‘You’re Buddy from Belfast, where everybody knows Ya.’
The film ‘Belfast’ received no less than seven Academy Award nominations. The tightness of the writing makes up for any weakness in terms of the narrative structure. Pitch perfect performances from Judi Dench, Catriona Balfe, Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan and Ciaran Hinds makes this film an exquisite but understated cinematographic masterpiece. In essence, it is an autobiographical coming of age movie that takes the childhood experiences of actor and director Kenneth Branagh as its inspiration. Yet it is much more than this; it is an artful meditation upon the human desire to belong and explores what happens when communities and families are forced apart by conflict.
Kenneth Branagh and his family left Belfast in 1970; just as the spectre of sectarian violence was becoming apparent on the streets of the city. His family relocated to England to escape ‘The Troubles’ but as all refugees know, the emotional wrench of feeling forced to leave one’s own country endures a lifetime. The true distance between Reading and Northern Ireland cannot be measured in kilometres or miles.
For a generation or more, communities in Belfast were ripped apart by conflict. The hastily constructed concrete walls and steel barriers were designed to keep people apart. Thousands of families experienced the tragic and senseless consequences of terrorist atrocities which were committed in the name of republicanism or loyalism. Catholics and Protestants, who had lived alongside one another for generations, were forced to flee their houses as sectarian lines of hate were drawn (often in blood) along the narrow streets of terraced housing in the predominantly working class areas of the city.
The satirist, author and one-time Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin once ruefully observed that, ‘We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another’. Of course, Swift was writing in the eighteenth century but his words are as relevant today as they were three hundred years ago. Arguably, it is difficult for us to feel festive or hopeful when we contemplate the dreadful scenes of suffering that play out night after night on our television screens. In Eastern Europe and the Middle East, we witness the most heartbreaking consequences of humankind’s failure to live in peace and harmony. For many people, the central promise of the Christmas message will seem distant and somewhat hollow this year. Yet Christmas is a time when we dare to hope for a better future and, even during the First World War, a spontaneous pause in hostilities provided an opportunity to reflect upon a world far removed from the mud, biting cold and bloodshed of the trenches. The guns fell silent and soldiers from both sides met in No-man’s land to exchange gifts, cigarettes and chocolates. They shared photographs of their wives and children and, left to their own devices, a lasting peace would doubtless have broken out.
For Christians, the birth of Jesus is the promise of God made manifest in our world. The Gospel of Luke tells us that a heavenly choir sang at Jesus’ birth and declared, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ The Book of Isaiah foretells the birth of Jesus and proclaims ‘For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His Shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace’. As we gather with our families and immerse ourselves in the familiar and cosy traditions of Christmas, we should take time to reflect upon the suffering of those for whom the promise of peace seems very distant at this point in time.
It is easy for us to give way to despair but we should take hope from the peacemakers who dwell amongst us. Even during the worst years of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, there were those who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of peace. The Corrymeela Community is Northern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organisation and, to this day, it continues to help young people to live well together and to keep them away from drugs and para-militarism in contested areas of West Belfast. Peacemaking and reconciliation is never easy; it involves hard work, emotional investment, empathy, trust, courage and an ability to compromise. Earlier this term, we reflected upon the example of the true-life friendship of two men, Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, which forms the inspiration for Colum McCann’s novel, Apeirogon. Despite experiencing the most devastating loss imaginable, they have committed their lives to the pursuit of peace. Their efforts have been resisted by hardliners who have yet to realise that durable peace is rarely delivered by a bullet or a sword. Relationship building and dialogue are the most powerful weapons that peacemakers possess.
Sometimes, we can feel a little powerless or overwhelmed when confronted with the sheer enormity of human suffering that surrounds us. However, each and every one of us possesses the power to be an agent of peace and a beacon of hope within our own communities. I hope that this Christmas, we will take a little time to reflect upon those who feel disenfranchised, misunderstood and discriminated against.
In the film ‘Belfast’ Pa teaches his son Buddy that there should be no divide. ‘There is no our side and their side on our street’. When confronted with the prospect of leaving, Ma says that, ‘I know nothing else but Belfast’. Our roots provide us with a sense of belonging and at Christmas we tend to feel drawn towards places and people which feel safe and comforting.
As Chris Rea sings:
I’m driving home for Christmas
Oh, I can’t wait to see those faces
I’m driving home for Christmas, yea
Well I’m moving down that line
And it’s been so long
But I will be there
I sing this song
To pass the time away
Driving in my car
Driving home for Christmas
Wherever you are this Christmas, I hope that you feel a true sense of peace and belonging. Moreover, let us face 2024 with a sense of real hope. In particular, we pray that those within our own community who have been displaced due to conflict will one day feel a strong sense of home and a true sense of belonging. Finally, the film ‘Belfast’ starts and ends with panoramic shots of the Belfast skyline in 2021. It is a reminder that even in the most challenging of circumstances, peace is possible. It is just over twenty five years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and, despite numerous setbacks, Northern Ireland has made incredible progress and the dividends of peace have been enjoyed by all. Despite being a historian, I would concede that you can have too much history and that there is often a strong argument for embracing new beginnings.
Headmaster of Rossall School