dedicated blogsite to Dave Wood's participatory poetry project in Northern Ireland. Started late August and finishing September 2004, it does a compare and contrast with previous visits 1988 - 1998. Also see

18 Dec 2004

visit to omagh

sixty trees whose branches meet

drop fruit in plenty at their feet

enough to feed three hundred each

with fruits more pleasant than the peach

Belfast has undergone transformation. It wasn’t exactly down at heel before the peace process but no way can its present state of being (presumably, this is not the end of its shopping metamorphosis) be twin-brothered to the past. I can’t comment on the outer reaches of the area; I seemed to spend most of the time elastic-ing around Donegal Square, a kind of beating heart of the capital and magnet to department stores and fast food eateries. Oh – woe to the onset of change etc. Years ago (o there he goes again) as part of community arts organisation, Word And Action, I worked in the City Hall on the square. The car had to undergo a boot search but once in, the marble pillars and cold staircases warmed with the flood of cross community activity.

I used to enjoy the challenge of finding my way through the back streets of Belfast, visiting old haunts like Rainbow Records and the out of town market areas. Maybe it’s just a statement of me wanting the comfortable. ‘Whatever’, as goes the de rigeur phrase of the day.

Some people love the real cosmopolitan feel of the place; the waft of coffee houses (someone should really invent a collective noun for these establishments) the barriers smelted away and (of course) the Tesco’s Metro, where a visiting Englishman can get cashback after forgetting about the lack of Nat West there.

Belfast (and travelling onwards, other areas of Northern Ireland) has found ways of taking the painful edges off its past life. Ireland’s murals advertising UVF, UFF, Sinn Fein etc can now be seen as cultural icons to be re-advertised on tourist postcards and sold alongside the more traditional, Rush Hour on a Donkey photo. The Belfast tourist office at the top of a silvery set of escalators, with its wait your turn ticket machine, gives us ultimate choice in calendars, keyrings, tea-towels, tat and tea- trays. It was also absolutely brilliant in giving me transport information (though I still have nightmares about the local city buses and a glutful night of unhelpful drivers).

Crossing Albert Bridge and heading outwards, I stayed just off the Belmont Road dog-legging from the Holywood Road. There’s a small cinema just down the way. Whereas many picture houses have a habit (certainly in England) of providing a more art-house viewing choice; those audiences which the mainstreams would not cater for, this one obviously doesn’t mind or doesn’t see the risk and shows popular films (currently I, robot). Though, to be honest, I’ve not yet seen a multiscreen in (or on the edge of) Belfast. Maybe that treat is yet to come.

What I have observed on the periphery, sandwiched between continentals as well as newsagents, fag and booze shops, hairdressers etc have been short stretches of estates, run down and still with the union flags flying high. Some have been fixed so they remain open, others slap the wind like sad greasy t-towels. Just past the row of pennants, I see the first act of a loss of faith: a church for sale. Faith (read religion) I always thought was a great stronghold of any Irish community, even if it was something to deny or to prop up with utmost vehemence. If a new faith (don’t read religion) should grow, can you email me with the link?

I spent three nights in Belfast altogether, no time for Guinness just a double Black Bush in the Crown with a slow service and hefty price tag.

Thursday, I travelled over to Omagh. I’d arranged to meet someone from a small scale writers’ group, soon to publish a collection of their pieces and with a launch in November. The representative was rightly pleased with herself – she’d managed to persuade Seamus Heaney to impart a personal quote as a kind of blessing to the group. Now, why didn’t I think of that?

I’d arrived in the town early and went a-wandering.

It’s been some years (how often will I use that phrase this fortnight?) since I came here. But I remembered the long stretch upwards and the v at the top where, to the right, there’s the cathedral whereas off to the left one meets a time-warped area of dusty buildings, including pleasingly, the Omagh Credit Union with its own dedicated bank. I’ve been working with a Nottingham based C.U. on a marketing project; the publishing of a series of poems by young savers and how it feels to have that vision of what to save for.

Nothing has been re-vamped here. But there has been growth. There is a bustle, there are pleasant places to eat, there are Joe’s cafes as well as shoppers’ tea houses - it is lively. Part of my make-up for investigation quests whether places that have survived tragedies are still in a period of mourning. The question was inappropriate and the town has obviously pulled on with its life and livelihoods. The biggest concern, I’m told at the moment, is the introduction of water rates. Not really a case of do you want to? it’s more ‘how do you want to?’

Although I had sent information ahead to my contact, I took a little time re-explaining about my project. She seemed excited. I wasn’t sure what strange fruit the meeting would bear but I wanted to make contact with creative others. We talked on for a good hour. I’m keen to set up an exchange between a writers’ organisation and one over here. This was the perfect opportunity. After ninety minutes, our time dried up and I quietly asked directions for the site of the bomb-blast and the new community centre. I got the feeling that if I’d have shouted it through a megaphone, it wouldn’t have mattered. The people of Omagh suffered with the consequences and now get on. Sounds simplistic I know, but it’s just a feeling I get.

I made my way to the river. It had been raining on and off for quite a while and the traffic along the bridge seemed to match its regularity.

The new glass edifice (though someone would probably dispute the choice of word) towered high like Waterstone’s in Nottingham, Bridlesmith Gate. So glassy it was, it took a couple of breaths to find my way in. There was evidence on the walls that the place was being used by the community. A local photographer, travelling as part of a group to New Zealand had hung a series of photographs (with blue tacked labels) of the visit. The stylish reception desk, dropped in the corner seemed a mite too clinical for the helpful faces behind the counter. I explained my self-set task and I was sent up to the manager’s office to re-explain. Like any set up, grants and money has to be found and I suspect she was champing at the bit to get on with her in-tray. Making my farewells, almost losing my way in the multi-corridors upstairs, I sat in the welcome space and scribbled a few poetic notes to build a more tightened piece later.