Sentindo: COMO A ESCRITA ESTA NA PAREDE
With a few days in Dublin up my sleeve, I decided a day trip was in order to see some surrounds. I consulted brochures with a scrutinising eye; where would I head?
I narrowed it down to two options; first, going off to kiss the Blarney Stone (The battlements of Blarney Castle – just under 10km outside of Cork – rocks a Carboniferous block of limestone. Apparently, if you pucker up and give the stone a pash, you are endowed with the “gift of the gab”, being immense talent at giving flattery and fab eloquence). And second, the Cliffs of Moher (a cliff range in County Clare that rise 120m above the Atlantic and is said to be breath taking). I decided upon the latter – in one of my top three Marian Keyes’ books her characters from County Clare, plus the girl on the hostel reception desk said that while the Blarney Stone was good as well, it was a bit of a gimmick and you had to pay a further €10 to get snapped getting lippy with the rock.
So I paid my deposit and was all in.
But that night I talked to Beki and her boyf and they raved about their day trip to the Giant’s Causeway with a stop off in Belfast for a political history tour, and that seemed like a lot more me. So after a lot of wheedling and charm talk (and I mean a lot; the morning receptionist was a right obstacle to crack) I managed to swindle back my deposit and put it towards the preferred tour.
So come 7.04am the following morning, I was ready for attention outside the Greshem Hotel on O’Connell Street. The bus pulled up and out popped our tour guide for the day to welcome us on. I thought it was lovely; he called for groups travelling together to come forth first so as to enable them to sit together. (Even though this rendered my first in queue status irrelevant and sent me to the back of the line).
I boarded the bus and saw a vacant seat midway down next to a lovely looking lad with longish blonde curls. “Hiya,” I greeted. “I’m going to sit next to you if that’s all good?” And thus kickstarted another chum for the collection.
His name was Dustin, and he was a 20-year-old Californian college student roaming round Ireland with his family (seated opposite the aisle and a few further back). Aside from tripping about South America, he had never travelled to another continent before and was quite spellbound by his time in a transcontinental land.
The trip up to Belfast was about two hours long, so Dustin and I engaged in much chat. He was nonplussed at my continual use of “aye” (never realised how much I use the term) and my wording of, “Well that took ages”.
“Ages?” He queried. “What do you mean?” When I explained he said he had never heard the word used in such context before. Isn’t it amazing how even when we speak the same language, cultures all have their different nuances and uses of words that puzzle other people? I love it.
So there I was in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
For those unaware, the whole use of “Ireland” as a country does not actually refer to the entire island of land in a political boundary sense. Rather, the six north-eastern counties of the land are deemed “Northern Ireland” and are under British rule, while the remaining five sixths – or 26 counties – are under the jurisdiction of the self-governing republic. You see, back in 1922 when the rest of Ireland gained its status as the free state, the Ulster area – mainly made up of Protestants – feared that “Home Rule would mean Rome Rule”; I.e., they would lose the religious and economic freedoms enjoyed whilst under UK inclusion. The British government thus partitioned Ireland, with the six top lying counties as Northern Ireland, like a kind of exclave. (Though the flag for the entire land is the orange-white-green tricolour).
(Really tripped me out upon going to purchase a water in Belfast; I proffered euro, to which the till operator told me that they only accepted pounds. Luckily, what with being a super organised soul, my “pounding it” wallet was at hand to retrieve the correct currency).
We were given the choice between visiting the Titanic Museum (the mighty ship was built in the Belfast Docklands before being sailed to South Hampton and onwards to pick up old Rose and Jack) and partaking in a Political History Black Taxi Tour, whereupon a stream of taxis would pick us up and take us about Belfast explaining the ins and outs of the controversy it has seen. While I’m rather fond of old Leo, I opted for the latter; I deduced that my love for history trumped having a read about the ship, plus I could always watch the movie upon return home (by home I mean Christina’s flat where I have unofficially taken up residence).
While I knew the basics of velitation in Belfast, I had no idea about the details and as Moh – the taxi driver – took us about and told us of all the strife and collieshangles that had taken in the very recent past, I was reverential. Here’s a little synoptic snapshot of it – scroll by if you find yourself getting glazed. (Though don’t, as it is incredibly interesting).
So as I said previously, Belfast is part of Northern Ireland (hereafter NI), thus under British rule. Unlike the Republic, NI has a Protestant majority at a good 80 per cent, with a Catholic minority. The Protestants are more often that not unionists that self-identify as being British, while the Catholics are usually nationalists who self identify as Irish.
The year of 1969 saw riots outbreak all over NI, especially Belfast where they are commonly referred to as “The Troubles”. You see, there was a fair lot of unfair treatment in the way of rights. Discrimination came in many forms, such as voting; while each and every Protestant was given a vote as an individual, one single vote was given to each Catholic family, regardless of member numbers. Resentment simmered and eventually fulminated – the civil rights movement began, with the Catholic people calling for equal treatment.
The Protestants responded in (un)kind. The month of August was mayhem and the police force couldn’t cope with the revolt; the British Army was brought in to intervene. And the walls came up – literally.
“Peace Lines” were erected, dividing Belfast in two – the Catholic (“Falls”) side and the Protestant (“Shankill”) side. Only meant to be temporary structures up for six months or so, they still stand today even longer, wider and higher. (Hopes are held that they will be demolished in 2023 – 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed – but how feelings are in Belfast now, there are many on each side of the fence).
There are actually a series of border barriers all over NI that separate the two religions’ neighbourhoods. Originally only a few, they have built up in number to 18 in the early 1990s to a solid 48 today, mostly in Belfast.
Their purpose? “To minimise inter-communal violence between Catholics and Protestants” (cheers, Wikipedia).
And that’s not all. The walls in Belfast have gates at regular intervals, which lock closed automatically every night at 10.30/11pm and reopen the following morning.
I was astounded. Walls still up dividing religious divides even further? Locking them apart come night time? It seemed so segregating, almost WWII-esque; how can that still be going on in present day society?
Our taxi driver slash tour guide Moh drove us through the streets of West Belfast, showing us the many murals painted on walls in the streets. We started on the Catholic side, of which Moh is one, (a Catholic, not a mural) and he pulled up at a patriotic Belfast wall.
He talked us through each of the illustrations as I furiously took note. I was tsk tsk-ing myself and my not keeping up (well, never actually properly learning) of shorthand back at uni, when something fantastic happened; Moh started talking about a picture of a young lad engaged in a game of Gaelic Football. My first exam for shorthand had – for some weird and entirely random reason – been on the subject of the sport itself and what’s more, I remembered the symbols for it. I was chuffed as I did my secret language code and – I’ll admit it – purposely held my pad so the three Aussie girls in my group could see and be well impressed. (I don’t think any of them even looked. They didn’t really want a bar of me and my endless questions, it must be said). Cheers Shorthand Sarah – I may not be able to scribble coded notes in interviews or journalistic situations, but you did me well for tours of Irish cities.
“They’re like our notice boards,” he explained. “They all tell stories of revolutionaries and martyrs, and when the situation is over or rectified or what not, they get painted over with a new message.”
The long line of wall (not the peace wall I’ll clarify here; these were purely walls of buildings in the streets) we perused showed depictions of hunger strikes, Bobby Sam, a”Free Otegi” and a “Free Leonard Piltier”. Moh explained how Belfast is now all about liberation and all “being able to do whatever they want to be able to do”, thus the illustrations of sometimes somewhat controversial calls. We then folded back up into the taxi and drove down a street to the Clonard Church.
Here I lit another candle for my passed on special ones (hoping the light a flame for them all over Europe) then we got back in the taxi and headed over to see the Peace Walls up close.
I engaged Moh in chat on the way, wanting to gage his opinion on the wall as a Belfastian (?). I asked if he had any Protestant friends (“No, I have many” – I thought that was lovely), if mixed marriages between the two were common (“Oh Ei, they are but they can’t take place in a church – they’ve got to go to City Hall”) and about what he thought of the wall (“It’s time to take it down,” he said).
I tentatively asked if the wall was a bit, well, outdated. “It stands as a symbol,” he asserted. “It’s not about splitting us up anymore; it is symbolic of our past and how we got where we are.”
He explained to me about politics in Belfast, and how in the last few years they have seen a big shift in independent parties garnering more support. “It’s always been green or orange,” he explained. “Green being Sinn Fein” (translating as “Govern ourselves” – cheers fifth form history) “republicans, and orange, as the Democratic Unionist Party.
“But we’re slowly changing. Developing. Moving to the better. Change is slow, but it’s a coming.”
Well at least I think that’s all what he was saying; mate, the accent of those reigning from NI is insanely strong. If understanding an accent is like wading through a pottle of three berry jam, making sense of Moh’s was like being submerged in a kingsize jar of tar-like marmite. It was beautiful, albeit in a different way than that of those further south; not so lyrical, more thick and rounded and emphasising certain syllables.
We took a right onto Bombay Street, which Moh told us had been entirely burnt to the ground in the times of Trouble in ’69 (The “Summer of ’69” song would not get out of my head; Bryan Adams, your smash hit is not an appropriate tune to be humming along to in times like these) where eight people were killed. The houses backing onto the wall are state houses, he said; they got no sunlight nor had no space, and living right up by the Peace Lines wasn’t a desirable place to reside.
“The ones right up against it had to have protective barriers added in 2003,” he said. “Protestant kids from the other side kept throwing stuff over the walls, like bottles and what not, so the council funded them to be built.”
We then went through the gates to the Protestant side of town, and instantly Moh’s proud demeanour lessened a little. If you hadn’t been looking you may have not even been aware, but I was intrigued to see if his animation would continue on the other side. He took us to a few more walls, explaining the artwork.
I really noticed the “them”, “us”, “they” and “we”; certainly a major distinction between the people. We pulled up alongside one wall where a red headed man in a backwards cap leered sinisterly at us (in the drawing, not in real life). “- Cannot decipher my scrawling and Google isn’t aiding me in finding it out -” Moh explained. (Can I clarify that it was I – not Moh – who was unable to make word of my writing and trying to hustle the dude’s name through Safari? He was all over it). “The Protestants view him as a martyr. He murdered 12 innocent Catholics for no reason at all. He is nothing more than a mass murderer.”
This amazed me. This wall was almost like a shrine to (the guy) with his image surrounded by a flower chain of poppies under a fancily fonted, “In loving memory”. How could it he be viewed in such polarising option from two groups of people from different sides of the fence? I could clearly see that although the wall may now be considered a symbolic divide over a physical one, roots of deep separation are firmly ground in many other ways.
Moh then drove us up to the Protestant side of the wall and gave us each a vivid to sign our names.
As we drove back to meet the rest of our bus, I felt a weird sense of sadness. We had only been in the working class west side of Belfast, not having ventured into the city centre, but I was struck by how ugly it was. Ugly, and desolate, rough and harsh. Yet with a strange sense of absolute beauty. I loved it.
I want to come back here in 2023 if the wall does come down. Moh may say the wall stands as a symbol of the peace, but I feel seeing that thing smashed to smithereens will be far more a symbolic scene.
If you are ever cavorting about Ireland I highly highly recommend doing the Belfast Black Taxi Political Tour. It gives you such insight into the city’s decades of unrest and current attempts at regeneration. May sound rather dreary and drowse-inducing but it truly was fascinating.
(If you go with Wild Rover tours – honestly, really really good. I don’t plug if I don’t mean it – as I said before, you get the choice of the taxi tour or doing the Titanic Museum. The museum is a new attraction, opened in 2012, 100 years after the sinking of the mighty ship on April 12, 1912. The building – costing a steep €120 million to construct – is the exact height the actual ship was. Those on my tour who opted for that option said it was a swell must-see, so next time I’m here I’ll definitely go back there. In 2023 after I watch the wall crumble).
Two things to add in:
– Moh said that a huge amount of tax money goes into the education system in Belfast. As only six per cent of the schools are of Protestant-Catholic mix, the rest being either one or the other, there is a bit of tension in making sure both “sides” receive equal spending on.
– I commented on how all the shops were shut and Moh explained that Easter weekend extended to include Tuesday here as well. I guess with so much history having taken place on this weekend – Easter Uprising, Good Friday Agreement, so on – it carries so much more meaning than just chocolate egg hunts and a Sunday morning mass.
(I was going to continue with the Giant’s Causeway on this spiel, but I just scrolled up and saw what a colossally long length of yarn this was. So I shall terminate here, with the following post to go into the NI afternoon).
I got back on the coach and hit the wall, folding over onto myself for a little nap (as I always arrange myself when slumbering on public transport; I awoke at the next site with a wholehearted, “Well that was (Bel)fast!”
(No one clicked on and I had to Shukka shake myself. But I claim that as one of my most fitting puns to date).
To the Causeway!