Royal Wee – Frank McNally on the great Northern diminutive, the Joys of Belfast, and Mo Mowlam’s Hand of History

A linguistic version of nanotechnology

One thing about Belfast that hasn’t changed in the 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement, as confirmed by my latest visit, is the extraordinary popularity there of the adjective “wee”.

Especially in the service industries, it is still the obligatory prefix for almost everything, from your first wee look at the menu to the wee top-up of your tea, and even the wee swipe of your credit card afterwards.

Speaking of nanotechnology, as I was yesterday, this is the Northern Irish linguistic version, used to reduce all problems to manageable perspective.

Indeed, the very euphemism for something unchallenging in Belfast is “wee buns”. And even the problem that is Northern Ireland itself can be similarly scaled down.


Hence one of the many alternative names for it: “Our Wee Country”.

The wonder is that a place so fond of miniaturisation ever allowed political differences to blow up the way they did.

No doubt some past challenges did not respond well to nanoscience, for example “Big Ian”. But there are belated signs of progress there too now. Although nobody calls Ian Paisley jnr “wee”, even in ironic usage, he is widely known as “Little Ian”, to differentiate from his father.

Maybe all other obstacles to political progress will be reduced to Belfast bun size, eventually. Then at last, perhaps, the dream of the 1960s Civil Rights campaigners will be achieved, and “Wee” Shall Overcome.


The political murals of Belfast get all the attention, in the press and tour itineraries alike. But there is plenty of non-political graffiti in the city too, much of it cheerful.

This had escaped me until a friend who has spent decades in America noticed the phenomenon during a stroll of the city centre.

“There’s a lot of joy on the walls,” she commented in surprise. And sure enough, when you looked, there was.

There is lot of upper-case Joy on the walls too. Plaques in various parts of Belfast pay tribute to Francis Joy, founder of the Belfast News Letter*; Henry Joy McCracken, 1798 rebel leader; and Mary Ann McCracken, Henry’s campaigning sister, officially Joy-less although, like him, the child of an Ann Joy.

It may be worth recalling in this context an early contribution to the peace process made by Queen’s University, which this week hosted the GFA anniversary conference.

For most of last century, graduation ceremonies there used to be accompanied by God Save the Queen, causing some students to stand loyally and others to remain seated in protest.

Then in 1994 the university came up with what somebody probably called a wee compromise. Ever since, graduations have been celebrated with Beethoven and his (Belfast-flavoured) choral masterpiece, Ode to Joy.


It’s a little ironic, as I recalled over a beer in the Crown Bar one night, that the best film set in the Northern capital revolves around a dying IRA man called “McQueen”.

Played by James Mason, the hero of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) is fatally wounded early in the movie and spends the rest of it breathing his last in a beautifully shot black-and-white Belfast, including one of the Crown’s famous snugs.

Not the actual Crown, of course. It was a replica created in an English studio. And in fact, the film doesn’t mention Belfast by name, or indeed the IRA, which is instead referred to throughout as “the Organisation”.

The vagueness about locale may have been just as well, because most of the actors had been imported, from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in particular.

A scene involving a packed tram bound for Falls Road sounds more like the 15A to Rathmines. And a few actors had such perfect Queen’s English as to cause one critic (a certain Conor Cruise O’Brien, writing for The Bell) to wonder if “the Organisation” they were fighting for was the BBC.


Tony Blair’s is the hand that went down in history, having touched his shoulder so infamously in 1998. But in Hillsborough Castle, among the many souvenirs of politicians who helped bring peace to the North, a hand of Mo Mowlam has pride of place.

Cast in bronze, it sits alongside exhibits that also include a peace process chess-set of less assured taste, with queens comprising Elizabeth II on one side and President Mary McAleese on the other, while the RUC and IRA play the respective sets of pawns.

Another oddity among the mementos is a bust of Charlie Haughey. Perhaps he’s included because of the wee silver tea-pot he once gave Margaret Thatcher, from which peace came dropping slow, eventually.

As Britain’s Northern Secretary in the late 1990s, and despite the cancer she was suffering, Mowlam seems to have enjoyed the role more than her predecessors.

Demanding a large whiskey after a 1970 visit to Northern Ireland, Reginald Maudling complained: “What a bloody awful country”. So happy was Mowlam by contrast, as they remind you on the tour of Hillsborough, that her ashes are now scattered in the gardens.

*This article was amended on April 22nd 2023 to correct an error