Irish history is long, complicated, and pretty tragic. It’s also isn’t really history yet. As an American whose immigrant grandparents mostly left the past behind in the “old country,” history has little hold on me. I’m future oriented and struggle to understand how the events that occurred hundreds of years ago can still matter so much in some cultures.And Ireland is one of those cultures. The island’s history sits very near the surface where it is prone to bubble up in unexpected ways. This is particularly true in the cities of Northern Ireland. For that reason, while I know very little about Irish history, I am incorporating a bit of it into this story. I’m sure my take on it is utterly simplistic, but I hope it is enough to make the images here comprehensible.
Along with Derry (Londonderry), Belfast was the scene for some of the worst violence Ireland experienced between 1968 and 1998 when the divide between the mostly Catholic Nationalists/Republicans and the mostly Protestant Unionists/Loyalists became the bloody battles of the Troubles.
While the violence and bloodshed of the Troubles eventually came to an end after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, there are places where remnants of that time still hang in the air. Literally.
Throughout the Troubles, both sides painted murals as a way of making political statements and marking loyalties.
Today in Belfast a small industry has developed around this remaining bit of history, with “Black Taxi” tours taking visitors into the neighborhoods that remain at the heart of Ireland’s political divide. The taxis are a direct link to the Troubles, when attacks on buses (apparently overturned buses make good barricades) led to the suspension of service into these heavily transit-dependent neighborhoods. Taxis added service to fill this void, over time developing parallel services that separately served both Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.
Our tour begins when Bobby picks us up near the Europa Hotel, once known as the most bombed hotel in Europe. While the Belfast business district was generally considered neutral territory, apparently the IRA regularly felt a need to jolt the journalists at the Europa with a few blasts delivered directly to them. Today it is just another urban luxury hotel.
We begin our tour along Falls Road, which is at the heart of Catholic Nationalist/Republican Belfast and is home to a number of murals.
Our first stop is at the “Solidarity Wall.”
Some of the murals here commemorate “heroes” of the Republican movement, such as Kieran Nugent and Brendan Hughes, but most proclaim solidarity with the world’s downtrodden past and present. Besides the Palestinian cause, the murals here celebrate Basque separatists, the Cuban revolution, Irish political and sporting heroes, and even desegregation in the United States.
The American-themed murals are unexpected. Of course I’m not surprised to hear that there was, until recently, a mural mocking George Bush, but who knew Fredrick Douglas was an Irish Republican hero?!?
Tucked amid all of this is a little mural with a flier advertising the Irish Republican History Museum, which turns out to be our next stop.
The museum itself is tucked into a corner of one of the now-closed linen mills that once provided work to Catholic and Protestant women alike. (These mills sit between the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods – women from both communities worked side by side here during day and then returned to their separate communities each evening through separate doors.)
The museum is a rather bleak affair, both physically (dark and rather make-shift feeling) and in the story it tells.
The tone is set at the entrance, where a replica cell tells a bit of the story of the female prisoners once held in the Armagh Prison.
The main museum displays historical items from all periods of Irish history, but with a strong emphasis on the role of women. (The museum’s collection was largely gathered by a woman who herself served time in Armagh Prison.) Along with prison handicrafts, the displays include weaponry, uniforms, news articles, and lots of photographs. I’m appalled by much of what I learn, by the atrocities and horror each side perpetrated on the other. . . but it is the mostly unlabeled photographs that really strike me – everyone looks so young, like college kids out on a lark. There was so much misery, so much suffering, but for what? It all seems like a colossal waste.
Sands died within weeks of his election to Parliament in 1981, the first of 10 hunger strikers to die that summer.
It’s hard to look away from the smiling face; he seems so young and carefree. Sands is also one of the few players in this story whose name I know, who I remember from the TV news even though his was a story I didn’t understand. Sands was 27 when he died. I was finishing my Senior year in High School. I didn’t understand why he died or what his death meant – it just seemed wrong. It still does.
I’ve never known what to make of Gerry Adams, but he certainly is an amazing politician. He’s always seemed a bit unreal, maybe even mythic in the sense that it’s hard to know what is true and what isn’t, so seeing Sinn Fein’s boring storefront headquarters is a bit of a jolt. It looks like any other low-budget political office: completely ordinary, functional, and unattractive.
We make a quick stop at nearby Clonard monastery to visit the church of the Most Holy Redeemer.
This is a stop on our tour because this church, adjacent to both Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, was a locus for bringing opposing sides together during the Troubles. It is a place where some of the first seeds of peace were sown. The building is as interesting as its history, a stately French Gothic structure with an interior that is both unexpectedly bright and modern (and beautiful).
The intricate mosaics inside deserve further contemplation, but we are behind schedule and Bobby is eager to move us along to the next stop.
The Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden sits in a tidy residential area where the row houses back right up to the peace wall.
On the surface it looks peaceful here, but this neighborhood experienced some of the worst of the Troubles when it was burned out by Loyalist rioters in 1969.
It’s clear that peace is still a bit tentative here when we look behind the houses and realize the side along the peace line is encased in a mesh cage that protects these homes from objects – including petrol bombs –still occasionally tossed over the fence from the other side.
The memorial garden itself feels stark and unwelcoming. Simple plaques memorialize both combatants (clearly identified by the guns present on the plaque) as well as civilian causalities. I don’t find it a comfortable mix – “martyrs” who died when their bombs went off prematurely commemorated alongside those who were truly innocent bystanders just trying to live their lives. It’s unsettling. The tension seems built into the memorial itself, which seems unsure of what it wishes to evoke – sorrow and mourning or anger and vows of vengeance?
I wonder how deep the roots of peace have really grown.
“Peace lines” (walls or fences of up to 40 feet in height, including wire extensions) divide Belfast, separating Catholics from their Protestant neighbors. There are a number of these in Belfast, as well as in other cities in Northern Ireland. (I now realize we crossed a control point in Derry when we moved from the business district into the adjoining neighborhood.) During our tour we’ve usually been within sight of the peace line that separates the Catholic neighborhood along Falls Road from the Protestant Shankill area.
Just around the bend from the memorial garden is another memorial of sorts, a section of the peace line that seems to memorialize to peace itself. This is where tourists leave their wishes for peace and, since these walls are unlikely to come down any time soon, it has recently been beautified with clay tiles and ribbons of steel cut words that celebrate a way of life that no longer exists.
The wishes for peace remain, written directly on the wall by everyday folks like us or inscribed in steel on behalf of celebrities like Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama.
Further down the wall graffiti artists from around the world recently painted vibrant designs over a wall that had been covered with paramilitary graffiti and murals.
But it is still a wall. A really big, rather depressing wall.
Thus far we have been in areas where old industrial buildings and newer housing (replacing that destroyed during the Troubles) crowd up along the wall. Now, however, we seem to have entered a sort of no-man’s land that is without life beyond this ribbon of roadway.
We follow the peace line through this abandoned area, through a gate (yes, there are gates, most of which close at night and all of which can be closed at the first sign of trouble), and enter the Protestant Loyalist neighborhood of Shankill.
After passing through a busy commercial area, we enter an area where the buildings are spread out, with broad swaths of land separating them from the peace line and from each other. While there are homes here, it feels abandoned, isolated, and unwelcoming. It doesn’t feel like a neighborhood and, for the first time today, I feel like an unwelcome intruder, here to gawk where I am not really welcome.
Bobby tells us this area used to be dominated by intimidating paramilitary murals, but that the government feared they were too frightening for the tourists, so new murals are being put up are more cheerful and less threatening. While that isn’t exactly how the project managers would explain it, it is true that the tenor of the murals in this neighborhood is being changed through a Re-Imaging Communities project that is, for a variety of reasons, intended to present a more positive image.
Among these “re-imagined” murals are ones celebrating children at play. . .
. . . and an event at the start of the Troubles where children discovered a hoard of gold.
While there are fewer paramilitary murals here now, the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) sniper is still keeping watch, his gun following me wherever I go. (No wonder I don’t feel welcome here.)
The message seems pretty clear.
Like the Republicans on the other side of the wall, there are murals honoring Loyalist heros, such as one commemorating UFF member Jackie Coulter, gunned down in 2000 in the early days of a feud between rival Loyalist factions.
Many of the murals have historic themes and we need to step back in time for a moment.
Although the Republicans more often claim Irish mythology as their own, Loyalists are laying claim to this turf as well.
And there is a depiction of the red hand of Ulster.
A blood red hand is a common symbol in Northern Ireland – I’ve seen it on flags and thought it rather gruesome, but had no idea what it represented. Now I find it is based on a legend that claims that once there was no king in Ulster, Ulster so a race was held to see who would become king – whoever’s hand first touched land would claim the country. One competitor, seeing he was about to lose the race, took his sword and cut off his own hand, throwing it ahead onto the contested land and securing the kingdom for himself.
I am told this by a sweet woman who has called Northern Ireland her home for many, many years. She seems totally unfazed by this story. My mind reels at the story’s potential meanings and implications. This is clearly a place I will never understand.
From Ulster’s bloody beginning in mythology, we move into recorded history, starting with Oliver Cromwell.
It’s hard to imagine anyone celebrating Cromwell. Even his supporters admit that massacres occurred under his rule in Ireland and that his strict enforcement of the penal codes deprived Catholics of their prominence and their wealth. (Irish Catholics tend to see him simply as the perpetrator of genocide.) Either way, I can’t see Cromwell as a hero.
1690. This event will be celebrated in the coming weeks by the members of Orange Order.
And we return to the present.
While Belfast’s murals have become a tourist attraction, they aren’t simply an outdoor history museum – this is part of an ongoing political conversation. That is as true of the Republican’s Solidarity Wall and Bobby Sands portrait as it is of the Loyalist’s snipers, conquerors, and children at play – or even the government’s beautification project with it’s nostalgic plaques and wishes for peace inscribed in steel. It isn’t really history yet.