A Sense of Ulster: Van Morrison’s Belfast
by Stephen Brown

Published: Monday, March 15th, 2010

Belfast is a beautiful city. Or, to be more precise, Belfast is a city in a beautiful setting. Situated at the head of Belfast Lough, an estuarine processional way, our compact conurbation is encircled by escarpments, rugged Antrim Plateau on one side, rolling Castlereagh Hills on the other. Home to half-a-million people, Belfast began life as a muddy ford at the mouth of the River Lagan, burgeoned into one of the mighty workshops of the world-wide British Empire and like many of its GB equivalents – Glasgow, Cardiff, Liverpool, et al – is resorting to the ubiquitous urban Botox of arts festivals, dockside redevelopments and glittering shopping malls in a desperate attempt to stave off post-industrial senescence.

Locally, there is much debate about the most beautiful view of the city’s situational splendours. For some, it’s the seaward approaches, where the ever-increasing constriction of the Lough is offset by the ever-increasing altitude of the swaddling hills. For others, it’s the outlook from the shoulders of Samson and Goliath, the giant yellow cranes that stand guard over Belfast’s once gargantuan shipyard, birthplace of the Titanic and symbol of Ulster’s obsolescent engineering capabilities. For yet others, the most singular sight is reserved for visitors driving in from the International Airport; specifically, a wonderful wide-screen windscreen moment when the humdrum motorway crests the encircling escarpment and plunges precipitously into the Belfast basin beneath. The conurbation spread-eagles from harbour to horizon, lagoon-like Belfast Lough to the left, black smudges of city centre high rise to the right. Most first-time visitors find it hard to reconcile the stunning vista below them with their mental image of a malevolent metropolitan warzone. But then again, Belfast is nothing if not contradictory, as the majority of its citizens will testify.

Of course, one doesn’t need to travel to Belfast in order to appreciate its congenital contradictions. They are crystallised in the work of Van Morrison, the city’s pre-eminent musical export.1 In many ways, indeed, Van the Man is a better guide to the perennial paradoxes of Belfast than any number of citybreaks, guided tours or shoe-leather-sapping circuits on Shanks’ Pony. Ulster culture, after all, is predominantly musical and literary rather than visual. There are very few buildings of note in Belfast, the City Hall, Opera House and Queen’s University possibly excepted. World-renowned actors and artists are somewhat rarer still. However, our literary and musical scenes are preternaturally vibrant, as are those on the ‘noisy island’ as a whole.2 Ireland is the Sizewell B of the music business, a veritable fast breeder reactor, and although U2 irradiates the globe like a dismantled atomic bomb, the artiste with the longest half-life is the Belfast Cowboy himself, George Ivan Morrison.

Born and brought up in the Ulster Protestant heartland of East Belfast, Van Morrison was steeped from childhood in a musical marinade of Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Jimmie Rodgers and just about every shade of the Blues, thanks to his music-loving father who spent time in the USA and amassed an enormous record collection.3 By the age of eleven, he was playing harmonica, saxophone, guitar etc in makeshift schoolyard ensembles and, after paying his dues in a cavalcade of semi-professional showbands, skiffle groups and R ’n’ B bands, he formed the legendary Them in 1964. A series of rowdy hit singles swiftly transpired, though the machinations of the music business brought Belfast’s premier beat boom band to a premature end. Van repaired to New York, where he recorded the signature late-60s album Astral Weeks, which proved to be the first in a sequence of seminal solo recordings, most notably Moondance, Tupelo Honey, St Dominic’s Preview and a live album of staggering brilliance, It’s Too Late to Stop Now. This remarkable burst of creativity was followed by a fallow period of introspective self-discovery and attempts to get in touch with the spiritual wellsprings of his musical muse. After a three-year hiatus, Morrison returned to form with Wavelength, Into the Music, Enlightenment and Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, which were quickly eclipsed by a continuous string of late-80s classics including Irish Heartbeat, Avalon Sunset and the inevitable best-selling Best Of. By the early 1990s, Van the Man was happily ensconced in Dublin, secure in his status as a Hall of Fame- inducted living legend and producing an album a year, or thereabouts. As a rule, these excursions alternated between Morrison’s musical roots – skiffle, blues, country, gospel, et al – and variations on his trademark, Celtic-inflected template, a.k.a. Caledonian Soul.

Van the Man is justly renowned for his prodigious musical ability, a mellifluous meld of everything from big band jazz to Irish traditional, to say nothing of a voice that has turned the unmistakable Ulster gulder into an art form.4 But perhaps his single greatest gift is a truly unique sense of place. Whether it be the rural idyll of Old, Old Woodstock, the sheets of Snow in San Anselmo, bouncing along the boardwalk in Venice USA, politely asking the way to The Eternal Kansas City, or breaking in a new pair of shoes by Going Down Geneva’s lakeside, he is blessed with the geographical equivalent of perfect pitch. When Van encapsulates the Streets of Arklow, evokes Summertime in England, sips cider in the Somerset shade, or gambols merrily among the Cotswolds’ Rolling Hills, he transports his listeners – right there, right then – on a Vanlose Stairway of song.

For most people, the quintessence of Morrison’s genius loci is ‘Coney Island’, a contemplative conversational summary of a musical journey to a mythical Irish place where the craic is good, time stands still and potted herrings are polished off before dinner. But for residents of Northern Ireland, George Ivan Morrison is revered for his ability to capture the urban landscape, specifically the rose-tinted streets of his childhood stomping ground, east Belfast. Cyprus Avenue, Hyndford Street, Orangefield or the voices echoing across the Beechie River, late at night, are inordinately meaningful to the inhabitants of a place most of us love and hate simultaneously. Thus, when Van recalls pastie suppers at Davey’s chipper; or the ice cream cones from Fusco’s; or the man who played the saw outside the City Hall; or the six bells chime of St Donard’s Church; or the desperate Belfast diet of gravy rings, barmbracks, wagon wheels, snowballs; or the tangible, almost oppressive, silence of Sundays in the torpid inner city; or, for that matter, throws in a familiar street name – Sandy Row, Fitzroy Avenue, Cherry Valley – he is tapping into, and drawing inspiration from, the collective Ulster unconscious, one that we all share but cannot adequately articulate. More than that, he is part of the ineradicable soundtrack of our lives. I lost my virginity to Van Morrison. Not the man himself, you understand. His music, specifically ‘Madame George’ (the first verse, come to think of it). I was in the audience for his unforgettable ‘homecoming’ gig in 1979, when he played ‘St Dominic’s Preview’ and the line ‘long way to Belfast City too’ was greeted with a roar that almost ripped the roof off the concert hall and still sends shivers down my spine as I write this essay, twenty-seven years later. I will never forget catching Scorsese’s celebrated rockumentary, The Last Waltz, when Van the Man unleashed ‘Caravan’ and literally wiped the floor with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and every other occupant of rock’s top table. Better yet, I took my teenage, Kayne West-fixated daughter to see him last week, much against her supposedly superior judgement. She had a Damascene musical moment and is not only the latest convert to the cause of Caledonian Soul, but has the commemorative T-shirt to prove it. The circle of song remains unbroken.

Let me put it this way: it’s not very often you’re proud to be from Northern Ireland, not when you’ve been through what we’ve been through in recent decades, but when George Ivan Morrison is in full flight, it’s hard not to take collateral pride in his astonishing artistic accomplishments. He’s one of us. We are the people. For God and Ulster.

So powerful, indeed, is Morrison’s sense of place that guided tours of the Vanscape are regularly organised, usually as part of local arts festivals. It is not unusual to find windswept tourists absorbing the arboreal atmosphere of Cyprus Avenue or attempting to make sense of the circuitous cross-country journey outlined in ‘Coney Island’. Disappointment or frustration is the inevitable outcome. The nondescript nature of the actual locations cannot compare with the nostalgic magic of the Morrisonian invocations. When the William Blake of East Belfast imbues them with bucolic beauty – his brilliant ability to see the world in a grain of Sandy Row – we are transported from the workaday everyday to the cosmic threshold of the Celtic sublime. Van’s Avalon may be off the Beersbridge Road and his Garden of Eden somewhere in the vicinity of East Bread Street, but don’t try looking for them. The troubadours, likewise, may well be coming through town. Don’t hold your breath, however. Celtic Ray won’t be found on Bloomfield Avenue, believe me, though counterfeit Celtic RayBans might.

Morrison, then, doesn’t simply capture our sense of place, he embodies the spirit of the place. Spirituality, indeed, is the single most important component of the Belfast Cowboy’s cosmos. Although he is renowned for his happy wanderings along the highways and byways of New Age belief systems, from Steiner to Scientology, he keeps circling back to the evangelical Protestantism that permeates East Belfast, most notably in his sprawling double album Hymns to the Silence. Being born again is a recurring theme in his lyrics – right back to the title track of Astral Weeks – and his incantatory streams of consciousness are nothing less than the musical equivalent of personal Pentecostal testimonials. Singing in tongues, so to speak. I was lost but now I’m found. Glory, glory, hallelujah.

Piety is central to A Sense of Ulster, today’s sinful secular society notwithstanding. And Van Morrison, in many ways, is a stereotypical Ulsterman. Granted, the very idea of a ‘stereotypical Ulsterman’ is deeply suspect, given the enormous variety of traditions in Northern Ireland, let alone genders, generations and geographical subdivisions (rural/urban, east/west, etc). Nevertheless, many maintain that Morrison is blessed with some, arguably all, of the personality traits associated with Ulstermen in general and working class Protestants in particular.5 Blunt, boorish, brusque truculent, taciturn, tenacious, pugnacious, prickly, paranoid, uncompromising, unco-operative and downright uncouth are just some of the less than flattering terms used to describe Van’s irascible behaviour. This is the man who is not averse to storming off stage in high dudgeon or berating his audiences for their abyssal ignorance. This is the man who rudely refused to attend his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and threatened legal action against local admirers who wanted to adorn his childhood home with a Van-lived-here commemorative plaque. This is the man who has written more songs about the iniquities of the music business and so-called friends who’ve sold him out than he has about moving on up along the ancient avenue to the higher ground where the back street jelly roll is in the garden wet with rain on golden autumn days like this when the healing has begun, begun, begun, begun, begun, begun, begun. And that’s saying something.

The Ulster incarnate analogy is undeniably trite, not least because Van Morrison patently lacks the religious bigotry that is associated with rabid Protestantism. However, if the comparison is even briefly entertained6, then the positive side of the hoary Ulster cliché must also be acknowledged. In this regard, there are two archetypal personality traits that Morrison possesses in abundance. The first of these is industriousness. Whatever else is said about the Belfast Cowboy – and My-Van-Hell stories are legion – it cannot be denied that his work ethic is prodigious. He has enjoyed one of the longest and most illustrious careers in popular music. He started out at the same time as The Beatles and The Stones, but unlike many of his beat boom contemporaries the sexagenarian Ulsterman remains extraordinarily active. On average, he has produced an album a year for forty-odd years and a treasure trove of unreleased material is mouldering in the archives.7 Many of his latter-day albums, admittedly, are formulaic retreads but they always contain a smattering of bone fide Celtic soul classics. We may live in a sated, sybaritic, post-industrial society but in Belfast at least hard workers are still highly regarded. Van Morrison, pace ‘Cleaning Windows’, is a working man in his prime and that counts for an awful lot in our part of the world.

What is not highly regarded in Northern Ireland – well nigh unforgivable, in fact – is humourlessness. Ready wit is one of the province’s most prized possessions. Belfast, believe it or not, is a very funny city (and I do mean funny ha-ha). George Ivan Morrison, if not exactly a bundle of laughs, is much more mirthful than many might imagine or indeed his media image intimates. From his childhood love of The Goon Show, through his teenage showband comedy routines, to his heavily-accented Belfast banter on the fade of ‘Cleaning Windows’, to his jaunty Benny Hill-style saxophone solo on ‘Higher Ground’, to his yodelling homage to Carry On movies on last year’s Magic Time, which ends with a howl of studio laughter, Van Morrison is true to his jocose Ulster heritage. Seriously.

Serious play, in short, is Van Morrison’s raison d’etre. He is inherently contradictory, just like the city of his birth: beautiful, bestial, benign, benighted, bedazzling, bellicose, beloved, beleaguered Belfast. Make no mistake, Van the Man is a hero in my home town. A flawed hero, to be sure, though we prefer our heroes flawed round here.8 We love Belfast because of its flaws, not despite them. George Ivan Morrison may not be an ambassador for the city, much less an advertisement, but by God he’s its apotheosis.


1. Barry Douglas, David Holmes, James Galway and Ruby Murray notwithstanding.

2. On the Irish music scene generally, see Gerry Smith, Noisy Island: A Short History of Irish Popular Music (Cork: Cork University Press, 2005).

3. There are many biographies of Van Morrison. The most recent is Johnny Rogan, Van Morrison: No Surrender (London: Secker & Warburg, 2005).

4. ‘Gulder’ is an Ulster colloquialism for ‘loud shout’. Van Morrison is the gulderer’s gulderer.

5. These are cogently summarised in Geoffrey Beattie, Protestant Boy (London: Granta, 2004).

6. Rogan’s biography (op cit, note 3) is predicated on this very premise. He argues, in essence, than Van the Man is channelling The Big Man (Rev. Ian Paisley)

7. When the box set is released it’ll be the size of a coffin.

8. Ulster’s lionisation of George Best, Alex Higgins, Josef Locke and the Titanic attests to this tendency.

1 Comment

  1. chasnic says:

    Great post. You mention Fitzroy Avenue as one of the Belfast locales namechecked in Van’s songs, but what exactly is meant by ‘Ford and Fitzroy’ in the first verse of Madame George?