This is the hardest blog post to write. I thought initially that my words would flow, my ideas would connect seamlessly, but the reality is I sat at my computer with a racing mind trying to explain and unpack my Belfast experience. I should back up before jumping headfirst into the Belfast visit.
As soon as I learned about our excursion to Belfast I practically vibrated with excitement. One of my majors at Pitt is history with a European concentration. I am a passionate history nerd and I’ve focused heavily on German, British, and Irish history. Irish history has been my favorite focus and I’ve taken all of Tony Novosel’s Irish history courses and TA’d for one of them. For me, it’s personal, as I’m Irish-American and grew up heavily influenced by that history. While I studied the Troubles back at Pitt, I never imagined that I would find myself in Belfast face-to-face with the history. I felt nervous, excited, eager, and curious leading up to Belfast.
Tony always prepares his classes by saying Irish history is confusing, difficult, and often contradictory. You must learn about the situations that lead to violence and the very real effects the violence and atmosphere have on the victims, communities, and the country. For our Belfast visit, we would confront this history directly by way of walking tours with former combatants in the conflict from both communities. Tony was supposed to be there to help facilitate our trip and give us more insight into Northern Ireland’s history, as only two students (me included), had taken his higher level Irish class. Unfortunately, Tony’s flight was cancelled, and he was unable to get to Belfast. Despite Tony’s absence, the trip went smoothly. Tony prepared us with videos beforehand explaining the history surrounding the conflict for those who had no previous experience with Northern Ireland’s history. This crash course helped immensely in understanding both the conflict and the men who gave us tours through the two communities.
Our day started early outside of our apartment building. We boarded the bus in the early morning for the ride up to Belfast. Not long into the bus ride, still within Dublin city limits, my stomach turned on me and I was queasy the entire ride up to Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, my stomach continued to bother me for most of the morning and into our first stop. Luckily, I recovered for the walking tour.
The first part of our day started at the ACT Initiative (Action for Community Transformation). The ACT Initiative serves to aid ex-prisoners in engaging with political and social institutions in the community in positive leadership roles. From the ACT Initiative’s website (http://www.act-ni.co.uk):
We listened to a brief history from a unionist perspective, how ACT came to be, and who is involved in the organization from Dr. William Mitchell. The ACT Initiative has a large focus on connecting history to the local community through those who were active participants in the conflict.
After we had a Q&A session, we were introduced to Robert “Beef” Campbell who would take us around the loyalist areas of Belfast near the Shankill road.
What you will see on this blog post from both communities are mostly murals, memorials, and street art. Both communities are marked by their art which covers long winding walls and fences, the sides of homes and businesses. Every street, main road, and side road is rife with political and historical artwork. The art features figures like Bobby Sands, who died during a hunger strike in prison, loyalist murals depicting The Battle of the Somme, and murals memorializing civilian or combatants’ deaths during the conflict. Some murals feature strong words of condemnation for the other community including, “murder”, “murder gangs”, etc.
Through art, the visible history and pain is palpable walking down the street.
This is where I must post my disclaimer. I documented the day, the sights, the talks, and walking tours. I took countless photographs of various political messages. However, this blog post is not endorsing or condoning any side of the conflict. This is my best attempt to document our day in Belfast and to provide helpful background information which gives meaning to my photographs. This blog post is also too inadequate to give a well-rounded history of Belfast, as that would require more time and space than I have here. As I’ve stated previously, this history is confusing and complicated to navigate. The impact of the Troubles is still very much felt within Belfast and Northern Ireland. I hope this blog gives a glimpse into the history, but I understand it can only show so much.
We began our tour leaving the ACT Initiative building and heading down to our bus. Much of the tour came from inside the bus but we occasionally got off to walk around and take a closer look at murals. Before boarding the bus, we stood together in the parking lot and Beef began his tour. He explained that the parking lot we were currently standing in was once a field where he and his friends would play football. Right near the field, a bomb went off at a local furniture store. This moment brought Beef close to the violence, as the explosion rocked through the area he was playing in.
After the introduction, we boarded the bus and drove through the loyalist community. Before we reached our next stop, our bus passed an in-progress tower for the July 12th celebrations. The Twelfth/Orangeman’s Day is a celebration of Ulster Protestants that involves marching parades and the burning of a tower constructed of pallets. It is a contentious day for Catholics and Nationalists. The bonfire has in the past featured Catholic imagery, the Republic of Ireland’s flag, and images of Sinn Féin politicians. It would be another two weeks before this one would tower in the sky and burn in celebration. The Eleventh (the night of the burning) is definitely worth a google to see the tradition/controversy/scale of the bonfires.
In addition to murals, Belfast is filled with flags. So many flags! You can tell if you are in a unionist or nationalist area just by the flags. The Union Jack waves proudly in the unionist area.
Our bus stopped around a set of murals in the unionist neighborhood. After discussing the relationship of community to mural, we hopped back on the bus to another mural.
We continued down the street and ended the tour in the Shankill Road Memorial Gardens. The Memorial Gardens are dedicated to the victims of a bombing on the Shankill in 1993. In addition to this, it commemorates those who fought in WWI and WWII from the community.
This was the last stop of Beef’s walking tour, so we boarded the bus to be driven to the next tour guide. Beef handed our tour over to Padraic MacCoittir who would take us to the Nationalist area. We waited on the bus as Beef brought Padraic to us. The tension between the men was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
We said goodbye to Beef and thanked him for his time and began our tour with Padraic. Our first stop was a Catholic cathedral, Clonard Monastery. It was a good stop to give a bit of introduction to the Falls Road. The church was beautiful, and we took a group picture outside of it.
Once we’d taken our picture, we walked down the street to the houses that lined the peace wall.
The view was sobering. The wall stretched up beyond houses that line its back. On the other side is a road, where we could hear cars zipping by as we stopped to talk. As we stood taking in the massive wall I couldn’t help but feel like I was standing in a different country than where we walked earlier in the day. The signs near the wall are in English as well as Gaelic. The windows have trinity knots and symbols we’d seen for weeks in Dublin but had been absent from the homes we’d walked past this morning. They did not feel like the same community, it felt distant, like two entirely different cultures. I knew tensions and separation still existed. I’d read and studied the conflict and aftermath of the peace process, but I wasn’t expecting it to feel so extreme.
These peace walls/lines were erected to separate the two communities. They first were created when the Troubles began and were not intended as a permanent solution. Over the course of the conflict and after the Good Friday Agreement, however, they have remained. Many of these walls are decorated with murals and political messages like the ones on the sides of buildings. While viewing the wall, Padraic explained that people living in houses on its border have no desire to remove the cages on the back of their homes. There is a fear of bombs or weapons being hurled over the wall and damaging their home and injuring their family.
At the wall, Padraic fielded questions from us. We asked about Brexit and what that meant for Northern Ireland/how and if Brexit has changed opinions on a United Ireland. We also asked about the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The GFA was the peace deal that officially ended the Troubles. The agreement was a cross-community effort. From the start of the Troubles to 1998 and the GFA, it had been a long journey to get such an agreement on the table and passed. Both Beef and Padraic held the same outlook on the GFA. Did it do enough? Did it go too far? Some in the communities see it as a success and others a failure or a lukewarm endeavor. Looking at the wall, I couldn’t help but think about the distance that still exists between communities, the foreignness felt on both sides in regard to the other 20 years after the peace agreement. Houses with protective cages and shielded by sky-stretching peace walls. There are efforts to bring them down slowly but surely. The walls feel as much of a physical barrier as a mental one.
Again, I think it’s important to state that I am in no way an expert on this topic. Through this blog post and as I continue, I hope to accurately convey the feelings, thoughts, and information I heard while on the tours.
Tours such as the ones Beef and Padraic took us on and the presentation earlier in the morning also focus on making sure the younger generation growing up in Ireland never see an era like the Troubles.
Back on the bus we headed to our last stop, passing more murals.
Our final stop of the tour was at the Catholic Milltown Cemetery. Before we walked into the cemetery, Padraic asked us if we had Irish relatives and any Irish surnames. We rattled off a few, I gave him the two Irish surnames in my family. Both of my surnames would be difficult to find in the cemetery, he explained. One would be more found in the Republic of Ireland and the other he said is not one you would find in a Catholic cemetery as it’s more of a British name. That was a surprise to me!
As we walked through the cemetery, Padraic pointed out graves with our surnames on it. Not long into the cemetery, a funeral procession started coming through. Padriac became visibly excited for us, ushering us off the road into the grass as cars and people came by. This was not an everyday funeral. It was a Republican funeral, something not seen very often, Padraic explained. Through the clear glass of the hearse, we could see the Tricolor draped over the coffin.
We watched as they passed until they were out of sight. After explaining what we had witnessed, Padraic took us to the New Republican Plot where various IRA members are buried, including Bobby Sands.
After we finished up the talk at the New Republican Plot, we walked back out of the cemetery together, stopping at notable graves.
Once we were done with our tours, we had about two hours to explore Belfast’s city center on our own before we would take the bus back to Dublin. Our trip was only a day trip, which was unfortunate as our tours were short versions of the normal routes they would take us on and our time in the city was limited as well. I really wanted to visit the Titanic museum, but didn’t have enough time to get there and back to the bus. So, with my Pitt buddy in tow, we visited Belfast city hall, the local shopping center, and mostly stuck to just casually walking down the streets.
Belfast City Hall was my first stop because I needed to use the bathroom. In general, it can be hard to find public and open bathrooms in Europe. When in doubt, find a government/public building. I wasn’t expecting the city hall to be as pretty on the inside as it was on the outside. There were gorgeous stained-glass windows, dramatic ceiling architecture, and numerous rooms with exhibits ranging from titanic artifacts to an exhibit on the Troubles.
In addition to city hall, the other interesting stop on my walk was Victoria Square a partially indoor and partially outdoor mall with a massive glass dome that gives a 360-degree view of Belfast.