Monday, 22 November 2010

Walking across Albert Bridge


Photo courtesy of Ciachee

1981-1987 - In my late teens I began venturing out of my own area and started to explore Belfast city centre. My friends and I would go to concerts at the Ulster Hall anytime a half decent band would be brave enough to come to Belfast to perform. We also began exploring the city centre pubs. This wasn’t so easy for me as I didn’t look my age. When I was eighteen years old I looked fifteen. As my older looking friends were getting admitted into bars I would be refused entry. My mates would chuckle and raise a glass to me as I peered in through the window at them from the cold street. My youthful looks were a right royal pain in the arse for me. The only cinema I ever could bluff my way in to see an x rated film was the Strand Cinema on the Holywood Road. But then, they would let anyone in who had the money to pay.

Going into Belfast city centre at night was a scary experience. It resembled a ghost town. All that was missing from the empty streets was the occasional ball of tumbleweed rolling along them. A person went to wherever they were going and got out of the city centre again without any hanging about. For me I often had to walk across Albert Bridge to get home. This was easier said than done for some…

A walk across Albert Bridge in east Belfast at night could sometimes be an experience similar to those nightmares we dream when we are being followed by some dark shadowy figure. Walking across Albert Bridge was not merely a stroll across a Victorian built bridge over the River Lagan. It was a also a declaration of your religious and political background. To an outsider Albert Bridge was merely a piece of antiquity in the industrious shipping-port that was Belfast, but to those who lived near it, that bridge could decide your fate on a dark night. It was as simple as this;

If you were walking from Belfast city centre over Albert Bridge on the left-hand side, you were going to the 'Short Strand', a Catholic area - therefore you were a Catholic. If you walked on the right-hand side, you were going to the Ravenhill, Woodstock or Castlereagh areas. This meant you were a Protestant. It was really as simple as that. Ulster folk like things broken down to simplicity and explained directly.

It only took about three or four minutes to walk across this bridge. The breeze coming up the river Lagan would hit you square in the face, forcing you to tuck your chin deep into your chest to avoid the icy sting. Many nights as I walked along Albert Bridge after being out to a bar in the city centre, the awareness of what side of the bridge I was walking on would hit me. I was on the right-hand side in order to walk up the Ravenhill Road - I was a ‘Prod’. The terror would start to build and would really kick in when you saw in the distance. As they crossed over from ‘their’ side of the bridge to your side the internal questions would then begin; do I run? Do I keep walking? Do I cross over to avoid the oncoming shadowy figures? An intense heartbeat could now be felt and the shaking from an adrenaline rush would begin.

If you were lucky you would walk past the strangers without looking at them. You would instantly feel a huge sway of relief and quicken your walking pace to get the hell off the bridge to the sanctuary of your own area. This was where you would be a 'Prod' in a Prod area or be a Catholic in a Catholic area. In other words, you were home and safe...until the next time.

There were many who would be stopped by a gang to be asked, "where'ya goin'?" The answer to follow was critical and would instantly determine from which side of the religious or political fence you belonged. For those who gave the ‘wrong’ answer…

Whoever said things were simple in this life?
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