Belfast Reflection

Throughout the beginning of the course, we have looked at the conflict that has taken place in Northern Ireland, starting with the English occupation of the whole country all the way into the Troubles and beyond. While learning about the Troubles in the classroom was interesting, it wasn’t until we went to Belfast that I felt the reality of the situation hit me. Seeing how the communities were separated, and seeing these murals and monuments to the fallen, it drove home what the Troubles were really about.
 
The first time through Belfast on the long weekend trip up North, I didn’t have enough of a sense of the city. Since we spent so little time in the heart of Belfast around the wall and murals, it was hard to gauge how I felt about the city. There was certainly an air of uncertainty, but then we went into the shopping center of Belfast, and that was a whole different experience. As a result, it was hard to tell what Belfast was really like just through the Black Taxi tour and the little time spent in Shankill and the Falls Road. With this excursion, I could tell what the city felt like: not just uncertainty, but haunting.
The Shankill part of the excursion with the Protestant tour guide was pretty interesting. I thought it was cool to learn about the origins of each mural and why they were put there. The histories behind all of them, ranging from the long mural showing the funeral procession to the many murals with their messages of peace, were enlightening. Each of these murals told a story, not only of the past, but of the future: while they were all put up in order to commemorate the past, their messages all ask whether these acts of violence and the problems between the Unionists and Nationalists.
Mural on the Protestant side of Belfast.

The small memorial to the Bayardo bombing was one of the first “real” indicators of death that we saw along the tour. While the murals depicted the problems and the killings that have happened over the years, this memorial, showing the names and faces of the victims killed in the bombing brought everything to perspective. These were the innocent civilians whose blood was shed just because blood needed to be shed. Unfortunately, that seemed to be the theme of the Troubles as it pertained to the amount of civilians killed: it was blood that for some reason had to be shed.

It was good to see that neither of the tour guides showed any animosity towards the other group; it was in my opinion touching to see them shake hands and chat for a minute before trading places on the tour. That kind of interaction displays the progression of the ceasefires, and it shows hope for a future where the two groups can live and work together to make the city (and the rest of the North) a better place to live.
Then, going into the Falls Road and Republican half of the tour, I finally realized what Belfast feels like an oppressed city; haunted by the past. This notion became even clearer as we made our way to the Garden of Remembrance. Walking through the neighborhood, I didn’t feel welcome. Unlike the Protestant area which was lively and had people walking about, the Catholic neighborhood seemed almost desolate and filled with some kind of anger. It makes sense because of how they had been treated during the Troubles with segregation, but with all of that gone now, it’s just a reminder of the past.
Then, going to the Memorial Wall of the innocent republicans murdered by Loyalists, it really hit home. This is where all of that hate and emotion gets built up; there must have been over three hundred names and pictures plastered on that wall, with ages ranging from under ten to over seventy. Seeing all of those names and just the sheer amount of people who were needlessly killed during the Troubles was astounding. Finally, the tour ended with a trip to Milltown Cemetery, where Michael Stone attacked a group of mourners in 1988. Seeing the grave sites of Bobby Sands and the other volunteers of the IRA who gave their lives to pursue freedom from Britain, again, hit home for reality.

Bobby Sands mural in Belfast.
Champlain Abroad Dublin Spring’14

 

What I think is really hampering true progress; however, is the fact that the two main roads and communities are still segregated by the peace wall. It reminds me of the Berlin wall situation: the Berlin Wall was erected in order to separate the Western Germany, which was a recovering sect of Western ideals from the Eastern half of the country which was more communist. Eventually, the wall oppressed the two sides and prevented there from being peace throughout Germany until it was destroyed.  The Falls Road Wall does the same: it separates and oppresses the two religious groups and keeps them from communicating with each other. Communication is key for peace, and without it, the two groups will not be able to see eye to eye.
Brian Monahan
Champlain Abroad Dublin Spring’14

The last question asked to the Republican tour guide was “Where do you see Northern Ireland in ten years?” He answered “I don’t.” Of course, that is the Republican response for Northern Ireland: they want for the North and mainland to become one country. They have fought and died to try and make this happen, and for almost one hundred years it has not. Likewise, Unionists have fought and died in order to keep the North a part of Britain. In between these two groups, thousands of innocent victims have been lost to this conflict. Belfast still has an air of hate and uncertainty, and it’s a shame that after all of these years, things still can’t be normal in the city. Hopefully the two sides (and all others involved) can come up with some sort of political and social situation that benefits everybody; however, that seems highly unlikely.

 
Brian Monahan
Champlain Abroad Dublin, Spring ‘14
Champlain College, Professional Writing‘15