Sunday, we took a bus tour of Belfast. Ireland –Northern Ireland, at any rate – seems to be made of walls and murals, remnantsof a darker, more conflicted age that hasn’t quite faded from the memories ofits inhabitants. I’m not entirely sure I understand all of the details, but theoverarching conflict, from what I gather, is between the Protestant Loyalists and the Catholic Irish. It’s striking to me to see barbed-wire fences, buildings pockmarked with bullet holes not quite healed by time, plaquesdedicated to the dead, the struggles of the past few decades put on display like medals of Honor as well as remnants of the trials that these people haveundergone. Above all, I notice the so-called “Peace Wall,” which separates the Catholic communities from the Protestant ones.
We stopped at a mural of Bobby Sands, a man who went on apolitical hunger strike and died from it, becoming the symbol for theresistance against the British, Protestant government. Liam Stone, our tourguide during the walking tour of Belfast, painted the analogy this way: imagineif, when the United States declared their Independence, the British receded butfor New England territory. How would we feel now? That is similar to what is going on in Northern Ireland right now, and it is the reason for the battlesand the warfare that have only ceased in recent years in lieu of a peacefulmovement.
During the bus tour, we drove through a city tattooed withthe memories of its horrors as well as the medals of its victories. Forinstance, Titanic Quarter, which is becoming a national monument. The ship was massive; at its inception in Belfast, in fact, it was the largest movingman-made vessel ever created. It’s a mark of pride for the people of Northern Ireland (and I can’t blame them for that).
Later we had dinner at a restaurant called Caifé Fierste.The food, authentic or not, was delicious,and I didn’t realize that what I was eating was chicken with garlic-flavored mayonnaiseuntil after I had consumed it. Weird but yummy.
Then we met a former political prisoner named Liam Stone. Hetold of how he was shot at fifteen, how he had been embroiled in theparamilitary movements from then on. As we walked through the streets ofBelfast, he spotted mural after mural dedicated to names and events I’d neverheard of: Bobby Sands (previously mentioned), Sean Maguire (the musician whoperfected the art of dodging the taxman), Angela Gallagher (athirteen-month-old baby killed in crossfire), Fianna Éireann (a youth movement), Mochara (an incredibly artist), Gairdín cui Mhneachan (dedicated to Republicanskilled during Internment Week, in the Kelly’s Bar explosion, in the Springfield Massacre, and to civilians killed by accident). We stood upon a road wherehundreds of ambushes occurred, and probably just as many people killed. We looked upon a cemetery – a cemetery –where it was ordered that a wall had to be built underground separating Catholics from Protestants. If Liam taught us nothing else that day, he managedto impart just how deep these old prejudices lie, how something as simple aswalking on the wrong side of the road could get you killed. Perhaps the most disquieting thing that Liam said to us (there are 27 students between Misericordia, Aloysius, and Gwynedd) was that had we been 16 to 17 years old merely 35 years ago in Ireland, two of us would be dead before 20, and 6 in jail.
With all this, Northern Ireland, steeped in memories and a grudging, tense peace as it is, seems, in equal parts, politically aware, traumatized, patriotic, proud of its culture, and to be stubbornly moving forward in spite of everything else.
It was quite a day.