Once Not Enough for Family Belfast Adventure

Apparently 205 days overseas in 2017 wasn’t quite enough of an adventure for my family, because here we are back in Belfast.

Declan and I have returned for a little over a week, while Marilynn is here for much longer, researching her new book on the literary responses to the peace process in Northern Ireland. She’s doing archival research to establish historic timelines for the books, plays and poems she’ll include in this project.

Marilynn’s also interviewing authors she wants to feature, including poet Michael Longley and novelist David Park. OK, we hosted and were hosted by both writers and their spouses several times while we were here earlier this year. However, it’s quite different to exchange pleasantries and a glass of wine with someone in their house versus querying them about works they wrote decades ago. The earlier encounters set the stage for the current ones.

Marilynn’s also giving public lectures on Hopdance in Belfast and Dublin, in conjunction with Lynne Parker, artistic director of the Rough Magic Theatre Company in Dublin. Lynne is also the niece of the late Stewart Parker, the subject of Marilynn’s second book and the playwright who also wrote Hopdance, a semi-autobiographical account of the amputation of his left leg from cancer when he was 19.

Different this time around

Although fewer than four months have passed since we left Northern Ireland on July 25, it’s a much different experience. We swapped our Queen’s University accommodations along the tree-lined Windsor Park for a serviced apartment along the busy (and certainly not tree-lined) Lisburn Road. Fortunately, the traffic dies down in the middle of the night, but the Tesco truck unloads outside until 11 p.m. or so, with much beating and banging, and the traffic picks back up about 6. Despite being four stories up and behind double-paned glass, we hear nearly everything.


The weather has been dank since the moment we touched down. And while the cold is OK for a little while, it grinds down one’s psyche day after day. The not getting light until 7:30 a.m. and the darkening by 4:30 p.m. certainly doesn’t help.

But that hasn’t stopped Declan and me from exploring our adopted hometown further. We spent several hours our first day looking for Declan a pair of shoes and both of us thermal shirts but to no avail. Then yesterday, we went shopping for Thanksgiving dinner supplies with our friend Eileen.

Gardens and markets

Eileen then drove us to Antrim and dropped us off at Antrim Castle Gardens while she attended her gardening course nearby. The castle itself was destroyed by fire in the 1920s, but the expansive gardens alongside the Sixmilewater River that date from the 17th century remain. It was a nice way to spend a couple of hours, particularly watching the river meander toward a bridge, where it picked up speed due to an elevation change past the bridge. As a heron watched from the shore, children atop the bridge dropped leaves into the river to watch them bob in the now-turbulent waters.

After her class, Eileen joined us for a cup of tea in the gardens’ tea room before dropping us off near the Belfast city centre, where we met Marilynn for dinner at the Christmas market.

I’ll have to admit I had higher hopes for the market than reality revealed. After a time, all of these public events and festivals take on a certain sameness. It wasn’t much different than the Easter market we saw in Prague, save for the lack of a Belfast culinary “delicacy.” But you could gorge on food from around the world, including one stall that sold burgers formed from a wide variety of critters, including kangaroo, wild boar and crocodile. I wasn’t much taken with my cowburger, but Declan liked his Asian noodles and Marilynn enjoyed her footlong German sausage served on a baguette.

While I didn’t see any unique Belfast cuisine, we weren’t surprised at the number of stalls selling items made from wool. And Declan, for perhaps the first time ever, saw his name on one of those personalized tchotchkes every tourist shop has. A small triumph, to be sure, but one more indication that we are back home.

Famous (not really) by Association

My wife, Marilynn Richtarik, is a rock star. Admittedly, her rock star world is relatively small, Irish literature, but it’s neat to be near the spotlight and see someone receive the accolades she richly deserves.

Not only are we in Belfast because she won a Fulbright Scholarship, Marilynn has a new book out. She has two radio interviews lined up for next week (one for RTÉ and one for BBC Northern Ireland) in conjunction with “Hopdance,” a semi-autobiographical novel by the late playwright Stewart Parker that she edited for publication.

The guest speaker at the Dublin book launch on May 12 (which also happens to be our wedding anniversary) is actor Stephen Rea. Northern Irish author Glenn Patterson will help Marilynn launch the book at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast on May 23. She’ll also be reading from the novel next week at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre as part of a Seamus Heaney Centre Fulbright program.

Finally (for now, at least), she will appear at the Belfast Book Festival on June 10, talking about and reading from the book. And before I forget, a big shout out to David Torrans from No Alibis Bookstore for the great display in his store and for agreeing to sell the book during Marilynn’s Belfast appearances.

Now for a little perspective

The six degrees of separation on this island is more like three. Let me explain. “Hopdance” was written by Parker about the amputation of his cancerous left leg at age 19. He wrote the stylized, vignette-driven novel around the 10th anniversary of the amputation, returning to it during times of great stress or when he had absolutely nothing else to do. After receiving a second cancer diagnosis, he started preparing the manuscript for publication but died in 1988 before advancing very far. However, since the novel is scene-driven and jumps around before, during and after the amputation, it can be viewed as a complete work.

Parker is the subject of Marilynn’s second book, the acclaimed “Stewart Parker: A Life,” published by Oxford University Press in 2012. She’s had a copy of “Hopdance” since the research phase of her second book, and she quoted liberally from it in the biography. Following the publication of the biography, she decided to ask Parker’s executor for permission to prepare “Hopdance” for publication.

Parker’s final play, “Pentecost,” was commissioned by the Field Day Theatre Company, co-founded by Stephen Rea. Field Day was the subject of Marilynn’s first book, and she interviewed Rea for it. When Rea was asked to help launch “Hopdance” in Dublin, he said simply, “Anything for Stewart Parker.”

Marilynn met Glenn Patterson at the 1998 Belfast Festival, where he read and talked about his work. The two hit it off and have kept in contact since. Patterson was a guest in our house when Marilynn helped put together a Belfast issue of the literary journal “Five Points,” which included an interview with Patterson, who came to Atlanta for the launch.

Mary-Louise Muir is the host of “Arts Extra” on BBC Radio Ulster and also appears on TV arts programs. She’s interviewed Marilynn about Parker for the program several times, the last time in 2013 at her home, while Declan and I sat quietly in an adjacent room.

Sinéad Gleeson hosts “The Book Show” on RTÉ Radio 1. Actually, Marilynn hasn’t met her, and this interview was arranged by Marilynn’s publisher, Lilliput Press in Dublin. But I have no doubt the two will become fast friends—it’s just the way things go on this crazy little island.