Belfast – Vestiges of Conflict
A trip to Northern Ireland requires at least a day or two in Belfast, a city with much history and where the visible scars and vestiges of conflict still remain. Belfast is steadily becoming a respectable tourist destination with sites, nightlife, and attractions such as the Titanic Belfast. Although Belfast generally lags Dublin in expected urban vibe, it is quickly catching up.
Belfast certainly does not fall into anyone’s paradigm of a sacred or mythic place, and yet, the conflicting energy here is so great here that I felt compelled to blog about it, wondering if anyone else has shared similar experiences.
We flew into Dublin and after renting a car, took the two hour drive up to Belfast. Almost immediately after crossing the border, we could feel the energy change as the vestiges of conflict left over from the Troubles are very much “in your face.” While we saw the occasional Irish flag flown by the odd nationalist, there are many and frequent enclaves with scores of Union Jacks flown as if they are meant to taunt the Irish nationalists. Perhaps one day these vestiges of conflict and violence can be limited to the museums, and as more visitors come this will surely happen.
One of the most profound experiences in Belfast is to take the Political Tour. For £30, one of the city’s black taxicabs will take you on a tour lasting around an hour and a half which explores ground zero of the Troubles down Falls Road and Shankill, the two sectarian neighborhoods.
As we started out, we were surprised to learn that the Peace Wall still separates the two areas and while it is open during the day, the gates are still closed each night to help prevent violent flare-ups. While the people may be learning to live in peace, some encouragement and separation is still required to ensure the calm. Even houses in neighborhoods which are up against the wall have caged barriers to protect the occupants from items which may be tossed over the wall to the other side.
The first stop on the tour was at a long brick wall of painted murals along Falls Road, the Catholic area of Belfast. This stop was the first sobering moment and we felt quite a bit of rage while stopped here and had to hold that rage and sadness in while the cab driver spoke of the different murals. As an Irish American, and Irish citizen, my heart has always sided with the nationalists in the belief that the entire island of Ireland should be one nation. Yet here, I was ashamed at the blatant anti-Semitism displayed on the murals. Perhaps these expressions are rooted in the anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church, or are a misguided association of Israel with the British plantation of Northern Ireland? Regardless, never have I seen such a one-sided display and such an egregious expression of anti-Semitism in any of the many places I have traveled to.
We continued and stopped at Bombay Street, which was previously burned to the ground. The houses here have bene restored and there is a memorial to the heroes who gave their lives in the struggle along the Peace Wall. Not far from the memorial is Clonard Monastery, and our driver and guide stopped and gave us time to go inside and look around.
Next, we went through one of the gates in the Peace Wall and entered Shankill Road and the Protestant areas. Similar to Falls Road, we saw many buildings with painted murals and memorials to the fallen on that side of the Troubles. One of the most eerie mural was what our guide described as the “Mona Lisa of Belfast.” I would describe it more as the “evil eye of Ulster.” The prominent feature of the mural is a masked U.F.F. gunman pointing a rifle. Regardless of the viewpoint; center, left, or right, the gun is always pointed at you when viewing. Depending on a person’s perspective, this either artistic genius or a clear attempt to intimidate as the mural can be seen from the Catholic side of the Peace Wall.
Before we ended our tour, we went by the Crumlin Road Gaol, which is now open as a visitor center, and the old courthouse. It is a bit depressing to see how the old courthouse is crumbling as it is not in use anymore. The majestic old courthouse really cries out for a creative developer to step in and refurbish the historic property and put it to a new and productive use; hopefully a use that brings positive vibe and energy to Belfast.
While Belfast is sobering, it has not yet been two decades since the Good Friday Peace Accords. Hopefully, as new generations come of age, the old sectarian vestiges of conflict and violence will pass into distant memories. It would be nice to see the neighborhoods take down the murals or place them in a museum (Perhaps a use for the old courthouse?), so that they are not so “in your face.” Likewise, the excessive flags should come down as well. Perhaps then there can be a lasting peace and the negative energy which remains from the vestiges of conflict will dissipate.