In Through the Eyes of a Belfast Child, Greg McVicker gives us a large piece of his life through a series of semi-connected writings ranging from memoir to social commentary to tribute, often interspersed with McVicker’s own poetry.
The author is best in his first and probably longest piece, “Scattered Youth,” where he tells of moving to Winnipeg, Canada from Northern Ireland where he spent the first 15 years of his life. McVicker writes with both warmth and humor as he remembers the heartbreak of leaving the homeland and friends he loved, and trying to adjust to a world completely different from the one he left. Even though his family was leaving persecution and violence behind in Belfast (they were Irish Catholics), McVicker didn’t like his new home with its strange culture and ugly landscape:
“Winnipeg lies in the middle of the prairies within the province of Manitoba. Basically the best way to describe it is that if your dog were to run away, you could watch it do so for three days.”
After the first essay, the book moves back and forth from memoir to essays regarding social injustices–the sexual abuse of children by priests and teachers, the mistreatment of Canada’s native peoples, inequality of women, and hatred of all kinds:
“Humans full of hate, anger, and bitterness against other humans due to their background: race, religion, culture, skin colour, language, and sexual orientation – the list is endless….We need to begin breaking down the cultural, socio-economic, structural, and political barriers that divide us.”
At times, McVicker’s writings are intense and personal. He has strong views shaped largely by the violence and persecution he experienced in Belfast:
“In my beloved town of Belfast,
Off goes yet another devastating bomb blast.
In the streets the people lie dying…”
As a child, though, McVicker didn’t realize how serious the situation was in his country. I enjoyed reading the author’s childhood perspective:
“It took me several years to appreciate why I was held at a security checkpoint in 1979 at a swimming baths. Upon entering the area, my cheeky eight-year-old self announced to the staff, `There’s nothing to worry about. There’s only a bomb in my bag.'”
Besides hatred and injustice, death is another common theme throughout this book. It’s interesting to read and think about how the subject is handled differently among different cultures. McVicker’s Irish-Catholic experience of losing family members and friends (of which he has lost many) and the way he’s dealt with those losses is quite different from my own, somewhat Puritan-American experience.
Another, lighter thread throughout the book is the difference in language and expressions between cultures, something that McVicker began learning about on his first flight from Ireland:
“Ma, some American back there says I need a nickel to use the bogs [bathroom]. What does he mean by a nickel?”
Or, when McVicker and his friend tried trick-or-treating in Belfast, and were met with:
“Ack, wee lads, will ye take yerselves off by the hawn and quit wastin’ my time for flips sake.”
Through the Eyes of a Belfast Child is no waste of time. McVicker has truly poured himself into this book, holding nothing back. He’s told his story, and in doing so, told the story of many others.