Two violins and a very old, skinny man. The pub is packed: people sitting close together on benches like one of the scenes in Inisherin's Banshees. The man sings in the Harbor of Portrush, in County Antrim, next to the port that defends itself from the gale.
It's the winter of 1993 in Northern Ireland, the pound sterling is through the roof; the Irish punt even more; Catholics and Protestants keep killing each other, they keep planting bombs, kidnapping; echoes of Game of Tears and In the Name of the Father. There was still a little to go before the Good Friday agreements, which are now 25 years old, were signed.
It has hailed a lot in the province since then. Belfast looked like a war game during a truce. Maneuvers, troops, scenery. The city was a touched and sunken place. Now it is a city that has refloated for many reasons, including the brilliance of the Titanic museum.
In 1993, with almost no tourism, nobody went to the port of Ballintoy, minimal and with hardly any boats. Hardly anyone visited the Dark Hedges, a tree-vaulted driveway, a spectacular woody avenue. But then came a series called Game of Thrones that turned both places, and a few others, into destinations revered each year by tens of thousands of people. Pilgrimages and pilgrimages in the good name of Insta.
After the 1998 peace treaty, the proudest flag flown in Northern Ireland, a neutral flag, was that of the European Union, which built and financed bridges and buildings. Who sowed, fertilized and watered peace as much as he could.
It also did so in the south, in the Republic of Ireland, where there was no war but neighborhoods so impoverished that some families received canned meat, humanitarian aid with sky blue labels, the old logo of the European Economic Community and the twelve stars.
The Northern Irish voted overwhelmingly to stay in Europe, but Brexit prevailed and the border that had faded over the years reappeared, at least mentally. And the image still hasn't disappeared. They are those border posts, some still standing, that the Nobel Prize for Literature Seamus Heaney spoke of, where tension was chewed, but also some laughter.
“Where do they come from?” a policeman asked the University of Ulster rowing team. It was April 1994. "From competing in Galway," replied the driver of the van with the skiffs in tow. "How have you been?" “We did shait,” he said with a thick Northern Irish accent. In short, we are the last.
The Northern Irish conflict scared away tourism for so many years that it preserved natural landscapes and paved the way for the arrival of hope, good news and the reunion of two communities that live together and, at times, in turmoil. But without passing.
There are many years and many lives lost to forgive the other just like that: more than 3,500, according to official counts. Northern Ireland has hardened, and at the same time, relaxed. It is a territory that is proof against everything where the beauty of the surroundings has always been secondary. Now it is the first commandment of him. You will love your land as yourself.
In the album of landscape stickers of this territory (popularly known as that of the Wee Six, the six little ones), the Giant's Causeway (a basaltic Tetris-Minecraft built by nature millions of years ago) and the ruins always stand out.
The ruins as a metaphor for hope: that of the castles of Dunluce and Dunseverick; those of the Mussenden palace, which are still standing and of which only the famous temple with monumental views of the sea has been preserved in its entirety. In the Mussenden Temple, couples still celebrate their weddings. Many years ago, the couple, on horseback, surrounded the circular construction. Today it is no longer possible because the cliff has lost ground and the temple is precariously balanced.
Another metaphor of what the province is, which continues to be a very hospitable stranger that receives with sun, with dew, with blizzards and with water, the rain, the sea, the lakes and the rivers. The Bann, calm and, at the same time, very treacherous. The wild Foyle, which marks a part of the border with the Republic and defines the life of Derry (or Londonderry or Legenderry…).
Where those girls from the series, the Derry Girls, take the worst years of the armed conflict, the Troubles, with the greatest humor possible. It is the humor of Robert McLiam Wilson's novels (such as Eureka Street) in the North or Roddy Doyle in the South (The Barrytown trilogy). It is the bar against all pessimism of Paddy's grandparents, the boy protagonist of Belfast, the acclaimed film by Kenneth Branagh.
Nature, humor and music shape the Irish soul. The music that was never lacking, but that now imposes itself as the soundtrack of memory and oblivion. Even in the darkest times, or perhaps just for that reason, in Ireland it was celebrated in a big way, there was dancing on the tables. There was no tomorrow. The music multiplies and climbs like a vine. A circuit has been created in the capital, the Belfast Trad Trail, which further strengthens tradition.
Violin, accordion, bodrán tambourine and uileann bagpipes. And she sings again to the old man from the Harbor pub in Portrush in that winter of 1993. "And I went out for a nice walk on that bright morning and I sat on a stone wall while I listened to what two lovers said to each other." What would you think of what Northern Ireland is today?