Van Morrison is one of Ulster’s finest sons: He breathes the angular, agrarian backdrop of the province – that spans two disparate countries – in an effort to bridge a gap between the more rural backdrop of the Irish republic, against the more industrious landscape of the Scottish highland. Ulster moulded Morrison, created Morrison, brought him to newer, more interesting terrains as a person and an artist, which likely spanned from his association with the province.
Morrison’s second album, Astral Weeks, is to Belfast what Dublin is to James Joyce, providing a roadmap to the region that shows his commitment to the region, and an interest in the area. Like the city at the time, which featured two disparate audiences embroiled in a conflict, Morrison’s work stemmed from an instinct of survival and sincerity. “You have to understand something,” Morrison recalled. “A lot of this … there was no choice. I was totally broke. So I didn’t have time to sit around pondering or thinking all this through. It was just done on a basic pure survival level. I did what I had to do.”
Belfast is a city of great division, diversion and distinction: every street passed is an entry into a new region or a new place in time. Morrison grew up in Bloomfield, a borough constituency comprising part of eastern Belfast. It was Unionistic, but not exclusively so, and Morrison could happily flit between both camps. The area in question is known for holding progressive policies and practices, showing an interest in the land that stood to the West of Great Britain, boasting the regimented backbeats of the United Kingdom.
The region demonstrates an interest in the Protestant religion that had built the city on its feet, but also waves a banner at the other countries that helped create Northern Ireland.
After leaving Orangefield Boys Secondary School, Morrison plunged into the city’s music scene, particularly Cyprus Avenue, a roadside that inspired the singer to re-create the passageway in a series of incisive, impressionistic paintings. To this day, Cyprus Avenue is covered in green, demonstrating an interest in the past, but the road paths and sign ways exhibit an interest in the future.
Morrison’s friend remembered Cyprus Avenue as an area where Beersbridge Road was surrounded by the railway tracks decorated the area, and I wager that the song offered the excitement, raw adulation and singular ambition of the songwriter’s vision of the world around him.
And like Joyce’s view of Dublin, one only needs to listen to Morrison’s work to re-create Belfast, where nuance, regulation and radiance dominate the city that is bolstered by a sense of grit, craft and gumption. It was the city where Gerry McAvoy bumped into Rory Gallagher, the guitarist who would lead him to newer, and more inventive levels in his life.
It was also the city where the showbands would perform, in an effort to unite the city under the banner of music. Indeed, Ulster Hall still stands all these years later, providing an avenue for bands to perform to the public at large.
Recently, Morrison has been embroiled with Northern Irish minister Robin Swann, particularly with the incendiary ‘dangerous’, and his attachment to the city has dimmed in light of the fracas. But there was a point when Morrison was as integral to the region as the Crumlin Road Gaol, or as expansive as the Peace Wall in the region. But like Eastern Belfast, he is showing signs of becoming more interested in the Irish environment, demonstrating a taste and a flavour of the Southern Republic, creating a newer, more refined view of Ireland.
It takes all the flairs, from the industrial to the angular, and the religious overtones – both Protestant and Catholic – in an effort to modernise the city as a portal, a passage, a citadel and a musical step into the past. From the barren streets to the ornate halls comes the acorns of Belfast, and Morrison’s complex citadel, Astral Weeks, is as much a part of its long history, and extended geography, pivoting into a city that is neither British nor Irish, nor Northern Irish. It’s Belfast, it’s Ulster, it’s Morrison’s town, and it’s a treasure to cherish as a whole.