Today was an incredibly busy day and by the afternoon I started to feel how tiring traveling can be, but I figure it’s better to not let the tiredness get to me and just take advantage of my last afternoon in Belfast. Today was the first day of true Irish weather as it was quite cold and was drizzling on and off for most of the day. Even though I have been in Ireland for three days now, it still hasn’t hit me that I’m actually in Europe. Belfast is a very industrially developed city, at least in the main areas that my class explored, so it does not have the authentic Irish look that most people picture when they think of the country.
We started the day with an almost 3 hour walking tour of West Belfast. This part of the city is separated into Protestant and Catholic sectors by 50 foot high Peace Walls. The gates on the Peace Walls open at 7 am each morning and close at 7 pm each night and are meant to separate the two sectors from one another and be a barrier to restrict violence. The Peace Walls use to only be about 20 feet high, but people on both sides would throw bombs and try to shoot people on the other sides so they were made higher.
As I said earlier, the Catholics are Republicans and believe that Ireland should be one united country and their side of the city was the first part of the tour. Our tour guide was a former IRA member, which was the militia group associated with the Republican political group. The IRA, along with the UVA, which is the loyalist’s militia, were both disbanded after the Good Friday Agreement in 1996. He talked a lot about the memorials and murals painted on buildings throughout the city, which are in respect and memory of the lost lives and fight for freedom during The Troubles. One of the murals was focused on international issues and had specific paintings directed to Cuban and Israeli politics among others. Above one of the memorial sites we visited was the Irish flag and our guide said that the green stripe represents the traditional Irish Catholics, the orange stripe represents the Irish Protestants and the white stripe is symbolic for the reconciliation that Mother Ireland is constantly working towards.
Our guide has worked as a political activist for the majority of his life and said that if he even went onto the Protestant side of the city he could be in serious danger because even though the fighting has stopped, the feelings associated with The Troubles have not gone away. Our tour guide handed us over to the new guide who would take us through the Protestant side. One view that both men shared though was that one day the Peace Walls could come down, but that will not happen until the government can insure that violent outbreaks will not occur, so they will not come down anytime soon.
Our Protestant tour guide was very vivacious and passionate about the need for integration in life and school in order to move forward. In West Belfast the two sectors are completely segregated, and many of the people we have talked to compare it to the Civil Rights movement during the 60’s in the U.S. The people don’t use the same public transportation, go to the same schools, hang out at the same places or shop at the same stores.
Even though people want peace and for the walls to come down, the general response is that they don’t want to walls to come down in their lifetime, because the effects of The Troubles are so close to them. The most touching part of the tour was when our second guide talked about the terrorist bombing of Frizell’s Fishmongers store. Two IRA bombers, who were dressed as deliverymen, carried a cooler full of fish with a concealed 600-pound bomb into the store. Six seconds after they set the bomb down on the counter it detonated, injuring 54 people and killing nine including the owner of the store, his daughter and one of the bombers.
Our tour guide happened to be at a bar three buildings down from Frizell’s and ran over to the building to try to remove the bodies and save people. Within minutes he said he was covered in gray debris as the bomb was made like a vacuum in order to pull the roof in to cause maximum damage. He said that to this day he can still smell burning flesh and remembers seeing limbs strewn about that he needed to move in order to rescue people. He spoke specifically about seeing the arm of his friend Brian, who survived to attack, but lost both of his legs, one arm and is completely deaf and blind. Our tour guide visits Brian the first Saturday of every month and has been doing so for ten years. Brian’s mother takes care of him, but is very old and our tour guide said that his wife said when Brian’s mother dies that she will take him in and they will care for him.
The bombsite has been replaced by a newly designed bank building, but the pain and memories are still relevant and fresh. Our guide said every time he goes back to his house he checks under his car for bombs as he has been targeted three times in his life. One time he found a bomb under his car and once he had it removed the police told him it was the second largest bomb ever created in Belfast. While both men had very interesting perspectives and stories, it seems that the people, politicians and city struggle with the balance of remembering the past, but also using it to move forward. The experience made me very grateful for the free society that we live in and was a look into the Belfast that we had learned about prior to our trip.
Both men also spoke about a man named Jerry Adams who my friend and I heard our cabdriver talk about the other day and he referred to him as a mass murderer. Since he was brought up so many times in many different lights, I decided to ask about him and found out that he is a member of the Republican party, called Sinn Féin, but was allegedly involved in the planning of the Frizell terrorist attack. To this day, he denies being a part of the IRA. The Republicans see him as a powerful politician him and the Protestants see him as a killer. It is very easy to see how there is a very undefined line between facts and opinions as politics and religion are the driving forces in the city. Depending on who you talk to, you can get so many different perspectives which is not always the most helpful as they are often strong, but it is an interesting observation.
Later in the day after lunch, we attended a lecture held by Jerry Moriarty who is the Northern Ireland Editor of the Irish Times. While he focused a lot on the history, which we had been hearing about for the past three days, he did speak to the process of remaining unbiased while reporting. He said that there are strict broadcasting regulations, unlike the states where the industry is driven by affiliation and advertising, so the papers have not experienced a push to politically lean a certain way. He said that during The Troubles the Republic of Ireland, referred to as the south, wanted nothing to do with The Troubles. This is a contrast to American culture that is often the watchdog of the world and feels the need to help every other country out with their problems in order to spread our ideologies, whereas Ireland saw The Troubles as the North’s issue to solve. One of the points he made that resonated with me was that “comments are free and facts are sacred.” Everyone has an opinion so reporters need to make sure to fact check and rely on trusted sources, not general opinion or what they want to believe. He felt that most of the time, the people in the North will let you down and would rather choose the bad option and even though the peace is currently ok, the politics are not.
It has been a busy day and after many lessons and talks about the unfortunate history of the city it was refreshing to know that we would be leaving for Dublin at 6:00 pm. Belfast was an eye opening city and somewhere I don’t know if I would have visited if I had not attended this trip. I’m glad I was able to visit a city that does have political unrest because it puts the American privilege and culture into perspective and shows how lucky we are.
On the train to Dublin, we rolled past the scenic green hills and the group planned what to do for the rest of the night. Temple Bar is the main pub street in Dublin and there is a specific pub called Temple Bar. Although the prices are ridiculously expensive and it is quite touristy, we figured we would go there first as a right of passage and then move one to other pubs.
We ended up staying there for the majority of the time because it was so fun and my friend Sarah and I spent our whole time talking to this group of British guys who were their for their friends bachelor party. Apparently over here it is customary to dress the bachelor up in ridiculous costumes so the one we met was dressed as a baby–bonnet and all. We talked to them about the differences in British and American culture and it was so intriguing. We talked about school, pop culture, movies and language. Over here university and the schooling system in general is much less structured and it is not as expected that people go to college. One of the guys said that he is fascinated with American history, particularly the Wild West, because of how young our country is. Apparently Will Ferrell is a huge comedian over here and when we started talking about movies, one of the guys said that if he could be anyone in the world it would be Sylvester Stallone because he loves Rocky so much.
When our group decided to leave, we wished our new friends well and made our way over to Quay’s Pub. It was very crowded there and the pubs close around 1:30 and the security forces everyone out so by the time. Since we didn’t go out until 11:30, by the time we got there it wasn’t long until we were on the streets again making our way back home. That night was probably one of the most fun nights in my life because of the people and how gratifying it is to talk to other travelers from other countries or locals. Talking to people along the way is by far my favorite part of the trip. Even though it can be intimidating to just strike up a conversation with people, the culture and overall friendliness make it so easy. I’m so glad that I’m truly taking every opportunity I have to visit sites and interact with people because as they say, while we’re here, we should dance.
All photography by Emily Houston