Child's Play In Belfast

In Northern Ireland's capital, which can erupt in violence at any time, children are a precious symbol of hope

`THE noises of children, playing their own fantasies, inexpressibly takes from the labor of my task. It is like writing to music.'' These words, by the writer Charles Lamb, might have been written about the children of Belfast and their strong, bright, innocent faces set against the backdrop of war. In the tough warrens of these city streets, where violence can erupt - swift and deadly - and then fade just as quickly into a kind of normality, the serious business of life is not the approach of a heavily armed soldier on the Falls Road of Roman Catholic west Belfast. The really serious business is to play with an old bicycle wheel and a ramrod pole to stiffen a stance against a gray brick wall. In this frozen frame of childhood intensity, the soldier belongs to another world. And maybe he, too, thinks back, with a smile on his lips, of the days when he played boyhood games in the back streets of Manchester or Glasgow with nothing more serious in his life than an old bicycle wheel and a ramrod-straight pole in his hand.

Over on the Protestant Shankill Road anyone can have a ``swingin' time'' if they can find a rope, tie it to a lamppost, and let a friend do the pushing. To the urban planner, this Belfast street scene might suggest that housing conditions have changed little in 30 years. The social historian might conclude that children's innate inventiveness has survived to savor the simple pastimes in this age of television and push-button technological equipment. The visiting reporter might marvel at the lack of a military presence on the streets of a city where violence has become, for some, a way of life.

But all these observers might easily overlook the childrens' sense of fun in a capital which is also noted for its gaiety, its sense of humor, and the ability of its people to enjoy themselves. One can almost hear in this picture the refrain from a generations-old Belfast street-song:

My Aunt Jane she took me in,

She gave me tea out of her wee tin.

Half a bap [piece of bread] with

sugar on the top

And three black balls [candies]

out of her wee shop.

When these Shankill children have finished swinging, you can almost see them sitting down with their Auntie Jane in one of those terraced houses in the background and enjoying their tea and candies.

Back near the Falls Road, a young man with a yellow cap is flexing his muscles in a most engaging way. This is no feat of endurance to prove a point to his peers, or a provocation to annoy the patroling ``Brit'' soldiers. This boy is not afraid of Brits or of visiting American photographers; nor, it would seem, of anyone.

He is at ease with himself in a world of lights and shades, of fun and danger, of life on the edge of experience where you swing through a space between railings simply because this seems the most natural thing in the world to do. If a passerby asked him, ``Why are you swinging?'' the boy would likely reply in a classic Belfast one-liner, ``Why not?''

This, too, is a city of learning, which was once called ``the Athens of the North.'' Belfast has the internationally renowned Queen's University, some of the best schools in the British Isles, and one of the most successful education systems in all of Europe. It also has some schools where Roman Catholic and Protestant children are educated together, though the majority still attend schools of one or other denomination. But bridges are being built among the young, as in the picture of two girls from Lagan College, where Protestants and Catholics sit side by side. They have much in common. They share the problem of a lesson in mathematics (or is it geography or English?). But they share much else as human beings who do not even begin to think of one another's religion. There is hope in this picture for these children, as they are a symbol of hope for Belfast.

There's hope, too, in the clenched but friendly fist of the little warrior who seems to be trying to punch a hole in our camera. The hope is in his eyes and his smile, as that of his big sister looking on. Here is strength and vitality and a sense of fun.

In this often tough but frequently beautiful and touching city, life goes on. And the quality of its bright, resilient, and so-human children - the majority of whom grow up to become decent, caring adults who have no time for violence - is a touchstone for the future.

Can anything good come out of Belfast? Look at children like these and just you wait and see.... As they move peacefully in the middle of a war zone, there is indeed magic in the music of their play.

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