In August 2009 I was asked to do a show at the Andersonstown Sports Centre, as part of the West Belfast Festival, an annual event that first took place twenty years earlier as a cultural wing of the Irish nationalist movement. Andersonstown is the most unyielding of the nationalist areas, at the far end of the Falls Road, and back then an evening of culture was almost certain to end with a room full of people standing, with moist eyes and glasses aloft as they sang along to a ballad that went something like
“Twas in the year of eleven-seventy three that brave ol’ Tomas ‘O’Hara,
Was shot with an arrow fired from the men sent o’er by Henry the Second,
And the spot where Tomas lay slain,
They still call today,
The Tomas O’Hara car accessory shop.”
But since the ceasefire the Festival has become an event involving glossy pamphlets and literary figures, and tickets booked through agencies and chicken tikka wraps in the dressing room. And to emphasise the point, the patron of the festival is Danny Morrison, a leading member of Sinn Fein, believed by many to have once held a senior position in the IRA. At one level you have to assume this means he gets his way, and if there’s an argument on the committee it ends with Danny lowering his voice and saying quietly “I say we put on ‘Taming of the Shrew’,” and the decision is agreed.
I stayed with a Protestant friend in East Belfast, someone with no allegiance to Unionism whatsoever, who told me she’d never been to Andersonstown, and wasn’t sure of the way, pointing vaguely and saying “I think it’s over there somewhere” as if she was guessing the direction to Libya.
So I booked a taxi and the driver said “Are you sure you want Andersonstown?” with such astonishment I wondered if I’d said ‘Atlantis’ by mistake. And then an ‘Alright, if you say so’ look, as if I’d said “Take me to the Dignitas centre in Switzerland please.”
The Andersonstown sports centre, it turned out, hadn’t been designed with comedy shows in mind, and was one of the most unsuitable venues possible, somewhere behind a bottling plant and a hospital’s stroke unit. The sound bounces and echoes across the volleyball courts like the tannoy announcements in a supermarket, and there’s a constant chatter of people squeezing past tables to queue at the makeshift bar. On this night the queue for drinks consistently hovered at around a hundred people, and groups sat round tables getting drunk and loud and drunker and louder as the first three acts went on and the time I was due on got later and later. Eventually the room was awash with a tsunami of chatter that was so slurred, by the time most words had ended the beginning of the word had already bounced back off the wall to where it started.
As the compere began to introduce me, three hours after most people had arrived, around two hundred people sat in the middle, looking as if they were waiting for me to start, while the other eight hundred shouted ‘Hey Kieran, they’ve run out o’ fucken’ Grolsch’ across the tables, threw peanuts at each other, and shrieked with laughter as they and fell over, like in a Hollywood depiction of eighteenth century sailors on a night in a tavern.
So I went on stage and surveyed this splendid testimony to disorder, aware that I might as well try to do a show to a flock of geese, and a few of them shouted “Fuck off you fucking Brit.” I battled, pointlessly, for maybe three or four interminable minutes, while a core of supporters in the middle yelled at the rest to keep quiet and the rest made it clear they wouldn’t and probably couldn’t. Maybe, I pondered, the two groups would start fighting, it would spill out onto the street, the troops would be called back and this comedy show would result in the breakdown of the ceasefire, and for the next hundred years rival factions would fire at each other and paint murals of me sloping off the stage.
“I used to come here when the war was raging,” I said, “And you were always friendly then. I think I preferred you how you were.”
And then I went backstage to collect my things and leave, and as I left the dressing room was greeted by someone I vaguely recognised. “Mark,” he said with a ripe Belfast baritone, “I’m Danny Morrison, trustee of the festival, and I can’t apologise enough for what went on tonight.”
“It’s fine, Danny,” I said.
“It’s not fine,” he argued, adding “Mark, I’d like to speak to you about what happened there. Will you come into this room with me for just five minutes.”
And it was so hard not to smile, at the thought of whether in the past, there were people Danny had made a similar request to, who might have been slightly nervous about what could happen when they got in that room.
So we went in the room, and Danny said he was disgusted by the behaviour of the audience, who had no discipline and were “racist, there’s no other word for it – racist against you for being British.”
“Maybe a few of them were,” I said, “But mostly they were just drunk.” But secretly I thought “Of all the people asked to follow Danny Morrison into a room, I bet this is the only time the reason’s been to receive an apology for the Irish being anti-British.”
Politely, wth great charm, Danny offered to organise a taxi to take me back, and to accompany me until it came, so I didn’t face any more revelrie from the crowd who were now stumbling outside.
In a way the frustrations of the evening were signs of how positive the change in Belfast has been. Because it was just a show that went haywire, no different to how it might have happened anywhere, for the familiar reason that a community was encouraged to come to an event and get drunk.
“Where are you going?” said the taxi driver, incredulous that anyone from Andersonstown could possibly suggest the journey to the Newtownards Road in Protestant East Belfast. And he puffed and said “Jesus” a few times and tried to figure out which way was East.
But eventually I got in, and relayed the events of the night to my host, who just said “Oh dear, that’s a bad night when the safest option is to stand alone in a car park with a murderer.”