I visited Ireland with my mother almost twenty years ago. It was a good trip, but it didn’t include Northern Ireland. At the time, Northern Ireland was spoken of in a lowered voice and usually described as follows – “nothin’ up there ‘cept bombs and factories.” Naturally, this made me want to visit.
This desire was only intensified by my subsequent education about the conflict in the North and by the many pictures and stories splashed across the media depicting the violence between Catholics and Protestants and Loyalists and Republicans. When Brandon and I recently discovered that we had some Irish blood in us, I knew I had to visit this former “war zone.”
Eleonora never says no to a trip and so we found ourselves in Belfast on the first open weekend we had. E and I started by hiring a local guide named Ken Harper. It only cost us 25 pounds and this is the way to go for the best of the “Bombs and Bullets” tour because the locals know where all of the best murals and other things you want to see are – things you just wouldn’t know where to find if you are not from the area. Also, the guides can give you great background information and answer any questions you might have about symbolism in the murals and such.
The three of us headed out to Falls Road first. This is the Catholic/Republican area. On the way, we passed Divis Tower which is a famous (or infamous depending on your perspective) condo highrise that until very recently had its top three floors commandeered by the British Army as an observation post to keep an eye on the restive Catholic Republicans:
A mural wall in the Falls Road area… The murals are kept up to date and so the focus has drifted from the conflict in Northern Ireland to more current events… Such as support for Cuba and opposition to the absurd sanctions the United States still maintains:
Or for the Basques in ETA:
Bush gets no love – even in Northern Ireland:
This mural is about the present (as of this writing) fighting taking place in Gaza between Hamas and the Israeli military. The casualty numbers were accurate to within a few hours at the time I took the picture. I told you they kept the murals up to date:
This is one of the pro-I.R.A. murals. Margaret Thatcher is the one wanted for murder:
A view of a “peace wall” separating the Catholic and Protestant communities – more on that later:
The famous Bobby Sands mural on the side of Sinn Fein headquarters – While in prison for I.R.A. activity, Bobby Sands was elected to the Westminster (UK) Parliament for 25 days, though he never took his seat or the oath. His term was cut short by his death from a hunger strike. Nine other IRA and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) members who were involved in the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike died after Sands:
Sinn Fein headquarters. Sinn Fein is the political arm of the militant Irish Republican Army:
This memorial plaque is placed over the entrance to the building. Loyalists just walked in and gunned her down one evening:
Four I.R.A. members were killed when the bomb they were constructing in this home prematurely exploded – “died while on active service” the plaque in front of the home reads:
Bombay Road – memorial to I.R.A. “volunteers” as they call themselves:
And, as with all wars, the memorial to civilians has far more names on it:
However, both of the above seem almost insignificant if one considers the daily losses in a conflict like World War II or even a less conventional war like the present conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.
We’re still on the Catholic Republican side here. These wire barriers on the back of the homes offer protection against the rocks, firecrackers and occasionally more serious item that comes flying over the “peace wall” from the Protestant Loyalist side on a regular basis:
The “peace wall” was constructed to physically segregate the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. It is Belfast’s version of the Berlin Wall. We’re still on the Catholic side of the wall here:
These gates are the only way through the “peace walls” – most are only open Monday through Friday. This one is kept open all week, but closes every night at midnight. We’re entering Protestant territory now:
Remember the homes with the wire barriers above? This is exactly the same spot on the other side of the wall. The Protestant side:
The Protestant Loyalists are fiercely nationalistic. I’ve never seen so many British flags in one place – even the curbs were painted in the Union Jack colors of red, white, and blue. More British than the British.
“No fockin’ surrender” (to the Irish Catholics) is the slogan in this area and Shankill Road is ground zero for the hardcore Protestant Loyalists. The Ulster Defense Association was formed in 1972 and serves as the political wing of the Protestant Loyalists while the Ulster Freedom Fighters are the soldiers.
Shankill Protestant Boys sign and mural… UVF is an acronym for Ulster Volunteer Force, another Loyalist paramilitary outfit:
The murals and signs in this area tell a slightly different story than the one you get on the Catholic Republican side:
Cromwell, for example, was not a nice guy by most objective standards, but he is a hero in these parts:
Part 1 of this mural:
Part 2 of this mural:
This is a typical, drab neighborhood in the Protestant Loyalist area. You see this and it makes you wonder what they were fighting for… For this?
Other areas of Belfast aren’t much better…
…although The Big Fish is pretty cool:
Orange Hall – protected from attack by wire barriers:
This may look like a fortress, but it is actually just a police station. The tall wire barriers are to protect against attacks from rockets:
This is the public entrance to the police station:
Interesting stuff. However, while informed sources advise me that Armagh and the border areas still have some excitement, if you really want bombs and bullets, go to Afghanistan or Somalia. Belfast is starting to become more tame. They have shopping malls now and are trying to bring in more tourists. So, unfortunately, some of the unique history of Belfast is being lost as “aggressive” murals like the U.F.F. one below are beginning to be painted over:
And replaced with “friendly” murals like this one of the Titanic (which was constructed in the Belfast shipyards of Harland and Wolff):