The Falls Road runs west out of the center of Belfast, up in to the hills that ring this part of the city. It is a road whose name resonates through the Troubles, that term which is describes, accurately, the harder parts of contemporary Irish life and recent history: the divisions over politics and religion which have at times turned bloody and bitter, and at times, still do.
There are murals on the walls of buildings along The Falls. Some express solidarity with oppressed people across the world, some offer hopes of peace, others honor those who have died in the Troubles. One such man was Bobby Sands. On a mural honoring him is a line from his writings: “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”
A Presbyterian Church, a headquarters for a branch of a loyalist Orange Lodge, a small Irish language school: the building that is now Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich has had a varied history. It is in the Falls Road, not far from that mural of Bobby Sands.
You’ll hear laughter if you stop in at An Chultúrlann.
It is a warm and welcoming place, with a tourist point to help you find out about Belfast, and a bookstore with a wide ranging selection of Irish language material as well as English language works on the history of Ireland. There’s a friendly cafe where, at the weekends, you will find traditional music sessions. There is an art gallery, a theater troupe is based on the top floor, and classes in Irish language, art, and other subjects are on offer.
The building is named for two men, Robert Shipboy McAdam, a nineteenth century Presbyterian businessman, and Tomás Ó Fiaich, a twentieth century scholar, who was from the Catholic tradition. Both of them contributed to respect for and continuation of Irish language and heritage. Cultúrlann is meant to be, and is, a friendly place where neighbors from all traditions are welcome to drop in, and where travelers find welcome as well, to talk, to laugh, to learn some words in Irish or brush up knowledge, to meet a new friend, to share a cup of tea.
There’s an Irish language choir which rehearses every week, and you’ll be welcome to sit in if you’d like. There’s also a intimate jewel box of a performance space, where that theater troupe performs plays and where top international artists such as Cathie Ryan and Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh sometimes offer their music, in English and in Irish.
When Cathie Ryan gave a concert there, she asked her audience to sing with her on the song So Here’s to You, a song of leavetaking and hope for reunion. She told of an idea she’d learned while traveling in the southwestern part of the United States. “The Native American people there have the belief that when you sing in a place, you leave your echo there,” she said. “ So you all have left an echo here tonight. Thank you.”
An echo, perhaps, of peace. There is another mural along The Falls Road not far from An Chultúrlann, this one a painting of a man playing a fiddle, and his grandchildren listening. The words on this wall say ceol gan teorainn. Music without borders.