I last visited Belfast in 1999. Things were different then. I remember pipe bombs going off making a young me a little nervous while I was there for the day. Since then the Good Friday agreement and several other actions have taken place to ensure peace in Northern Ireland. Or so I thought.
While in Belfast recently for the day we decided to do something a little different by skipping the standard city tour instead taking a Paddy Campbell’s Black Cab “Political Tour.” Danny was our guide, a local who grew up in the 70’s right smack dab in the middle of the troubles.
To be honest I don’t know where to start. I don’t want to put anyone off of Belfast and certainly not Northern Ireland because I sincerely cannot recommend them highly enough. But along with the good I believe one must understand the history of the location they are traveling to if they want to better understand it.
Where the troubles started could be argued. Did it start in the 60’s when Catholics weren’t allowed the same housing and voting rights as the Protestants? Did it start with the Protestant William of Orange defeating the Papist James II at the Battle of the Boyne? Who knows? And it certainly isn’t for me to say. But, what I can tell you is that dissension is alive and well. It isn’t making the national news any more. Perhaps, because Northern Ireland is censoring the news? Or, Perhaps because the Irish want to be perceived as successful at their negotiating peace while others in the world are struggling? Again, I don’t know and I wouldn’t even begin to take a guess since I am only a visitor.
Danny took us around in his black cab to the Protestant Shankhill Road and the Catholic Falls Road area which are still divided by a military style locked gate. It was “marching season” just after July 12th where the Protestants take to the streets marching through the Catholic areas with anti-nationalism and anti-Catholic sentiment. Violence had ensued just days before we visited so many of the gates were still locked much to the frustration of the pedestrian and motoring public.
In the Shankhill area we were driven by and walked through the housing areas to view magnificent murals created to memorialize William of Orange, historical events that had taken place, and in many cases those who terrorized Catholics since the 70s. For example, one mural sensationalized Stevie “Top Gun” McKeag, a violent murderer, for brutally killing a large number of Catholics. Protestant “Top Gun” was responsible for murdering numerous people including a young Catholic female pharmacy student who walked only feet from her store on the Catholic side to the Protestant side to deliver medicine to an elderly Protestant man.
Conversely on the Catholic side an equal number of murals exist rather the subject matter is not of those who were successful in violence against the other side but they highlight those who were killed or martyred during the conflicts. Bobby Sands is likely the most famous of those Catholics who died as a result of a hunger strike taken, while in prison, which brought a lot of recruitment and notoriety to the efforts. Instead of bon fires meant to intimidate they choose to erect Peace Gardens in each of the neighborhoods depicting each person killed as part of the conflict.
Today, I am told it is less about Catholic and Protestant and more about British rule versus Irish independence. Since 1949, the majority twenty-six southern counties fall within the independent country of Ireland and six Ulster counties remain in Northern Ireland as part of the Queen’s empire. Some of the Loyalists view the Republic as traitors while those in the Republic have fought merely for their freedom and Independence. It was against the law only until recently to fly an Irish flag in Northern Ireland. And even today I never saw a single Irish flag in Northern Ireland only scores and scores of British Flags. Where traffic signs are duplicated in both English and Irish in the south many in the north see speaking Irish as treasonous. Many welcome both Protestants and Catholics in to their homes while those who hold fast to the Orange Order are not allowed to marry or fraternize with Catholics.
Danny drove us to the famous peace wall, a starkly long and artistically graffiti’d wall that’s mere presence is an oxymoron. The very wall where millions of people have signed their names and sentiments of peace and love, even President Obama on his recent visit, is actually affixed to the very wall that to this day separates Protestants from Catholics. The wall is higher than twenty feat with razor wire at the top. It butts up mere feet from the back of Catholic houses. It is a daily reminder for those who travel back and forth and in between that peace is possible.
When the tour was over, I felt enlightened and frustrated all at the same time. I couldn’t believe this was still happening to this level and it wasn’t making the national news. Mind you these sentiments are particularly high in these areas of Belfast and LondonDerry and not as heightened elsewhere in the North. But, as we were walking back to the car together I made the statement to my dad that I knew one thing for sure…I knew where our driver was from. The driver Danny had never told us if he was Catholic or Protestant. My Dad agreed with me and said he was confident he knew as well. My mother asked us which side, Protestant or Catholic? We replied at the same time…one Protestant and one Catholic. Neither of us agreed!
“There was never a good war or a bad peace.”
“The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war.”
I cannot recommend this tour highly enough. It was not glamorous and at times it was unsettling. But, I feel enlightened and better for the knowing of it.
For more on my Ireland trips please click here!