Claire and I walked off the ferry from Stranraer to Belfast, through the strange contrivance that takes you from land to sea without seeing either, and queued at the escalator leading down to the baggage collection area. Ahead of me, a swarthy middle aged man, his bald, shiny head and large pointy nose swaying as he staggered, took a few steps forward, tripped, and bounced down the escalator, step by painful step, arms and elbows flailing.
He lay momentarily in a heap on the floor, chuckling, then stood. And immediately fell over. He was sitting, still chuckling, arms heaped on his marshmallow body, when we reached the bottom of the escalator. I watched as he refused all offers of help through a stupid smile.
We collected our bags and emerged into Belfast, alongside a returning hen party, identically and outrageously dressed. Their garb included tartan hats, red wigs attached, tampons worn as earrings, and pink vests, “Tracy’s Hen Weekend 2006: Finished (Thank Fuck)” written messily across their backs.
Our hostel lay just off Sandy Row. Battered beds and boxes are discarded along the street, amongst the rubble of demolished buildings. Murals line the walls. And the Union Jack flies everywhere.
Sandy Row is a product of a few hundred years of difficult history, but the Irish would modestly attribute it to the more recent “Troubles”. Republicans and Unionists have fought a civil war of varying severity, and popularity, that many trace back to Cromwell’s arrival in 1649, or further. Belfast is the flashpoint.
The Republicans, usually Catholics, favour an Ireland completely independent from Britain. Unionists, usually Protestants, would prefer to remain within the United Kingdom. The Unionists are mostly settlers from the lowlands of Scotland, who arrived here in the 17th century, displacing the Catholic majority with the aid of the British government. The two causes are tied so closely to religion that the “the troubles” are most often described as a conflict between two branches of Christianity.
We dropped off our bags at the Belfast International Youth Hostel and repeated the ritual of heading straight out, to the nearest attractive pub. The wooden interior of Aunty Annie’s, on the Dublin Road, seated a heap of busily drinking students. Upstairs a succession of bands performed. Some were unusual, others imitated popular sounds.
We woke up late the next day, the mixed blessing of staying in a private room. The rustle of people rising early in large dorms, to gather their belongings and leave, is an irritation, but it gets you out of bed. Rather than cook, we went out for a quick “Traditional Irish Breakfast”, to recover some lost time. The British standards (egg, bacon, grilled tomato and sausage) were shrouded by four different kinds of bread: soda bread, wholewheat bread, potato bread and pancakes, all dripping butter that collected in a pool near the middle.
After struggling though the copious amount of starch, we collected a map from the tourist information centre and found our way to the city’s two most infamous sectarian areas, Shankill and the Falls Road.
The small, grubby houses in Unionist Shankill are built around a large green, parts of which have been cemented. The cemented areas are covered, completely, by empty palates, carefully stacked. Claire and I uncertainly attributed the mess to squalor. Large, delicately painted murals, dedicated to paramilitary regiments and their heroes, surround the green. The Union Jack has been raised above the houses, and its colours are echoed everywhere, on doors, curbs and street signs. Children were playing amongst the palates, breaking the wood with an abandoned golf club.
I felt awkward, a tourist amongst so much fervour, taking photographs of a situation I do not fully understand.
The Falls Road, a short walk away, is Republican, but less obviously sectarian. The houses facing the road are clean and modern. The murals, again honouring paramilitaries and martyrs, are mostly confined to a single, long wall. A garden of remembrance, flying an Irish flag, is tucked neatly between the semi detached buildings.
Not once did Claire and I feel threatened, walking through these once bloody areas. The paramilitaries are now part of a fledgling parliament, in which the Unionists hold a slim majority. Britain has said they will stay until there is democratic consent requesting their departure.
Belfast’s primary tourist lure is the Giant’s Causeway, a few hours outside the city. The much photographed hexagonal rocks are typically described as mysterious. We had planned to take the dedicated bus service to the Causeway, photo stop at ruined castle included, the following day. But our interest in the city’s political history had been piqued.
I had scribbled down a number mentioned within the mantras on a Falls Road mural, actually an advert, cleverly dressed to resemble political wall art. It offered taxi tours of the areas most affected by the “Troubles”. Claire and I decided that hiring such a taxi would be more rewarding than a long bus ride and tourist claptrap.
I called the number the next morning and we were picked up by Brian, driving a black cab. He had a heavy accent and an awkward way of constructing sentences, as if battling to condense his knowledge. A cab driver in Belfast for over twenty years, this was only the fourth time he’d been asked to guide tourists through sectarian areas. He had the enthusiasm of an amateur (the tour went on for much longer than the agreed hour) and showed undisguised incredulity when we were ignorant of what he thought were very basic facts.
A Catholic, Brian was reluctant to take us into Shankill, claiming that he could be identified by his taxi registration, displayed on the back of the cab. He explained the stacked palettes, littering the area’s green. On the 12th of July, every year, Unionist communities set fire to an enormous pile of wood and remember the victory of a long dead Protestant King, William of Orange. We eventually told Brian not to bother, because we had already seen and walked through Shankill.
Brian refused to refer to Unionists as Protestant. He believed that only the poor Protestants, desperate to defend their small economic advantage within Northern Ireland, remained viciously anti-Catholic . He took us past mural after mural, to many a garden of remembrance and to a Catholic graveyard, fallen Republicans among its tenants. He showed us a fence, about eight metres high, that separates Shankill and the Falls. The interleading road is blocked by a gate, razor wire stacked thick on the top, closed for most of the night, every night.
To gain a balanced perspective we would have had to repeat the same trip with a Unionist, who would have shown us Unionist murals, Unionist cemeteries and gardens of remembrance, and told us the Unionist story.
At Brian’s suggestion, we went to see The Wind that Shakes the Barley that evening, a film about the brief Anglo-Irish War (1919-21) that culminated in self rule for all but six of Ireland’s 32 counties. It is a gut wrenching film, thick with personal sacrifice, told from an entirely Republican perspective. I felt scared watching the film in Belfast, where so many would deride it, and walked out timid, afraid of the Irish reaction.
After the film we went out, and got drunk, hiding from our confusion at a club called The Bunker. After a few happy £1 pints I attempted to engage some of the student crowd in a conversation about Irish politics. I asked about The Wind that Shakes the Barley, none of them had seen it. The name they recognised, but only because it was “the one with Cillian Murphy”, the good looking lead.
Many in Belfast would happily forget its past. Optimism abounds, and is the chant of every commentator whose words I have found. Down south, the Republic booms. But the memory of a violent past is woven into the environment, and glorified.
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