We edged into the parking space in the underground car park. It was the only place not full with traffic from the regatta. Getting out of the car was a very careful process; the car in the next bay was a big old Rolls Royce. Maybe twenty or thirty years old, it was a labour of love rather than a statement of wealth – its brown paint was so polished that you could clearly see your reflection. The interior was immaculate; the sort of car that came out for high days and holy days. There were plenty of much more blatant statements in the parking spaces along the sea front, an array of Mercedes Benz, BMW and 4 x 4 vehicles – the sort of cars that would cost three or four years of my salary. A Range Rover Vogue sat in one space, it was two years old – it would cost around €75,000 – I know because our plumber has one and he told me how much he had paid for it.
The yacht clubs were crowded inside and out; the decking filled with drinkers looking out over the harbour. Young men who would have graced rugby XVs in the winter months worked on their boats, doing whatever yachting people do at the end of the day. I watched one group of four men in their early-20s. They had fashionable shaggy hair cuts, but were weathered and tough and hard-faced, these would be the next generation of Mercedes drivers.
There were no shaved heads in sight, no cropped hair, no Nike tops, no joggers, no training shoes; nothing other than a sea of upper middle class affluence.
It was hard to imagine that a couple of hours drive would bring you to places where they build thirty foot bonfires with old tyres, where people hang cheap and gaudy flags from lamp posts and intimidate the neighbours who object, where being from the wrong background can still see you driven from your house, where my sister who lives in North Belfast had her car burned last month in the street in which she lives, where speakers still talk about my country as a place they have imagined from long ago. It was hard to imagine that the parades shown on the television news were on the same island as the regatta and the Mercedes driving yacht owners.
Walking the East Pier in Dun Laoghaire on a balmy summer’s evening, it was hard to imagine that it was the 12th of July in the North.