Shaking your hands with a bemused expression on his face, he said: “You are here at a very interesting time! NOBODY could have predicted this to happen!”; not “Hello, how are you?”, but that.
Now intrigued, you start wondering what is so interesting about Belfast? Sure, it came as a surprise that Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, an entirely different country than Republic of Ireland (of which Dublin is the capital), despite the fact that they are both located on the same island. Then, through your research, you found out that Northern Ireland is actually a part of the U.K. and thus you prepared yourself with some Sterlings, as they say, so you won’t be left with no cash. You’ve even read about The Troubles – a history so damn complex that the Physics equations you had to solve in your first-year university seem very simple. Surely, all that happened in the past and Belfast must be calm and stable now, right? RIGHT? After all, a peace wall was built and the peace agreement (or the Good Friday Agreement) was signed in 1998, calling for truce and thus putting a cease to any animosity between the two groups.
Yet as you made your way through the city, a certain tension hung in the air.
“Everybody is leaving the city centre now. Businesses have been told to let their employees go home earlier in anticipation of the event tonight”, he said.
What event?, you wondered.
As it turns out, a protest was planned to start at 5 PM that evening on December 21, 2012. The problem? Put simply, a flag. You see, the Union Jack has decorated the Belfast sky for every single day for as long as anyone can remember. Within recent weeks, City Hall made the decision to fly the Union Jack only on important and relevant dates (i.e. the Union Jack was flown when Wills and Kate announced her pregnancy). The roots of the protest, though, is much deeper and they go way back to the beginning of everything, specifically when England started to invade Ireland in 1166.
The saying “Time heals all” started to become more of a joke to you now.
Over dinner of vegetable stew and quinoa that night, you start peeling the layers of this very complicated history. He said, “When talking about history as complex as this, you need to talk to people who are not only knowledgeable, but are also prepared to answer any questions that may rise”
So, you start listening and asking questions, trying to wrap your minds over the different sides of the story, putting yourself in their shoes and trying to walk a mile in them. There are the Nationalists and the Unionists. The Republicans and the Loyalists. Catholics and Protestants. Who’s who? Are the Nationalists the same as the Republicans? Which groups are Prostestants? Catholics? What about the paramilitary groups? Which group belongs to whom? No matter, the story has always revolved around one central theme: the domination of one group by the other using any means necessary, including violence and force. After a while, things start to blur, groups start to blend, the plot thickens and becomes increasingly more complex as external influences start to meddle with a country’s internal affairs. It was becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of all the characters with their respective story lines and motives.
“Belfast, you see, is like a patchwork quilt; separate entities living side by side, each one different from the other and they make do”, he said as he takes you around town over the next couple of days. It reminds you of your own city, Toronto, where pockets of ethnic groups are scattered peacefully throughout the city. There is one glaring difference, though: you’ve never felt uptight and tense in Toronto.
There is New Lodge Road, an urban working-class Catholic community, directly north of the City centre and closest to our hotel.
A mural commemorating the 6 men killed by the British Army on Feb. 3, 1973
From New Lodge Road, you crossed the bridge to East Belfast where the Protestants Loyalists reside.
“Note the Union Jacks”, he told you, “flags mark territory; if you want to know where you are, just look at the flags in the area”
You passed by Falls Road, a Catholic enclave, where poverty abounds and the houses are more tightly-packed.
You made a stop at the memorial on Bombay Street, where violent crimes were committed against the residences of the area.
It is also where you saw the long stretch of high-wall, dividing the neighbourhood. It was erected mostly for protective purposes, but today it seems highly segregative and made the divide that much more obvious.
It seemed so ironic to learn about Belfast’s violent and bloody history on one of the brightest Sunday mornings, with rainbows decorating the sky above. However, it had to be done, you see, for you would have never appreciated a place until you know its story and what it has gone through.
If you would like to learn more thoroughly about the History of Ireland and the Troubles, Geraldine of the Everywhereist
did an excellent job re-telling and breaking down the history into 3 parts: 1
, and 3
. They’re also skillfully written, interspersed with humour every now and then, making it (somewhat) easier to read through.