Dome of Delight II: Return of the Living Dead

If you remember the eighties in Belfast, you probably wish you weren’t there. We slummed it up in Student Land in South Belfast drinking, throwing beds out the window, and chasing women with varying degrees of success.

But the real craic was down town in what Mairtin O Muilleoir memorably termed the Dome of Delight. Post Anglo-Irish Agreement Belfast was a bitter oul bastard of a place. The bitterness in fact was palpable. These were the days. Through the late eighties and into the early nineties, when the Troubles were literally in their Death throes. Increasingly desperate tit for tat shooting and bombings. It was shite.

I remember well the aftermath of the Gibraltar shootings and a subsequent public meeting in Queen’s Union. One of the IRA personnel who had been shot was Mairead Farrell, a former prisoner at Armagh during the first Hunger Strike and at the time of her death a first year student at Queen’s. The atmosphere was electric. And poisonous.

Bit like things down at the City Hall where the central characters were boys like Herbie Ditty, Jim Rodgers, Mairtin O Muilleoir, Tommy Patton, George Seawright and co. Mayoral stints by the likes of Sammy Wilson brought great colour to the place. It was round this time that photographs of Sammy emerged cavorting round some field with a young lady, naked as the day he was born. The facial hair is still the same, dunno about elsewhere. God help her wit my mother remarked at the time disgusted not so much that the young lady was naked but that she was with Sammy.

O Muilleoir was one of the first Sinn Fein Councillors to sit on the council and there was none of the détente of later years. When he went to speak his DUP opponents including Rhonda Paisley, once Belfast’s Mayoral Consort would gulder No Surrender, howl abuse and sing various tribal ditties.

Herbie for his part rather bewilderingly found himself Mayor of Belfast for a year. It was a great Norn Iron joke at the expense of all the industrialists and business tycoons queuing up to invest here. Not. Anyone who turned up would have wondered why the Village idiot was in charge of the Asylum. Herbie drew great praise in some quarters but mostly head shaking and despair when he refused to meet the Mayor of Dublin. This was a man who once claimed to have gone into public life to stop Catholics getting jobs.

In the early nineties my job meant that I attended a fair few receptions in the City Hall. To say it was a cold house for Catholics/Nationalists would be an understatement. It was positively Arctic. The marble halls were choc full of Unionist hagiography bedecked in the Union Flag with life size oil paintings of every Unionist Mayor. At that stage there hadn’t been many nationalist or republican mayors so the hue was distinctly red white and blue.

As a citizen of the city, and one who was in employment attracting overseas and particularly North American visitors on historical and heritage visits, it was embarrassing and intimidating. Hanging limply out the back was the famous Belfast Says No sign. Looking back, what a fucking moronic signal that was to the solitary Martian that would have landed in Donegall Place and quickly left again for the friendlier climes of a Siberian Gulag, North Korea or Pinochet’s Chile.

If you want to catch up on reminiscences from this time, read O Muilleoir’s book. You’ll think it is a work of fiction. But it’s not. Mairtin himself recently returned to the Dome of Delight after a period of absence doing something better with his time.

He must have felt it was just like the old days when the Unionists walked out the other day in objection to a sign in Irish that said Nollaig Shona Duit. That’s Happy Christmas as gaeilge for all you non-speakers of the leprechaun language. The exodus happened during a debate on diversity. Not being an avid City Council watcher (we have enough rarified discussions in our local chamber) I came to this one late. But, as one Twitter correspondent observed:

“the union jack flies all year round and an irish language Christmas greeting is met with small minded bigotry.”

I remember during the debate at Queen’s after Gibraltar, a guy in a Fairport Convention tee shirt with an English accent stood up and said “why can’t we all just get along with one another.” He nearly got lynched by both sides.

Without wishing to sound like him, and I don’t really like Fairport Convention either, surely it is time a few people wised the f*** up here. There are plenty of other things to be getting on with in Belfast and elsewhere rather than revisit the dark, blackly humorous, but still dark days of the Dome of Delight.

Otherwise lads, let’s break out the old Belfast Says No sign and just go for it.

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