While in Ireland, my family and I took a daytrip to Belfast in Northern Ireland. I found Belfast to be one of the most interesting parts of our trip to Ireland, primarily due to two reasons. First, my great-great-grandfather was an Orangeman from Belfast, so I had an opportunity to see the part of Ireland that my O’Neill ancestors came from. Second, Belfast has been an area of conflict between Catholics and Protestants for many years. I still remember watching the violent clashes between Loyalists and Republicans on the evening news, and wanted to see this former “war zone” for myself.
We took the train from Dublin to Belfast, and upon arrival at the station, hired a local taxi for a tour of West Belfast, more commonly referred to as the “bombs and bullets” tour. Our driver was great, and at times, his commentary was rather amusing. He talked a lot about the different paramilitary leaders and the violence that has plagued the city, something which I only had a very superficial understanding of.
We went to the Milltown Cemetery, which has a section reserved for IRA “heroes”:
Bobby Sands was an Irish Member of the UK Parliament who died during a hunger strike in 1981.
Mairead Farrell, Daniel McCann, and Sean Savage were IRA members killed by British special forces in Gibraltar. At their funeral, a loyalist gunman, Michael Stone, opened fire on a crowd of mourners and threw several grenades, killing three people.
After visiting the cemetery, we drove through the Shankill (Loyalist/Protestant) and Falls Road (Republican/Catholic) districts. Seeing the towering fences that divided the communities was incredible – it was almost too hard to believe. I have never been a very religious person (and currently my Catholicism is practically non-existent), so it was very odd to see neighborhoods divided along religious lines. Personally, I just couldn’t imagine living in a neighborhood that was only composed of Catholics.
Gates (the “peace line”) seperating the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. These are actually some of the shorter gates I saw. There are much taller ones that look like they came from a maximum security prison.
This is the mural wall in the Catholic area. When we drove by, our taxi driver pointed to this section of the mural and said “Aye, there’s George Bush, suckin’ the oil outta Iraq!” Hahaha.
Another part of the mural wall that displays messages of solidarity for Palestine. There are also hundreds of Palestinian flags flying in the Catholic area.
A mural of Bobby Sands on the side of Sinn Féin headquarters.
Divis Tower, a British Army observation post. “They’re takin’ a picture of ya right now, so ya might as well take a picture of ‘em.”
Protestant neighborhood. I’ve never seen so many British flags in my entire life – even the curbs were painted red, white, and blue. This place has really gone on a jingoistic binge – it seems as if they are desperately trying to prove themselves loyal to an increasingly ambivalent British government.
“Queen Elizabeth, please please please don’t forget about us over here! We’re your loyal subjects!”
Mural condeming Republican violence.
The Ulster Young Militants, the youth wing of the Ulster Defence Association, a protestant paramilitary group. Basically, a group of thugs.
A police station.
After our taxi tour, we still had several hours until our train departed for Dublin. Hmmm…what to do? Ah, well, I noticed Belfast had a “hop-on/hop-off” bus, so we decided to take that for a general tour of the city. Our first stop was the shipyards, which are mostly abandoned now. Belfast used to have a huge shipbuilding industry, but it was hit hard during the depresssion after World War I, and the industry never recovered. The most famous ship built in Belfast was, of course, the Titanic:
Huge cranes at the Harland and Wolff shipyard.
Three of the steam cranes that worked on the Titanic.
After we saw the shipyards, the tour took us through the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods, so we had the chance to see those again. It felt very odd driving around there in a double decker bus with “City Sightseeing Tour” painted on the side, though. Can you imagine a busload of tourists driving around your neighborhood snapping photos of you? Very odd, indeed. Incidentally, although it was a “hop-on/hop-off” bus, no one actually got off the bus. I suppose most people took one look at the area and decided to stay on the bus. I would have liked to walk around the various neighborhoods for a while, but perhaps I will do that the next time I happen to be in Belfast (whenever that may be).
If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend a daytrip to Belfast. I definitely came away from the city wanting to learn more about the area’s history, and once I finish my dissertation, I intend to read up on it.
I might have one more post about Ireland…and then I will work on uploading my photos from Prague.