A Sombre Stay in Belfast

Well we arrived in Belfast. The place feels melancholy and you know immediately that their tumultuous recent history is to blame.  I’ve been posting a lot of sunshine-filled pictures and ravings about how amazing everything in Ireland is, but I had a different feeling and experience upon arriving in Belfast.  There was still sunshine, and fun sights to see, but somehow it was different.  I think the feeling must be similar in any area where there has been a long history of conflict, and it became apparent that the suffering and anger here is very recent.  No longer was I always greeted with amicable smiles and chipper hellos.  It affected me more deeply than I thought it would and it made me realize how I want to be able to really feel a place and get a sense of its past and the people before scurrying on to the next main attraction during my travels.

We entered the city on Great Victoria Street, one of the main streets in the City Center. This is where the Europa Hotel and The Grand Opera House are located.

Europa Hotel
Europa Hotel
Grand Opera House
Grand Opera House (Mom, this one’s for you-musicals!)

We also found a pub called the Crown Saloon that was really beautifully decked out in mosaic tile.  Inside there was a bar surrounded by private booths, complete with match strike plates and bell service for the waitstaff to the booth.

Crown Liquor Saloon
Crown Liquor Saloon
Crown Liquor Saloon Booth
Crown Liquor Saloon Booth

When we first were looking around the city we were unaware of the extent of the conflict that occurred in Northern Ireland up until almost 20 years ago.  I was aware that it happened, but really didn’t understand the severity and complexity of the conflict and what it may have been like for people to grow up in this area.  We took a Black Taxi Tour of the Peace Wall and Wall Murals in Belfast. It was our luck we got a wedding car for our ride!

Wedding Car! Flowers in the back just for us.
Wedding Car! Flowers in the back just for us.

Our driver was really fantastic although his accent was pretty thick making it hard to understand at some points.  You could tell that this man lived through the conflict and spoke from experience with a great earnestness to teach those of us who are ignorant to the depth of their struggles for peace in Northern Ireland. It was definitely an experience that you won’t want to miss if you are ever in Belfast.  The guide stopped at murals throughout the city, pointing out notable buildings and interesting facts.  He noted that there are more British troops in Northern Ireland today than in Afghanistan and all of the cop cars in Belfast are bomb-proof and that there had even was a bomb detonated the night before in his neighborhood.  (Read about that here if you are curious; nobody was injured).  He said although they have made a very significant amount of progress in their peace process, things like that bombing still occur.  It is for this reason the people of Ireland sympathize strongly with the struggles particularly in Palestine, and more recently in Crimea and often help countries on the road towards peace with their peace process since Nothern Ireland’s has been largely successful. During the tour I was overcome with sadness for what they have endured, but also felt a great relief and could sense the pride they have here for having come out the other side of the conflict a more resilient people with a better awareness for what peace really means. Here are a few photos of the murals, and of us signing the peace wall.

Unionist loyalist area of town (where red, white, and blue is painted on the curbs)
Unionist loyalist area of town (where red, white, and blue is painted on the curbs)
Loyalist/Ulster Freedom Fighter Murals
Loyalist/Ulster Freedom Fighter Murals
Catholic/Irish Nationalist Mural
Catholic/Irish Nationalist Mural
Murals
Murals
Signing the Peace Wall
Signing the Peace Wall

IMG_0204

I’m not going to go into too much of the history since I am definitely not an expert, but here’s a short list of things I learned from this tour that I didn’t know before.

1. Growing up in the 60s through the 90s was growing up in a war zone, with military bases and troops inhabiting multiple stories of apartment buildings throughout town.

2. The Europa Hotel is the most bombed hotel in the world, surviving 33 blasts between 1970 and 1995.

3. When it comes down to it the conflict was and is not really about religion, per se, even though the conflict was between the Catholic Nationalists or Protestant Loyalists, and even though religion often dictated which side one was on.

4. You have to choose an area to live: either in a Catholic area or a Protestant area. City Center is neutral but most people don’t have the luxury to be able to afford to live in the City Center and so, you must choose. Immigrants from all over the world are still identified by where they live as either Catholic/Nationalist or Protestant/Loyalist. See an interesting map here.

5. The Tri-color flag of the Republic of Ireland represents the Catholic nationals (green for Gaelic), Protestant loyalists (orange for William of Orange) and Peace (white, for peace).

6. The guide said that you wouldn’t want to fly the tri-color flag in Belfast on March 17.  I couldn’t find anything to confirm this on the internet, however, I did see a lot of Facebook rants and comments which made it seem that flying the flag is seen as exclusionary since it is not “Northern Ireland’s” flag.  In short, St. Patrick is not everyone’s patron saint in Northern Ireland.

7. The peace wall was erected to keep the peace between the Catholics and Protestants, and today it is seen as a really good thing when the barrier gates are left open, signifying that the place is more peaceful than in years past.

8. It was a long road toward peace, but since the IRA declared a ceasefire on August 31, 1994, there has been a growing hope and optimism that peace is possible even after years of fervent conflict. The hopefulness and optimism for future peace can be seen (partially in the photo above) by the quote on the Bobby Sands mural “…our revenge will be the laugher of our children.” (Bobby Sands was a Republican/Nationalist activist in the Provisional IRA who died while leading a hunger strike during the conflict).

Feel free to add additional information or any clarifications you may have in the comments.  The history of this place is quite interesting and I’d love to learn more!

12 thoughts on “A Sombre Stay in Belfast”

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