Under My Skin: some of my ‘Me & the Lower Newtownards Road’ story…

Photo: Mark Houston 6 January 2013

Photo: Mark Houston 6 January 2013

An essay that combines story and some thoughts on hope and violence in a loyalist community that has gotten under my skin…

So we’re standing there, this friend and I, it’s mid afternoon because I remember traffic. It’s bright and it’s not raining. I am on my way to open up the dark, smelly and unhappy youth centre that used to be a loyalist bar, it got bought by a church and then converted and my friend stops to ask me how I am. I go between emotions and projects and people in my answer, I am a youth development worker, I have been for three years, on the Lower Newtownards Road. My friend is gentle, he listens, he knows my journey, he says:

“Harriet if prevention of death is becoming more important than preservation of life – then it’s time to walk away…”

So I walked away…

I walked away and recovered (it took me a while). I felt a weight lifting at the same time as an ache that took the form of commitment – because this beautiful and troubled, exasperating, dark, rich and hilarious community gets under your skin and has got under the skin of so many. We leave, we quit, we are hurt and yet we keep showing up, sometimes I don’t know why and other times I try to take a guess… So far I am still there, walking the pavements when I can to drink in the look, smell, sound and smiles of the streets, loitering around the edges of community events, anniversaries, parades and riots, friends with those who live, who attend church, work and run programmes in the community and sharing joy and pride in progress and pain, frustration and downright anger sometimes when it all gets set back or echoes and/or feels like the pain of trying develop youth work between 2003-2006 in this patch.

When I arrived in Belfast in 2003, I had no reconcilation, conflict or peacebuilding interest or expertise (and many do arrive with these issues and areas in their sights). I cared about the inner city and poverty, fresh from a derelict inner city estate in Manchester, England I was looking to take my experience, skills and compassion to a similar place and culture in Belfast. Riding the 3a & 4a past Iceland on the Newtownards Road and Cluan Place on the Albertbridge I identified similar landmarks of shutters, malnourished bodies, fast food outlets and pawn shops that signified poverty as well as the potential and likely ground level community development and transformation. Imagine my surprise as well as delight to identify a faith community (in church saturated Northern Ireland) bang smack in the middle of some of the busiest and most constructive community outreach that had no conversion or ‘saved & added’ agenda, simply a desire to meet the needs of its community and took some hits on the chin for doing so.

It was so hard and sad…

My thinking about poverty got turned on it’s head, I think I hadn’t really understood poverty until I witnessed families with third generation unemployment and poor literacy buying the shiniest gadgets and shoes with the help of catalogue accounts, bingo winnings and cash in hand ‘odd jobs’. I hadn’t understood the marginalised until I sat beside children who were on so much medication they couldn’t sit still, let alone listen or look you in the eye. Who had witnessed so much cursing and negative criticism in their relationships that they couldn’t take a compliment or praise without insulting one of their peers at the same time, who couldn’t watch a football game without punching a door or a table, who never knew what time it was and just kept knocking at the door because no-one was dropping them off or picking them up, let alone knew where they were. Generally speaking, these children and young people, this ‘community’ weren’t very popular, in school, in youth group, in cross community activities, at outdoor pursuits days or in church. They were noisy, rude, aggressive, frightening, hyper and sometimes dirty and smelly. We tried to go to the cinema once, all expenses paid and the manager asked us to leave. When we tried to engage with parents and/or other family members they rarely were home, answered the door or turned up. I came to understand poverty as not such a money based issue, but perhaps a poverty of conversation, positivity, compliments, esteem, routine, stability and time. Precious, precious time…

I used to walk to work most days from the Beersbridge Road down the Newtownards Road, and as I passed the golden arches of McDonalds I could feel the hopelessness and weight coming upon me. A community entrenched in the language of pride and honour and images the evoked strength, power and dominance seemed to have a hollow echo and served as a flimsy canvas highlighting the tiredness, escapism and consumerism of a community that invested in TV, annual festivals, historical ritual, appearance and the promise and hope of violence and riot.

I remember the ringleader in our youth club leading the charging past me one afternoon, he and his friends carrying big sticks shouting ‘we’re going to short strand, there’s going to be a riot’ I will not forget the sense of purpose, focus and excitment. One of the beautiful 12 year old girls in our girls group confided in me one evening that she always loved the 12th every year because you got new clothes and there was always a riot. These events whether hoped for or actually happening seemed to awaken the language and imagery that lay dormant the rest of the time and motivated and inspired these young people in a way that other narrative didn’t.

where were the role models?

The narrative of community (and youth development) workers about education, self esteem, relationships, families, personal development and travel was never led or inspired by local politicians or community leaders, let alone imitated or echoed. It was never shared or endorsed by parents, wider family, friends or neighbours – they didn’t know that language -they didn’t have the confidence or the encouragement to speak and use it – it was viewed as brought in/alien/other.

My conclusion in those final tired months was ‘where were the role models?’ ‘where were the positive depictions of strength and pride?’ I felt I was wading through treacle, at the mercy of men who made decisions behind doors closed to everyone, I could see the pattern and cycle of sadness, isolation and violence shadowed on the faces of ten year olds.

I believe change starts at both the top and the bottom and meets somewhere in the middle. Influence, inspiration and example is so important and for those reasons I am not sure how much this is about money, place or even tradition/cultural markers. This loyalist community has a legacy politically, culturally, economically and creatively just as any loyalist community does in Northern Ireland. It is rich in diversity, has a lot more than violence, dominance, destruction and brokenness to show the world. It’s power is deep and strong in potential and I would suggest lies untouched, unwoken, unstirred like a dragon lying under a lot of enchanted gold. The politicans and leaders are lazy, falling back on old narrative and discourse rather than inspiring their people to discover and recover new and old stories. They tread old paths rather than making new ones and for the sake of everyone – the loyalist community needs some leadership, some ideas and something that makes the hairs tingle on the back of our neck. The battles of the past are not the battles we have to fight today, it’s something different but something that could be so much more powerful than the past.

There is so much I could (and probably will) write here – about poverty, violence, riots, welfare reform, family and community breakdown and cultural comment and criticism. But I guess after two nights of listening to helicopters fly overhead, fires, burnt out cars, destoyed tarmac and injuries I had to start with some story.

By no means do I mean to patronise or dole out advice, I’ve not been working in the community for a few years now, I never really felt I was in it with my ‘blow-in’ status, I know there are layers and complexities.   I don’t share the same politics, loyalism or patriotism and I certainly am appalled and disgusted by the violence. But lying in my safe bed, in a quiet street now I feel the same feelings I felt between 2003-2006 every day – frustration – despair – fear- anger – sadness – hopelessness.

To be honest I think we’ve had enough, I understand that peace is slow and I understand that this violence is only coming from a small number, but I think this is massively about a lack of hope, there’s an apathy, numbness and routine about hope in this particular loyalist community and it’s time that got turned on its head.

I’ve asked a couple of people with different roles in this community to guest post over the next couple of days – keep reading and get involved with comments, on twitter and facebook – it’s all much better thinking this out in community.


Filed under Culture, Justice

22 responses to “Under My Skin: some of my ‘Me & the Lower Newtownards Road’ story…

  1. Leslie Addis

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Share a lot of the sentiments, concerns, longings, whatever?! I find the idea of a faith community with ‘no conversion or ‘saved & added’ agenda,’ a bit of a contradiction! For me the fruit of such faith & community will include a desire to bring the compassion of Christ to bear upon the needs of its community, no strings attached.

  2. This is really interesting, thank you for sharing your experiences. I’m from a mixed, slightly middle class bit of Belfast but quite near the Lower Newtonards Road and whether I mean to or not I can often feel frustrated by what often seems like a self-destructive tendency in that area. It is wonderful to get some real insight and I look forward to reading more.

  3. Charlie

    Harriet, as your predecessor and as someone who continues now to work in the midst of working class loyalism, I can relate to jut about every word you have written here. Your observations are well articulated.

    Thank you.

    I agree that this is all about lack of hope and I agree that it is time that this was turned on its head. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Thank you Harriet for your honest helpful response and some of your insights into local poverty with its many facets will be very helpful to me as I work to enable churches engage better with their local community.

  5. This is a really excellent article – thank you for sharing. Poverty of hope, poverty of ambition, poverty of opportunity – they have a much greater impact than anything financial. I agree with the previous commenter about the tendency to get frustrated with this area of Belfast and its self-destructive nature – you have highlighted some of the deeper issues at the heart of it all, well done.

  6. M

    This is brilliant. Beautifully written, the frustration you feel and the brokenness and possibility of the community jumps off the screen. I feel enlightened.

  7. I liked that you alluded to the motivation that you can see in a kid’s eyes when they are talking about, or engaging in a riot, or general summertime brick throwing. They get excited and alive…and the rest of the time, there is not much else but apathy and boredom. I think you are bang on, with pointing out the presence of a rich well under the crust, and I think you are bang on, with the complete and utter failure of the politicians to offer a creative vision of something else…something better…something that could actually divert those same energies. But, then again, I have that inherent troubles-related-shut-off when it comes to the political level…because, like many who grew up feeling desperately let down by politicians who seemed intent on keeping the status quo…it seems like an area of entrenchment, that is impossible to change. Maybe it is? Maybe it isn’t? But, I suppose this is where many of us excuse ourselves, and depart the conversation, and then don’t do anything else. And, I completely get that, I understand it.

    I suppose I see it like a family. You just arrive in it, or are adopted into it…and there you are. We just get what we are given, and you can spend your days wishing for a better one, and you can do your best to try and get them all to think the way you think, or behave the way you behave…driving yourself insane in the process. The ‘wise’ part of the family want to send the ‘unruly’ member to therapy, because they aren’t playing ball. When, often times it is the whole family that need to go to therapy so that each individual can look at the roles they play in maintaining the ‘dysfunction’.

    But, even if this view held some water, this wider look at the system seems as impossible as engaging with the stalwart politicians. We once again come back to feelings of helplessness.

    I know lots of people feeling helpless…and this has led to despair. I have seen it during what i saw of the ‘troubles’…the kind of thing that drives people to the other side of the world hoping to get away from it.

    I personally don’t think Jesus is the answer, and I think there has been far too much of this kind of thinking in communities like these. It has been part of the poverty created by local leadership. ‘Everything to God in prayer’ just doesn’t cut the mustard, unless those issues of poverty are tackled…and I completely agree…that the poverty of language, vision and opportunities are part of that poverty.

    [sorry for the long comment…and, by the way, I think EBM have played a positive role in that community…if only that were enough]

    • Denis Stewart

      Great comment. Thanks. Like many folk in this place, I often ‘depart the conversation’ – which is hardly helpful to the necessary, if discomforting task of dealing with the dysfunction of the family of which I am a part.

  8. Tim

    Hi harriet
    Good stuff, open and honest!
    Made me think…

    Tim Lowry

  9. Matt

    What a state we find ourselves in, what desperate hopelessness. Raindog, I believe that Jesus is the answer. In him there is hope, a change of mindset, one that causes us to be moved to care for the practical side of people’s struggling. Maybe followers of Jesus have let you down, we may do that from time to time, we are human.

    When ‘saved and added’ is referenced above I think of the movements of Christianity that ignore the suffering and practical needs of folks, in favour of just getting people on board (just get them ‘saved’). Those things are wholly wrong, but God’s love and compassion are very real. What do a hopeless people require more than a feeling that they matter so much and are loved so unconditionally by the one we credit with creating everything? Hopefully self esteem follows, then the ability to heal and love others.

    I wasn’t meaning to soapbox, I’m not preaching at you, I hope you don’t feel offended by my comments.

    God bless you.

  10. blackwatertown

    Very interesting. Thanks for writing it.

  11. Hi Harriet.
    Thanks for the article, I would like to encourage you with a word or some sage advice but I don’t have any that pass the BS test of people who know what they are talking about. I will say that you aren’t alone [duh obviously] and your passion I guarantee has rubbed of on someone.
    I really empathise with your desire to bring to the community and particularly your young people “some ideas and something that makes the hairs tingle on the back of our neck” I am the wrong side of fifty and love working with the teens I work with but nothing beats the times when I get really passionate about something [you know, stinging your eyes passionate] and someone in the group gets it, it is infectious, it changes people and communities. So I empathise with you, why are the people who should be able to inspire this reaction best [politicians, public speakers local leaders etc] not get on and doing it, dunno, laziness I think.

  12. Peter O'Reilly

    I’m not sure how to respond. This is, at the same time, depressing and inspiring. I am a believer in peoples’ ability to find ways and that it is in the ‘search’ that you embody, that the ways are found. I suppose that my response to you is a hope that you (will) have enough fellow ‘pilgrims’ to sustain the search.

  13. Hi Harriet
    Superb article really in-depth evaluation of what poverty really effects the strength of peoples cores need built up, not just handing them more money to by flat screen tv’s. I hope things continue to grow and you continue to inspire the youth in those areas to more positive outlook.

    God Bless

  14. Thank you. My thoughts are processing…

    There is just something stimulating about the way you write.

  15. sujube

    Beautifully written and extremely enlightening!! My heart goes out to you.
    I am in the U.S. and empathize with your frustration and sadness, especially because of my Irish ancestry.
    As I read your essay, it also reminded me of the poverty, hopelessness and anger of the youth in our inner cities. The political situation is not the same, but the generational behaviors, anger and attitudes are there…the violence, abuse, subculture, hopelessness — it is all there. Add to that, the epidemic of young girls in their early teens giving birth to babies, with different fathers (who see procreation as a symbol of their manliness).
    I agree that the church shouldn’t ‘expect’ conversion in return for it’s ministry. Their role is to be the ‘hands and feet’, not to judge and exclude. However, the inspiration for their work should be shared ‘gently’ in the hope of allowing others to see the Light, and perhaps turn away from anger, aggression and hatred. Whether people agree or not, belief in a higher power can provide hope and strength to one who feels ‘alone’ in their struggles. Their parents may not be there for them, but believing that God is always there can make an enormous difference.
    Again, thank you for a beautiful and enlightening essay. I look forward to reading more!

  16. robin stewart

    harriet as some one who is tagged as a loyalist and who has been active along with others on the newtownards road and other areas. you have articulated well what we have been saying to politicians for years. worthwhile employment will make people feel valued and give hope to those who are in school. i believe that lack of employment and opportunities for employment is the cause of the break down in society as a whole. action not words are what we need and all we seem to get are words.

  17. Thanks Harriet. It was good to read your thoughts tho sobering. Im Feeling crushed by the hopelessness and scared of a return to the bad old days we grew up in. So many people I’ve talked to have chosen to live in a cushioned bubble – but I don’t see how that is possible or responsible. Still I don’t know where to find hope in this.

  18. Denis Stewart

    This is a beautifully written, perceptively poignant piece. Thanks for composing it! Perhaps there are reasons to be hopeful in a context that, to outsiders of East Belfast like me, seems hopelessly dark. One section that especially strikes a chord is this one:
    “The politicans and leaders are lazy, falling back on old narrative and discourse rather than inspiring their people to discover and recover new and old stories. They tread old paths rather than making new ones and for the sake of everyone – the loyalist community needs some leadership, some ideas and something that makes the hairs tingle on the back of our neck.”

    Looking beyond East Belfast how great it would be to see from more than a few of our political and civic leaders offering the hopeful, inspiring, compassionate and courageous leadership that is so needed in Northern Ireland as a whole. How to enable this …? Maybe there is one clue to an answer in your comment:
    “I believe change starts at both the top and the bottom and meets somewhere in the middle. Influence, inspiration and example is so important…”

  19. I can empathise with you Harriet when you talk of outreach with “no conversion or ‘saved & added’ agenda, simply a desire to meet the needs of its community”.
    I moved from NI to England to work for some Anglican churches and part of that was working in secondary schools. Growing up with the blinkered vision of a very “religious” country and upbringing wondering why anyone could deny God’s existence never mind His love for us, to seeing the real world where some people think Jesus’ birth is a fairy tale and Bethlehem a made up town, I quickly had to change my whole manner of outreach.
    Part of this was losing my agenda, required by the churches, to get bums on pews.
    I decided that I would be a witness by action rather than words, organising clean ups, “Random Acts of Kindness Days”, school work help etc. The aim was to show the students that people were there to help and to care. I didn’t do it to “expand the Kingdom” or fill the church to bursting – it was all about introducing people to a Christian and, therefore, Jesus. I don’t imagine that when Jesus healed the sick that he then told them they had to go to the synagogue next Sabbath (although they probably did go to hear him speak that would have been, I believe, a product of his witness rather than an invitation).
    I believe that if every church and outreach worker had a similar vision then communities would experience an extreme change – can you imagine how different East Belfast would be if every member of every church on that road went out tomorrow and swept up the debris, washed the graffitti, ran English or maths classes etc to help people’s education, or tidied the play areas? And, more importantly, didn’t ask every person they meet to come along to an Alpha or to the Sunday gospel service.
    It all comes down to the church forgetting we’re just a collective of people rather than a building therefore evangelism should be, excuse the cliche, people who know Jesus, being Jesus, to people who don’t know Jesus. And Jesus definately did not go door knocking with a church newsletter and gospel tract – he went to their weddings (parties), washed their feet, shared their meals, healed their sick, went fishing with them, went walking with them.
    The key here is he “went”. Jesus was virtually a nomad he was out and about so much but we are so comfortable inside our brick walls with thousand pound multimedia systems and central heating that we want people to come to us and are surprised when they don’t.
    And the probable answer that I can see is that we are as alien to them as the faith we’re expecting them to take on. The only time they see us is getting out of our car on sunday morning, walking into church, walking out an hour or so later and driving off.
    Anyway, I hope that maybe this can strike a chord with someone.
    Sadly it didn’t help me much in the eyes of the churches I was working for as there wasn’t a sudden influx of teenagers into the building (which in all honesty I was quite glad of but my reasons for that are for another day), but there was a noticeable change in the schools I worked in and the difference we make in society, I believe, is the (only/main) foundation on which evangelism can start.
    Apologies for the length of my comment.

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