Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A little stolen moment

"And you know you gotta go / On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row ..."

BBC Radio Ulster produced a wonderful two-part documentary on the cross-border train service between Dublin's Connolly Station in the Republic of Ireland and Belfast's Central Station in Northern Ireland. John Toal ambled from car to car, mastering the well-balanced gait necessary for a moving train, conversing with a myriad of native and foreign workers, shoppers, and tourists.

While chit-chats occasionally veered toward the delightfully mundane—one gentleman was on the train to pick up a secondhand bench vice; it was apparently more economical to have it shipped to Northern Ireland and pick it up in person rather than have it sent directly to his Co. Galway home—the primary purpose of Toal's rail journeys was to consider the border separating the two countries as well as what each "side" thinks of the other.

On the south-to-north excursion, one man alluded to a distinct change in atmosphere after crossing the border. He believed that folk from the Six Counties had a discernible edge, that the average Northerner possessed a finely-sharpened ability to demonstrate caution around strangers. A woman from the Republic classified her compatriots as overly casual and detached before accusing them of too often evoking that oft-heard Irish expression of cheery indifference: "Ah sure, it'll be grand!"

The most welcoming revelation, however, was one passenger's assessment that the border is no more than an "invisible irrelevance." Because such pronounced apathy was largely absent when Van Morrison wrote "Madame George" nearly 50 years ago. Back then, the border was a very real and very severe dividing line. But after Toal interviewed a composer traveling from Belfast to Dublin, I began to ponder whether there were underlying political, social, or cultural contexts to the lyric quoted above or whether Morrison was perhaps simply inspired by the sensual, steady-tempoed aspects of a train ride.

Said this composer about his rail journey: "It's kinda like a little stolen moment ... There's something extremely relaxing about being on the train ... Has something to do with the rhythm of it, the general underlining pulse that flows through everything."

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