Sunday, 16 August 2015

Belfast References in Van's Songs


Recently, Van has been embracing his Belfast roots.  In the last few years he has been doing numerous concerts in and around Belfast, most regularly at the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa and the Europa Hotel.  Last year in 2014 Van was also presented with the key to the city of Belfast.  It seems after years of decrying nostalgia Van is ready to receive the accolades that deservedly come his way and part of that is celebrating his humble beginnings in East Belfast.  

One of the most touching celebrations of his Belfast childhood came in August, 2014 when Van performed at his old Orangefield High school for three concerts marking the closing of the school.  Two of the concerts were for past students and staff.  The concerts were loaded with Belfast references that were lapped up by the parochial crowd. The second song on the first night was Got to Go Back which has the opening lines "when I was a young man in Orangefield, I used to look outside my classroom window and dream". Needless to say, any references to Belfast or Orangefield received rousing cheers.  

Enthusiast on the Van Heritage Trail
The city of Belfast in Northern Ireland has taken on mythic proportions in the minds of Van Fans around the world.  In many ways Van has been a one man tourist promotion juggernaut for Belfast with many fans visiting various sites on the "Van pilgrimage trail".  Indeed, an official 
Van Morrison Heritage Trail has been created which has served to help increase the number of visitors to the city.  Consider the plight of the poor people who live in Van's birth house at 125 Hyndford Street in East Belfast.  They surely must be bothered daily by well-meaning tourists expecting Van to emerge from this modest dwelling with crumbs and Marmite stains on his sweater. 

Near to his birthplace of Hyndford Street is the leafy Cyprus Avenue where Van supposedly had an epiphany that lead to a spiritual or mystical strain running through his work.  On his 70th birthday (August 31) this year, Van is performing two concerts on Cyprus Avenue. These should be fantastic events not to be missed by any Van Fans. The BBC is gearing up with a week-long promotion of all things Van.      

In his poem/song On Hyndford Street Morrison travels to Fuscos in Holywood for Ice Cream, name checks Beechie River, Abetta Parade, Orangefield, St. Donard's Church comes down from the Castlereagh Hills through Cregagh Glens, “to Hyndford Street, feeling wondrous and lit up inside/With a sense of everlasting life..." This is what Van has been doing since that iconic first solo record Astral Weeks - finding transcendence in the everyday familiar. 


Van's nostalgic Astral Weeks is one of the greatest albums ever made (just ask Pat Corley and Ryan Foley). It is an incredible piece of poetry and sound that may provide probably the first references to Belfast in popular song.  

Down through the years Morrison has added many other places to his catalogue of Belfast memories. Cherry Valley is mentioned on Hyndford Street, the Orangefield of his school days appears on Got To Go Back and then gets an entire song called Orangefield on Avalon Sunset. In the title track of Sense of Wonder, a song in which Van sees himself as a bringer of a fiery vision he is finding wonder in Gransha, Ballystockart Road, the Castle Picturehouse on the Castlereagh Road and the man who played the saw outside the City Hall. There are also mentions for pastie suppers down at Davy's Chipper, gravy rings, barnbracks, wagon wheels and snowballs, all vivid and vital memories for Morrison himself and the many Belfast residents who love Van's music.  
The song Coney Island mentions a lot of Northern Ireland geography. The Lecale district is a flat peninsula lying between Strangford Lough and Dundrum Bay. A journey through Lecale takes one to some of the most varied and interesting scenery in Ireland, encompassing as it does the historic cathedral town of Downpatrick, where St. Patrick is reputed to be buried. Coney Island, is not an island as most people think, but is actually a group of cottages which are just off the winding road between Ardglass and Killough 

Ardglass is a lively fishing village and Killyleagh is a small town on Strangford Lough to the north of the Lecale district. Shrigley is a village about a mile and a half outside Killyleagh on the Saintfield Road on the way to Belfast.

Some people have pointed out the confusion in the accuracy of the details in the song.  In the song Van sings Coming back from Downpatrick which gives the impression that he is heading back home to Belfast which is to the north of Downpatrick. However when he sings "stopping off at St. John's Point" things become confused as St John's Point is to the south of Downpatrick. If he had sung the original word "Coming down from Downpatrick" all would have made sense. We need to allow him a bit of artistic licence.

Madame George also contains a number of references to places and events in Belfast like Cyprus Avenue, Sandy Row and the reference to "throwing pennies at the bridges down below" which was a practice of Northern Irish Unionists as they travelled on the train from Dublin to Belfast where the train crossed the River Boyne. Fitzroy may be a reference to Fitzroy Avenue, a narrow residential street in Belfast between the Ormeau Road and Rugby Road.

It's a great time to be a Van Fan.  Van has been recognised in a number of award presentations in the last few years culminating in his knighthood on the Queen's birthday.  He has also been keeping up a steady concert schedule with the highlight being the two Cyprus Avenue concerts on his August 31st birthday. 

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