While we only spent a few days in Northern Ireland we learned a lot and found it very emotional. Somehow I had thought the conflict between Northern Ireland, Ireland and British Rule had ended. Boy, was I wrong!
Although the name of the city Londonderry/Derry is still controversial, we never once heard anyone call it anything but Derry. We would only have two nights and one day there. I had read that Derry is the only completely walled city in Ireland. It was built in the very early 1600’s (although earliest historical references to Derry date back as far as the sixth century) and the top of the wall is a walkway that provides amazing views of the city.
In its entirety it’s about a mile and half around. Our hotel was just inside one of the four original gates to the city that still exist. The clerk at the hotel had told us to walk the walls counterclockwise so we’d be going downhill far more than uphill. Along the wall there are historical markers explaining the city’s history. We found it interesting that one time the wall was protecting the Protestants (on the inside) from the Jacobites (those who supported James II of England who was a Catholic). Then later the wall served to protect the Catholics (on the inside) from the Protestants (when Henry VIII wanted to abolish everything Catholic). Toward the end of the walk along the wall we came to the murals.
We had learned during our time in Dublin and in Galway that in December of 1918 the Irish republican party Sinn Fein had won a huge victory in the election and formed their own government declaring independence from Great Britain. Violence and war ensued until July 1921 when a truce was reached that resulted in 26 counties of southern Ireland becoming a free Irish independent state and six counties in northeastern Ireland remaining part of the dominion thus creating Northern Ireland. But even after the truce was reached, violence continued between the loyalists (usually Protestants) and the republicans (usually Catholics). For most of the twentieth century Catholics were discriminated against throughout Northern Ireland. Bob and I remembered how the violence of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s was covered in the US news. That period is referred to by the Irish as “The Troubles.” The Catholic working class neighborhood in Derry, just outside the wall, is called Bogside. Much of this has since been torn down. The Protestant working class neighborhood just across the River Foyle was called Waterside.
The first sign we came to was perhaps the most powerful. The murals that follow had an emotional impact that is hard to describe. They’re beautiful and very moving. They speak for themselves.
We left Derry feeling changed by the experience. The next day we took the train to Belfast.
We were looking forward to the train trip from Derry to Belfast as Michael Palin has described the first part of the trip from Derry to Coleraine as one of the most beautiful train trips in the world. I don’t know if it was because it was a dreary day or because we’ve seen so much gorgeous scenery in Ireland and the UK but it didn’t seem anything out of the ordinary to us. In both Derry and Belfast we’ve stayed in hotels near the city center. It makes the sights accessible to us but we’ve found that living out of our suitcases and packing up every couple of days is not something either of us relish.
When we arrive in a big city we usually select a Hop On Hop Off bus tour. While we prefer the ones that have live tour guides instead of audio ones we find that in either case the tour gives us a short overview of the city, provides us with a bit of city history and lore and helps us identify which sights we want to visit close up.
Getting off the tour bus we almost immediately came upon the Gay Pride Parade.
I can’t help but wonder if perhaps all the sectarian conflict doesn’t help people become more tolerant of other differences!
The contrast between Derry and Belfast is amazing. In Derry I had felt that even though there were signs saying “One Ireland” or “The Fight Must Go On”
that what we were living was more philosophical than alive. This changed when we arrived in Belfast. While we both love the city the underlying tension that we felt was immediate.
We had read about Black Taxis and that was at the top of our Must Do List. Black Taxis tours are individual tours with drivers who all have personal connections to The Troubles but try to provide an unbiased viewpoint of the conflict. Joe, our driver, was wonderful. He drove us through both the Catholic and the Protestant neighborhoods where he would stop periodically, climb in the back seat with us and explain what had happened at that particular site. Perhaps most moving is the wall that divides the Catholic and the Protestant neighborhoods. Joe explained that although the violence has pretty much ended the wall provides safety for both sides.And rather than separate the two sides it allows them to live together. There’s graffiti along much of the wall and we could see how the wall had been heightened several times. Joe said it was because each time it was extended, people could still find a way to throw things over the top. In one place we saw how screening had been added to the back of houses that bordered the wall to add further protection. He went on to explain while driving through the Protestant neighborhood that if he weren’t driving the taxi he wouldn’t feel safe being there. He told us he lives in an integrated neighborhood and that has made all the difference for his kids. In the city he added they can go to pubs with their friends, Catholic and Protestant alike. He explained that the integrated schools have made a huge difference. And that he was surprised when his kids told him that their Protestant classmates like rugby, which is traditionally a Catholic game while futbol (soccer) is traditionally a Protestant game. Putting kids together seems to be the best way of ending prejudice of any kind. Where to build the schools was a major decision since Catholic parents didn’t want their kids to go to school in the Protestant neighborhood and vice versa so the schools were placed in integrated neighborhoods. I’m not sure this was ever a consideration in the US when in 1955 separate but equal was determined to be unconstitutional. There were murals with a loyalist (mostly Protestant) slant to them. The Ulster Defence Association (UFFDA) was one in particular. The UFFDA was a loyalist vigilante group whose goal was to defend Ulster Protestant loyalist areas. They were responsible for 400 deaths, mostly Catholics killed at random in retaliation for IRA attacks. Some signs and murals reflected the nationalist (mostly Catholic) point of view.
(We learned that the H&W ship building company, which built the Titantic, wouldn’t hire Catholic workers). There was also a huge mural of Bobby Sands who died in prison after a 66 day hunger strike when he was 27.
When he died widespread protests occurred around the world. There are murals of hope and peace as well as murals that represent conflicts from around the world.
We went past the Europa Hotel, a hotel where journalists and dignitaries stay, which has the reputation of being the most bombed hotel in Europe having been bombed nearly 30 times during The Troubles. The nationalists said that while it was never their intention to destroy the hotel, it showed the government they could if they wanted to. Before our tour with Joe we had no idea that the tension was still so great. As our tour drew to a close Joe told us about a march that was going to occur the next day. The nationalists had petitioned to march to the courthouse protesting the continued internment of political prisoners without charges. For whatever reason the request had been denied and the group had been told to terminate the march several blocks short of the destination. (Yet just a few weeks earlier, on July 12, the Orangemen had been allowed to hold their annual march to City Hall.) So the next morning Bob and I trekked down the street just a few blocks from our hotel. When we arrived in late morning we saw a few police cars. These were no ordinary police cars; these were armored Land Rovers. Over the next hour and a half more and more of these vehicles continued to appear, many of the police attired in riot gear.
Finally we could hear the marchers approaching and see a bit of the flags and signs. All ended peacefully a short while later. It’s still unclear to us why the marchers were denied their request to march all the way to city center.
After our taxi ride we decided to also tour the Crumlin Road Jail. This is the jail that was in use from 1846 to 1996.
During its 150 year history children, women (among them suffragettes) and many political prisoners were held here. There were a few cells with artwork the prisoners had created. Prisoners from the two sides were held in separate wings of the prison. I continue to wonder if the guards wouldn’t find it difficult not to show personal bias toward one side or the other. We saw the tunnel that led directly from the jail to the courthouse. It is in this jail that 1981 Hunger Strike occurred and became a showdown between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the prisoners. Bobby Sands was an elected member of Parliament and when he died after day 66, more than 100000 people lined his funeral route.
We decided before leaving Belfast we wanted to tour the new Titanic Museum. The museum is eight stories high and visitors follow a trail of the design, building and launching of the great ship as well as its legacy.
Although we had only had six days in Northern Ireland what an extraordinary six days they had been. We both love Northern Ireland and hope to return one day. And we left with lots to sort out in our thinking!
We had reservations on the Stena Ferry for the two hour crossing of the Irish Sea to Cairnryan, Scotland and once again lucked out with the weather. It was another nice day and the sea was calm. Upon arriving in Scotland we boarded a coach for Ayr. This we had read was a Scottish west coast resort city.