings, triggered by the places he visits and by his encounters on the route. His thoughts are informed by a fair amount of reading, a keen sense of observation and a humane disposition.

Ferguson writes with a fine sense of historical irony and a deep revulsion for the ways in which loyalist and republican paramilitaries have treated people as expendable pawns, destroying lives for their respective causes. He is also unsettled by the “the tacit approval given to terrorists and bigots,” and exasperated by the self-censorship that is often necessary for survival. “I was tired of being neutral,” he says at one point, “of having silence forced upon me by unstated threats.”

Sometimes, when he decides to speak his mind, he runs greater risks than he realizes. You do not tell loyalists in the most Orange part of Belfast, on the most Orange day of the year, that in burning the Irish tricolour they are “almost burning their own flag” because one of the colours is orange. Not if you want to live a long and happy life, anyway. Still, he got away with it, possibly because of his Canadian accent, and lived to tell the tale. There's a tale within the tale as well: the heart-rending story of Ferguson's orphaned Ulster grandfather, who came to Canada, and the quest to uncover the hidden family history. Both tales, of routes and roots, are born of desire to reconnect with the past, and speak in their related ways to the perduring power of Ulster Protestant ethnicity in Canada. They are funny, intelligent and well worth hearing.

Ferguson narrowly survives death by lorry, drowning, mugging, wayward bulls, frenzied dogs and electrified fences. He is up to his ankles in cow shite, he is chilled to the bone, he hikes in waterlogged boots, he is often lost, and for long stretches of time he is lonely, with only his own footprints for company. All this would knock the romantic stuffing out of anyone. And yet, he also come across majestic scenery, magnificent views and breathtaking landscapes. If heaven is a replay of the “softest and finest moments of our lives,” he writes, “I'll see more than a few fleeting images of Northern Ireland move past.” It is, as he says, "a land of contrasts"; during his travels, he meets with occasional meanness, but much generosity of spirit and many small acts of kindness.

Will Ferguson's talent as a satirist is to be treasured. He writes refreshingly, provocatively and at times eloquently. He takes on issues from a contrarian's perspective, but never exceeds the bounds of reason. He looks for the essence and his search sometimes brings out some smashingly insightful stuff. Ferguson possesses a crafty eye for detail, not to mention a highly developed understanding of the essential folly in what passes for everyday life.

When I started this Journey Through Literature, I began marking pages in the books that I was reading that I wanted to come back to. They usually had some kind of quote I like, or a word, event, or person that I wanted to know more about. While reading Beyond Belfast, most of the pages I marked contained phrases and conversations laced with Irish wit and humour, such as 
"The titanic was built in the shipyards of belfast.... still a sensitive topic, that, and even when asked about the titanic, people in belfast will tell you "it was fine when it left."" In order to share all the things I marked down, I would be relaying near full chapters of this book, so instead I will just insist that If you enjoy travel, humour, and authenticity, you should without a doubt read this book. 

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