It was an unusual beginning to a holiday, firstly my 18 year old brother was driving me to the airport, he wasn’t anywhere near to getting his licence the last time I was home. And secondly my mum was bombarding me with questions. “Are you sure you have ALL of the tickets Rebecca?”
This was our single wish and everything else we were going to encounter in our three day jaunt to Ireland was just going to have to be a surprise.
On first impact Ireland looked sunnier and greener than our English home but after a 45 minute bus ride the city started to take over, ominous shipping cranes and concrete replaced the once undulating hillsides and its sprinkling of springtime lambs. One things was for certain, Belfast was grungy and I immediately liked that. Our bus dumped us in the heart of it, a bustling street centre that flushed us toward the City Hall. Grandiose and imposing, its pillars and domes looked upon us while we rolled our carry on bags like slick city goers, except for the fact that we were debating over a phone depicting google maps.
Once our bags were dropped we were free to make our first proper impressions, embrace the local accents and find some good pub grub. With four pubs within sight from our hotel that was not going to be a problem but when we dashed into The Crown Liquor Saloon all I could do was gasp. Tiled mosaics, gas lamps, carved ceilings and mahogany booths, it felt as if we’d entered a drinkers wonderland and we had, this used to be a Victorian Gin Palace! Funnily enough the barmen wasn’t the least bit scared to berate me for ordering a Guinness-with-blackcurrant bevy. One step further than simply refusing to serve me one he made me promise never to murder a Guinness again.
Soon we were walking again, ignoring the lure of other pubs such as Fibber Magee we decided to make the most of the sunshine. It was impossible to miss the vibrant murals, some of Belfast’s most awful moments declared so beautifully and somewhat poetically. It was a side to the city we knew existed but hadn’t expected to see aired in such a public manner. It took us until the next day to get a grasp on the turmoil Belfast had experienced and we wouldn’t have done so without the help of a guide. While winding us back through those luscious green valleys we were hardly paying attention. Listening instead to the plight of 3,600 people who had died in “The Troubles” between 1968 and 1998. A situation rising from political conflict, a desire to unite Northern Ireland and Ireland, the fact that these two sides had different religions was more a coincidence of circumstance. Predominantly Protestant loyalists favoured the rule of Great Britain and prospered beneath the laws emanating from London. Predominantly Catholic nationalists felt disadvantaged by those very laws which gave entitlement elsewhere and estranged from their national identity. It was a time when the Irish language was not taught in schools, the tricolour flag of the Irish Republic was banned and the irish had no say. By the late 60’s inter-communal conflict spilled out onto the streets. Riots escalated beyond police control and soon Great Britain was sending paratroops to contain the conflict, they were violent and caused many deaths but so did the attacks from the nationalists (fundamentally the Irish Republic Army). Bombs were set, walls and gates were built to segregate the fighting communities and every inch of Belfast became unsafe.
The murals we see today are a testimony to the conflict; The freedom to defend yourself and the justice never served for lives lost. Those walls and gates can also be found, gnarly barbed wire an ugly reminder of the segregation. It’s eerie to see them standing guard, almost poised for action in case “The Troubles” rise again. In the end a compromise had to be found and that came in the form of The Good Friday Agreement of 1998. It secured Northern Ireland under British rule but created a Northern Ireland assembly and a ministerial council to allow conference between the North and South. Northern Ireland took back some of its control and regained some of its identity but peace would not have been possible without the heart of the people. A gallant effort to put aside differences and a bloody past to create a future for Belfast. The territory wall is now a peace wall, a mosaic of artwork and a testimony to the strength of humankind. I’m not by any means saying everything is perfect (oh and my explanation of the events is far too simplistic) but in 19 years the progress is phenomenal.
These days Belfast is known for it’s award winning Titanic Museum, for its medley of Irish music to be found in ancient backstreet bars, indulgent delicatessens and jazzy rooftop cocktail lounges. Its vivid art work splashed on the sides of houses is a way of saying “Yes we have a history and we’re moving forward.” These were the surprises my mum, Prue and myself breathed in while on our mission to find the Giants Causeway. We were keen to staple all of those pieces of Belfast together to get a true shape of the city it is today.
And we got along with everyone… so long as we didn’t order a Guinness-and-black.