(Ireland 2018 – Part 1)
I’ve just returned for the second time from what has become one of my favorite countries in the world: Ireland. The first time I went there was four years ago. When people asked me “How was it?” my two most frequent answers were “Heaven on Earth” (I was talking about Dingle) and “I don’t think I ever came home from a vacation so utterly refreshed . . . physically, mentally, and spiritually!”
That time we toured the southern half of the island, so when we decided to go back this year, naturally we went north. And that means, strictly speaking, we were in two different countries. But it turns out that the situation is much more complicated than you’d think.
First of all, there is no noticeable border. We picked up our rental car in Dublin (a big nine-seater that immediately got nicknamed “The Beast”) and headed north. At some point, the road signs changed colors, kilometers became miles, and Euros became Pounds. But the Irish stayed Irish. Our first stop was Newgrange – a huge tomb built by Stone Age farmers long before those Egyptian slaves and other sundry folk started working on the pyramids. From there, we drove into Belfast and went straight to the Titanic museum. Both stops were cool and recommendable, but they didn’t supply us with truly lasting impressions. They didn’t occupy our thoughts and inspire conversations all throughout the next day. No, our final tour of the day did that.
We somewhat spontaneously decided to hire a “Black Taxi” and take what is known as “a political tour of Belfast”. These are also called “Mural Tours” for reasons that will soon become obvious. These drives go directly into the heart of areas which most travel guides tell you to avoid. They are history lessons about “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland which ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – so almost exactly 20 years ago.
Our guide was a very nice and knowledgeable youngish man whose own father had been one of the Troubles’ many casualties – although he hadn’t learned that until many years later and then through news reports on TV. In the meantime, he had become a father himself and wanted a different world for his own children. One in which Catholics and Protestants can be friends and the Irish can be Irish. One in which politics are not steered by the miniscule radical minority with their sadly contagious resentment and fearmongering. As he guided us through the sites, we could not exactly pin down what his own beliefs were – but he clearly had disdain for the militants and extremists of both sides.
The first stops were in a predominantly Catholic part of West Belfast. There were many political messages and depictions of the history of the Troubles from this side’s perspective. We saw the still-militarized police vehicles, heard stories of random shootings and innocent child victims, looked at bullet holes in walls and paintings of hunger strike martyrs. We passed the headquarters of Sinn Fein. We saw memorials to the dead – many of them.
A short taxi ride later and we were on the other side. Once again there were huge murals, but this time showing William of Orange and Queen Elisabeth among the many tributes to fallen soldiers and victims of violent Catholic extremists. This side had a more militaristic feel to it and the patriotism was much less subtle – maybe because their big holiday – “The Twelfth” had just happened and all the British flags were still flying. Our guide took us past a large empty lot in the middle of this Shankill area where a huge bonfire is lit as part of the celebration. He said every year the surrounding houses are damaged by sparks and smoke and he wondered if such idiocy was allowed to happen in any other major city. His greater outrage, however, was reserved for a particular memorial of a “soldier”, whom he considered nothing less than a mass murderer of random innocent civilians.
As we drove through these streets, I watched the families out in their front yards, the children playing games, their neighborhoods full of these many huge colorful messages of pain and resentment. One man, leaning on his parked car in front of his house, looked up from his cellphone and our eyes briefly met. He seemed a bit irked by our black taxi and I suddenly felt just a bit guilty about this voyeuristic human safari I was on. I wondered if these people sometimes felt like animals in a zoo . . .
In one sense, they truly were caged. Because in the No Man’s Land between these two neighborhoods, there stands a frigging HUMONGOUS wall.
I confess, this was the most shocking and disturbing part of the tour for me. I had had no idea that such walls still existed in European cities – to keep people separate from one another. Our guide pointed out that there were gates along these walls that were closed and guarded at night (and later we actually caught one of them being closed). I asked him why the wall was still there, seeing as how the peace agreement had happened 20 years earlier. He said it was because the people living there still wanted them.
It occurred to me that that all the murals and billboards and memorials I had passed also didn’t look 20 years old. They were kept up and mostly freshly (re-)painted. They – and I assume the fears and hatreds behind them – were being consciously maintained. Maybe passed on to the next generation, despite the fact that history had moved in a new direction.
I read somewhere a long time ago that the Troubles of Northern Ireland were centered in specific, fairly small areas of Belfast – maybe a few square kilometers in all – along with select neighborhoods in one or two other cities. And that is how it seemed to me during my four days there. From all the people we met and talked to, the vast majority did not identify with one side or the other and most referred to “the northern part of Ireland” rather than “Northern Ireland”. Our next hosts were a lovely mixed Catholic / Protestant couple. She had owned a restaurant in Belfast that had been bombed and more than once, while he maintained that the whole Black Taxi political tour thing was only there for the tourists. They seemed happy together.
I guess people do have some choice in the matter. Some choose truth, reconciliation and the future. Others remain stuck, still fighting the battles of the 1980s, stoking decrepit fears and resentments till the crowds start chanting.
“Build the Wall! Build the Wall!”
And who’s going to pay for it?
The next generation.