A Winter's Tale From Belfast

THERE'S a romantic notion that Ireland - the Emerald Isle - is a stunning shade of green. This is true for most of the year, partly because it rains so much that sometimes you can hardly see your hand in front of your face. There's an old Irish saying that if there's a mist near the mountain, it's about to rain. And if you can't see the mountain, it's raining. In winter, particularly, the grass is still green but it has that cold, drenched look as if it believes the sun will never appear again.

One Saturday morning recently, I awoke early and looked across the cheerless back garden of my home in North Belfast. It was not a morning to see the magnificent Cave Hill, a rocky outcrop towering over the city, because it was shrouded in mist - the same mist that had settled over Belfast Lough, hiding that ribbon of water which gleams like a jewel in the warm sun of spring and summer. As I squelched across to the garage, to feed our perpetually ravenous two cats, the dim outlines of the dripping trees appeared faintly through the mist. The silhouettes of blackbirds, coughing rather than chirping, were etched faintly against the gloom.

"This is not a morning for joy," I thought grimly, as I cast a baleful eye on that winter scene.

There were many reasons for this lack of joy. To live in Northern Ireland requires a reservoir of cheerfulness and patience, as well as hope and courage, to look for glimmers of light in the dark days. The previous days had been grim indeed, with a crazed young policeman shooting and killing three people at a political-advice center, and, the next day, terrorists killing five more in a local betting shop. There already had been several major bombs which blasted the heart of the city. It was as bad a peri od as I could remember, having lived through the two decades and more of what we Northern Irish euphemistically call "the troubles."

As a journalist and author, I had written about many of these events. Time and again I had looked for, and mostly found, something hopeful amid the chaos - a word of kindness, a friendly hand across the divide, the innocence of a child's face, a shared prayer despite the flying bullets and insults, a reason to look on the bright side.

This time it was more difficult to find the right words. Worse still, it seemed so difficult to marshal thoughts of hope after so many years of despair.

As I ranged in my mind over the bleak landscape of the history of this beautiful land, my eyes also swept across my back garden which was looking sorry for itself in the gutters of a dank Irish winter. But, suddenly, my eye focused on a clump of humble white snowdrops at the foot of one bare apple tree. They were not huddling or drooping, but bravely displaying their gorgeous whiteness against the prevailing dankness. And as my eye roved around the garden, there were more and more - along the hedges, at the edge of the flower beds, and in the nooks and crannies of the rockery. They seemed courageous, even audacious, as they dared me to lift up my eyes to their beauty and also to lift my spirits.

Later that morning, my wife and I went shopping in downtown Belfast, which had witnessed such savagery and violence in recent days. On the way to our favorite cafe there was a roadblock. This was not due to a security check, but rather to a parade of young people who were marching behind the local Friendship Band. They were publicizing a major sports event, and as they marched jauntily to the sound of the music they brought smiles to the faces of Saturday morning shoppers and their families who had had s o little to smile about. I was even smiling myself, and as I looked at those young people my mind went back to the snowdrops which had lifted my spirits just an hour previously.

The marchers passed by, and my wife, Hilary, and I went for coffee in a beautiful restaurant with a view over the city.

As we lingered in a way in which most long-time marrieds should but often don't, my eye caught the sight of an old man feeding the birds outside a church. Suddenly my view was blocked by a passing jeep, with wary glint-eyed soldiers, hardly older than boys, keeping a look-out for danger. But when they passed, the old man was still in the same place, feeding the birds. It was once again a picture of the kind of precious normality which most people take for granted. And I thought of the snowdrops.

That night I listened to the news, and heard sad yet brave words about Belfast. Earlier in the day, the funerals had taken place of some of the victims of violence, but in the midst of their mourning the relatives called for "No retaliation." And the widow of a Protestant victim outside Belfast had sent a message of condolence and solidarity to the Roman Catholic families who were grieving. Kind words, brave words, hopeful words, hands across the divide. And I thought again of the snowdrops.

Peace itself is like those little flowers - fragile, peeping up in the most unexpected places, and lifting the heart in the darkest of landscapes. In the bleakest of mid-winter my back garden snowdrops had lifted my heart and had taught me not to dwell in the darkness, but to search out the beauty and the light.

And to go on hoping.

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