Hello from Northern Ireland!
This morning we woke up in Dublin, and I’m now in Belfast. Crazy.
I again thought today would be disastrous, when I woke up experiencing my second heart episode in three mornings. Fortunately, I think I was able to force mind over matter, and it quit just before our alarm clocks started blaring. We sleepily got dressed, re-packed, and stumbled downstairs for some toast and cereal. Breakfast of champs! Before long, we loaded up on our Mercedes-Benz tour bus (yes, you read that correctly- we are traveling in style), and started on our journey.
Our tour group is composed of people doing various tours – we are on the 3 day tour, but are tagging along with a group on a 6 day tour of both Ireland and Northern Ireland; others in our group are from Australia, Spain, and Canada, and the U.S., among other places. Paddywagon Tours is a huge Irish tour company, with a fleet of buses, and lodging all across Ireland and Northern Ireland; though the logistics of traveling from place to place and coordinating different tours is a bit confusing, it’s clear that this company is professional and well-run. Our tour guide’s name is Lee (actually Young Lee, as there is an older tour guide also named Lee), and he’s only 24 – he’s also adorable, a native Irishman, and very smart.
We made a pit-stop on our way from Dublin to Belfast at a place called Monasterboice. The Irish term is Mainistir Bhuithe, but Lee explained to us that many Irish names (i.e. Monasterboice) were actually coined by the English – when they invaded Ireland, they had great difficulty in understanding Gaelic, and so often phonetically re-named people, places, and most terms in general.
Monasterboice was a monastery that was founded by Saint Buithe in the 5th century AD. It is probably most famous for its high crosses, or Celtic crosses, which date back to the 10th century, as well as its round tower. The grounds were both haunting and serene, and the ornate crosses were so simple and yet grand.
Monasterboice was a nice unexpected stop for us, but soon we continued the trek to Belfast, which was about a 2 hour drive. Jessica and I both suffer from motion-sickness, so we took the British equivalent of Dramamine this morning; between that and the lull of the bus ride, we kept falling asleep, but I did try to absorb as much of the views of the countryside as possible. I also noticed that when we crossed the border into Northern Ireland, there was no border control – it was interesting to me, since the two technically are separate countries. And given the history (and current events) between the British and the Irish, one would think there may be even a slight concern, which would prompt some form of governmental control or regulation. Hmm…
On the drive, Lee also talked to us about The Troubles. “The Troubles” are what the English and Irish refer to as the conflicts in Northern Ireland between the Protestants – who wish for the country to remain part of the United Kingdom – and the Irish nationalists, who want to reunite with Ireland. These conflicts began back in the 1960’s, and were effectively ended in 1998 with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, though there are bouts of tension and violence even today. When I studied abroad in London in 2007, we were required to read Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life by John Conroy, and I was both horrified and fascinated by the book. Listening to Lee talk made me realize that I have never heard the conflict between the English and Irish detailed from the perspective of an Irish person, and I felt immense heartbreak for the people of Ireland, and anger towards the British. Little did I know what was still to come in Belfast…
Lee arranged for all us to take a Black Cab Taxi Tour of Belfast; as soon as we arrived on our bus, we hopped off, and were quickly led into traditional black taxi cabs. Then the taxi drivers shuttled us around Belfast and gave us a comprehensive and unbiased narrative of the past and present happenings in the city.
We learned that 97% of the housing areas in Belfast are either 100% Catholic (Irish) or 100% Protestant (English). 97%. That figure alone is mind-boggling to me. Many people think that the conflict in Northern Ireland is religious in nature due to the fact that the Irish Nationalists are Catholic while the Loyalists are Protestant , but in fact it is a political clash. In the later decades of the 1900’s, violence was prominent in Northern Ireland, stemming from the Irish Republican Army, the Ulster Defence Association, and the British government and army. According to Wikipedia, 3,526 people were killed between 1969 and 2001 in Northern Ireland primarily due to bombings, murders, and hunger strikes, such as the one led by Bobby Sands. And there are still isolated incidences of violence even today.
The taxi drivers first took us into the Shankill area, a staunch Protestant section of Belfast. There we were told that the City Centre, or the business district, where we had been picked up, was considered the “neutral zone” of Belfast – in other words, every day, Protestants and Catholics alike work together in the City Centre, then head home in opposite directions. They cannot live together. Their children must attend separate schools. There is zero trust between these two groups of people, and the tension in Belfast is thick and palpable because of it. Though both Lee and the taxi drivers insisted that Belfast residents are as friendly as can be (except to each other), I couldn’t help but feel highly conspicuous and intrusive as we walked around the Shankill neighborhood.
My whole experience in Belfast is a bit surreal, and quite difficult to describe. Flying from every house and every flagpole in Shankill is the Union Jack flag, and the message is clear – we are staunch Loyalists, and we serve the British crown. At the end of every large building in the neighborhood are gigantic painted murals – many send serious political messages, while others detail either Protestant or Irish history, such as the Red Hand of Ulster, or a portrait of William of Orange. One mural in particular stood out to me and gave me chills:
Nothing about us without us is for us…
The drivers then took us towards the Catholic area of Belfast, where we suddenly happened upon a wall and security gates; at night, the gates are locked, which separates the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. The wall was seemingly endless, several stories high, and both utterly terrifying and gut-wrenching. Though it’s called the “Peace Wall,” it feels anything but, and the idea of peace seems unattainable here. The one glimmer of hope is that people from all over the world write messages of love and wishes for peace for those in Northern Ireland. It’s a powerful statement, and one that brought me to tears. Messages such as “You’re all proud Irish – be One again,” “Give peace a chance,” and “We don’t understand” line the beautifully painted and graffitied wall.
Here are some facts from Wikipedia that I have to share:
– There were 18 peace walls throughout Northern Ireland in the 1990’s – today, there are 48.
– A study was released in 2012 revealing that 69% of Belfast residents believe the peace walls are still necessary because of the potential of violence
Just let the gravity of those numbers sink in for a moment.
My taxi cab driver explained that many call the Peace Wall the “Belfast Berlin Wall,” but the difference is that the people of Germany wanted their wall torn down… the people of Northern Ireland want their walls to remain. The conflict is still too fresh, too current, and still too much of a looming threat, like storm clouds in the distance, to warrant the removal of these 25 foot high walls or to unlock the security gates at night. Our driver explained to us that police only patrol the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Patrol, not control… because that is still done by terrorist groups like the Irish Republican Army.
How can a girl who was born and raised in the United States in the late 20th century even begin to comprehend the daily life of the people of Belfast? My brief time here has felt like I was in the eye of a hurricane, and it is very unsettling. Granted, I have also felt completely safe, but my sense of security is uneasy, as though the tension may boil over at any moment like an unwatched pot on a hot stove. Imagine living that way every day.
Our tour around Belfast was intense, informative, affecting, and eye-opening. By the time we finished, I was emotionally and mentally exhausted, but we still had time to explore more of the city.
The girls and I walked around the Victoria Square Shopping Centre and ate lunch at a place called O’Briens, which is a bit like a fancy Irish Subway. The mall has a domed ceiling, which looks out over a fantastic view of Belfast, similar to the Gravity Bar at the Guinness Storehouse back in Dublin. At the recommendation of Lee, we then walked to the Botanic Gardens of Belfast, passing the Queen’s University on the way. The Botanic Gardens reminded me a lot of Kew Gardens, and were so enjoyable to walk around.
Lee arranged for our group to eat at a place called Ryan’s (my little brother’s name – miss you, buddy!), where I ate some delicious chicken tempura and had the chance to chat with our new friends from the States and Australia. We were all tired after our long day of traveling and touring, so everyone returned to the hostel to relax. The Belfast hostel is the Ritz compared to our Dublin one – even though we’re staying in a larger co-ed room, I am so, so happy and relieved to take a normal shower. So far this trip has been great craic (fun!), as Lee would say.
Tomorrow we are traveling from Belfast to Derry and stopping at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and Giant’s Causeway. But tonight I will pause and reflect on everything I have learned today.
Wishing for peace everywhere,