By Eamonn Keyes
Christmas is a special time. And Christmas 1995 was a time that was somewhat more special than usual in Belfast.
Although they wouldn’t come to final fruition until some three years later, the first IRA and loyalist ceasefires had taken place, the troops had gone home and there was the smell of peace breaking out all over Northern Ireland.
The seal of approval was to be given on a visit by Bill and Hillary Clinton, culminating in the switching on of the lights of the Christmas tree outside Belfast City Hall.
The streets were thronged with people, featuring an unsurprisingly large number of children come to see the spectacle, and also unsurprisingly, an even larger number of Neds, or spides, as we call them, who seem to abound at these events, Buckfast-fuelled glassy eyes sparkling in the twinkling lights, which also made their wispy bum-fluff moustaches look seasonally frost-covered.
We’d had Van Morrison, the grumpiest elf in the grotto, take the stage with nary a smile and play to the sixty thousand gathered there, accompanied by Brian Kennedy, possibly the best voice around then. There had been a brief hiatus as Van was en-route to the stage, as some wag shouted “Hey Van, are you still beating your wife?”
He was eventually persuaded to go on like the trouper he never was, and to be honest, it’s hard to tell when a grumpy person is a bit grumpier, and we certainly never noticed.
Bill and Hillary came on, Bill made a speech about peace and possibilities, and weighed down with the gravitas of the moment, I decided I needed a drink.
I headed for my then-favourite spot, The Joxer, to see if any of my band mates were there, as I was playing with rockers Strictly No Ballroom at the time.
It was an awkward trip as many roads were sealed off because of the crowds, and I soon found myself walking past the Europa Hotel (cue remarks about the most bombed hotel in Europe).
As I walked over the entrance to the hotel, a narrow semi-circular road, I was startled by the sound of a blaring car horn and the sudden screech of brakes as a car shot towards me at speed. I managed to leap back onto the pavement as the front shot past where I had been walking, the long, black car stopping as the rear window, blacked out, came level with me.
With a soft buzz the window came down, and there, visibly chortling, was the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton. He grinned and mouthed ‘sorry’ as the car took off again swiftly, whisking him to the safety and luxury of his suite in the hotel. I had looked the most powerful man in the world in the eyes and survived.
He may have smoked but not inhaled, he may not have even had sex with that woman, but he also very nearly stopped me having several beers on a cold night when it seemed that everything in my home town was about to change.
To paraphrase Van, my mama didn’t tell me there’d be days like this….
Eamonn Keyes is a regular contributor to The Orkney News. Follow his Brief Encounters
Phew, Eamonn, you took me on a roller-coaster ride there, through so many things, memories – slight annoyance at you dissing Van (The Man).
My family originate in County Sligo, which, as you will know, is quite near to The Border. Many years ago, my sister and her son were planning to go to Enniskillen to buy a telly – such things were cheaper across The Border. Then, the bomb went off, and they decided to stay put. I write that in what might appear to be a light-hearted way, but – that’s the way we deal with things – a mixture of Irish/Yorkshire produces that kind of humour.
Anyway – I started to read your piece, and that was the first thing that came to mind – how it used to be. The Border, was a very big thing, a very lowering thing, in people’s lives.
More recently, after we’d moved to Orkney and our route to the Republic was through Northern Ireland, another of my nephews warned me that I might be taken aback by seeing red,white and blue painted on the kerb stones along some of the roads, and the proliferation of Union Jacks. He warned me because he knows me, and suggested that I still bear in mind that it might not be a good idea to get into ………discussions, about politics or religion in the North.
He was right – I was taken aback. It all seemed a bit un-necessary and even, inflammatory. Living in Britain, even though I have family back in Ireland, I had lost track of how much anger and insecurity is still there.
I suppose my background plays a part – Republican through and through.
I suppose it up to people what they paint on their kerb-stones – but…why do that? When folk are trying to get the place to be peaceable, after so much anger and killing and …plain bad blood. Why still do that? I don’t know – I suppose if a person sees themselves as English, in England, they don’t have to make a point of it. If a person sees themself as English, but they sound ‘Irish’ to people they meet – they probably feel a need to lay it on with a trowel a bit. I’m often surprised by how vague people in Britain are about what is Ireland, what is ‘Irish’, and what is ‘English’ on that little island.
The difference is, though – I felt a bit menaced, as we drove through ( my background and resulting unconscious reaction probably had a lot to do with that), but I probably wouldn’t have been prepared to travel through the area we travelled through, at one time, not all that long ago – in my life-time. It is very different, as you’ll know Eamonn. Such memories your piece brought back. And my parents views and memories (born in 1911 and 1913) – Phew, Eamonn – you’ve set me off on something, there. Which may have been your intention – to stir up your readers and make them think. That’s something good writing should do – and, if so, you’ve succeeded.
And now we come to Van- he may be grumpy – grumpy or not – look at what he’s written! Listen to that stuff – did you see him in ‘Up on Cypress Avenue’ on the telly? That end bit – he got on the groove and went with it. The Man – Phew – again.
I can deal with grumpy – don’t see the point in being grumpy but I can deal with it, and would be more gob-smacked at the presence of Van, than of, say, Bill Clinton.
And – meeting Bill Clinton eye to eye – blimey. Lucky it wasn’t the present incumbent – he might have mown you down, if you didn’t look ‘right’ or if he thought you were a “bad dude.”
One last thing – you mention Buckfast. In Ian Marchant’s book ‘”The Longest Crawl’ he mentions asking someone why he drank his Buckie chilled, and the answer was “So it doesn’t taste sae f****** sh**e.” Why is sh**e ok to write, but not f*******? Who knows.