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Belfast: Memories of the Troubles

Belfast, Northern Ireland

Belfast’s Ulster Museum tells the city’s fascinating story well. The Titanic was built here. And visitors can venture into the sectarian neighborhoods (Catholic and Protestant) — with their political murals and politicized cemeteries — kept apart by the poignant “peace wall.”

Complete Video Script

Belfast, just a couple hours north of Dublin, straddles the Lagan [lag-in] River. It was only a village in the seventeenth-century. But with the influx of Scottish and English settlers and the Industrial Revolution, which took root with a vengeance here, Belfast boomed. While the rest of Ireland remained rural and agricultural, Belfast was nicknamed “Old Smoke” — shipbuilding was huge.

This slip way was the birthplace of the Titanic — and many ships that didn’t sink. The neighboring dry dock is where that ill-fated ship — the biggest man-made moving object of its day — was outfitted. Nearby, two huge cranes (once the biggest in the world, nicknamed Samson and Goliath) rise like skyscrapers above the harbor — another reminder of this town’s former shipbuilding might.

In 1888 Queen Victoria granted city status to this boomtown of 300,000, and soon after its citizens built Belfast’s centerpiece, City Hall. With its statue of Queen Victoria scowling down Belfast’s main drag and the Union Jack flapping behind her, it’s a stirring sight.

Queen’s University is also from the illustrious reign of Victoria. Its back yard is an inviting public park — particularly relaxing on a sunny summer afternoon. The palm house — an early example of an iron and glass greenhouse dating from the mid-1800s — gives you a lush and humid jungle experience right in Belfast.

Also in the garden is the Ulster Museum — the city’s one major museum. You’ll find a fascinating “Made in Belfast” exhibit under an arch proclaiming, “Trade is the golden girdle of the globe.”

Exhibits explain how Belfast thrived in It’s Glory days. The linen industry employed thousands. Belfast workers made products from flax like canvas and rope, which contributed mightily to maritime commerce. Massive ships – made in Belfast – were commonplace from Seattle to Shanghai.

It feels like a new morning in Belfast. It’s hard to imagine that this bright and bustling commercial center was once a tense and subdued security zone. Today there’s no hint of security checks — not long ago a tiresome daily routine.

Still, it’s a fragile peace — especially evident in the working-class Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Mean-spirited murals, and pubs with security gates are reminders that the island is split and a dwindling — yet still substantial — number of extremists prefer it that way. These flag waving hotbeds of “The Troubles” have become tourist attractions to many curious visitors.

The best way to get around Belfast is by cab. And your ride can come with an education. For a reasonable hourly fee, many cabbies give visitors impromptu tours. My guide, Norman, is sharing some personal insights.

Rick: Norman, can you explain to me just in general about sectarian neighborhoods?
Norman: Sectarian neighborhoods are within the working class areas and the working class areas only, where they keep divided because of, well, the hatred for each other and of course what they’ve done to each other through terrorism. Falls Road is a well-known Republican stronghold in the west part of Belfast.
Rick: So, this is the Catholic neighborhood then?
Norman: Well, it’s more known for being Republican, rather than just Catholic.
Rick: OK, so why is it so famous?
Norman: Because of the amount of trouble that happened here between the IRA and the British soldiers and the police force and so on.
Rick: It feels safe today.
Norman: Well, things have changed over the last five years.
Rick: But there are these symbols of the sectarianism that are still strong, aren’t they?
Norman: Very strong, and will remain to be strong because of the backgrounds within the conflict.

Murals are an art form — and they come with a strong political message. Ireland will rise like a phoenix; Ireland should be free and united…and so on. Police stations stand like fortresses. And everywhere in this Catholic neighborhood, the Republican cause is honored.

An important stop along Falls Road is the Milltown Cemetery where Gaelic crosses allow Catholic Republicans to make a statement in death and where IRA fighters are buried with the honor of fallen soldiers.

Rick: So, tell me about this place.
Norman: It’s a Catholic cemetery, with also some Republican attachment to it — a lot of Republican people buried, as well as Catholics, of course. And this is a typical cross, with Irish design, of course, which is extremely important, showing a typical Irish background.

The most visited gravesite here — set apart by little green railings — commemorates IRA heroes. Among many others, it remembers Bobby Sands and nine other hunger strikers. They starved themselves to death in a nearby prison in 1981. They wanted to be treated as political prisoners rather than criminal terrorists.

Norman: It hasn’t always been Catholics against Protestants. It’s been people of more the extremists within the religions, where the moderates, both Catholics and Protestants, have not supported the actions of either Loyalism or Republicanism. Loyalists are the extremists of Protestants. Republicans are the extremists of Catholics. So the moderate parties are known as Unionists, which are moderate Protestants, and Nationalists, which are moderate Catholics.
Rick: So, there are a lot of moderates, actually, that aren’t at each other’s throats.
Norman: The majority of people in Northern Ireland are the moderates.

A bleak wall separates the Catholic Republicans of the Falls Road area from the Protestant Loyalists in the Shankill Road area. It’s called the Peace Line because without it there would be no peace. But progress is being made. In a promising change, after 30 years of being closed, this gate is now open connecting the two neighborhoods.

For a sampling of Unionist passion, you can explore this working-class Protestant neighborhood. Murals on Shankill Road promote the Unionist or loyalist cause. There’s lots of symbolism.

Every time I visit, locals stress it’s not Protestants fighting Catholics. It’s extremist loyalists, who happen to be Protestant, fighting extremist Republicans, who happen to be Catholic. These extremists are the people who are proud to live in sectarian neighborhoods and it’s these extremists who fan the persistent flames of Ireland’s troubles.

The big hope now is for a new generation to be raised without the extremism of the past. Children playing together here are both Catholics and Protestants — part of a summer-camp program giving kids from both communities’ reasons to live together rather than apart.