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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Belfast, Northern Ireland

I grew up in America during the times of The Troubles in Belfast and Northern Ireland. Though the issues are complex, a simple explanation is the conflict between the Protestants or Loyalists (those who tend to be loyal to the British throne and who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom) and the Catholics or Unionists (those who want a united Ireland and a separation from the United Kingdom).

So when I traveled to Belfast recently, I was more than a bit apprehensive about going there. I worried about venturing into the wrong neighborhood, saying the wrong thing, or wearing the wrong colors.

Yes, you read that correctly. You can spot at a glance whether you’re in the Protestant section or the Catholic section by the colors displayed. The British Jack in its red, white and blue can be seen flying proudly over the Protestant areas, along with pictures of the Queen of England and other monarchy. Cross into the Catholic section and you could be verbally or physically assaulted if you flew the Union Jack. There you’ll see the Irish colors of green, white and orange flying proudly.

The most curious thing that happened to me while visiting Northern Ireland was a trip to the post office to purchase stamps for a friend in the States who wanted them for his collection. On the first day I went in, I asked the lady behind the counter for some postage stamps. She stared at me as if I had arrived from Mars. I asked her again, more slowly in case my accent made me difficult to understand. She said they didn’t have any and she turned and walked away.

When I told my sister of the problem, we returned together. This time, my sister asked her for postage stamps. Again, she said they didn’t have any. We must have had an expression like Elaine on an episode of Seinfeld because a gentleman came from a back office and asked us what we wanted. When we told him we were simply looking for postage stamps for a collector friend back home, he took us to another area where he sold us the stamps.

It turns out that every stamp in the United Kingdom is exactly the same except for the color: they all display the Queen of England. And it also turns out that Unionists or Catholics would never, ever collect anything with the Queen’s likeness on it. I had mistakenly stepped over the line when I asked to buy postage stamps but didn’t have a letter to mail.

In 1997, then-President Bill Clinton forged an agreement between the Unionists and the Loyalists to end thirty years of violence. Though the bombings stopped, the animosity between the two groups did not end overnight. In 2015, the vast majority of school-age children are raised completely separated by their religion—Catholic or Protestant—and integrated neighborhoods are nearly non-existent. It has only been recently that adults have begun working together in business, side by side.

The neighborhoods are separated by a wall. On one side there is a wrought iron gate behind which the Protestants live. On the other side is a graffiti-covered concrete wall behind which the Catholics live. The graffiti has risen to an art level, and even the most beautiful or poignant among them can be there today and gone tomorrow as they are continually covered over by newer images.

In this film clip of the Peace Wall (which is the name given to it after the peace agreement was signed) I was riding in a tour bus, which is the best method for seeing the city without the risk of venturing into the wrong neighborhood.

When I arrived in Belfast on the Ulster Bus, we stopped where every bus stops that ventures into Belfast: at the Europa Hotel. Little did I know at the time that the Europa Hotel held the distinction of being the most bombed building in the world until the Baghdad Hotel took that title after the start of the Iraq War.

I asked a Catholic lady in a village outside of Belfast how The Troubles had affected her family and friends, because it occurred to me that when I arrived at the Europa, I was amidst a number of people (predominantly women on my bus) who had come to the city to work or to shop. They were civilians. A bomb going off in the bus terminal would have killed or maimed primarily civilians of both faiths.

The lady I questioned told me that no one ventured into Belfast during that time; it had become too dangerous. The Troubles, she went on to say, hadn’t done anyone any favors and the violence had only made everything worse. If they couldn’t find what they were looking for outside of Belfast, they simply went without.

Belfast is growing today as a result of 17+ years without the bombings. It is a beautiful city about the size of Richmond, Virginia. One of the more impressive sights is the Titanic Museum, which I’ll cover in detail next week.

If you plan to visit Belfast, I suggest the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus. The tickets are good for 48 hours after you first use them, and you have the ability to hop off at any of the stops and hop back on when the next bus arrives, which is anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour later. In addition to the Peace Wall, it tours the Shankill Memorial Garden, Crumlin Road and Donegal Street, Falls Road, Queens University, cathedrals and the Titanic.

Colors to avoid wearing in Belfast: red, white and blue; green, white and orange. They represent the flags of Britain and of the Republic of Ireland.

Symbols to avoid wearing: the crown, the poppy flower, an orange ribbon or orange sash, a bowler hat, the star of David, and the red clenched fist are all symbols of the Loyalists. IRA slogans (representing the Irish Republican Army), the Crest of the O'Neills, the Celtic emblem, the Crest of the United Irishmen, the Easter Lily (symbolizing the Easter Rising of 1916 which led to Irish Independence), and the green ribbon all symbolize the Unionists. 

Subjects to avoid while in Belfast: religion and politics.

Next week: The Titanic, one of Belfast's newest attractions.