Going to Northern Ireland this weekend was an eye-opening experience if I've ever had one. Before coming to Ireland, I sort of had a vague notion that Northern Ireland was separated for some religious reason, but it wasn't until taking a history class here did I understand the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants, the Irish and the British. Once our bus crossed over the border from the Republic of Ireland into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I felt even more ignorant since the tension was so much more present than I could have imagined.
Ireland is a fairly young country in that they only broke away from British rule in 1921, when they officially decided that Northern Ireland would belong to the Queen. Since then, the Irish have been fighting to reclaim the six counties in the north and the fight has been a bloody one. The Irish Republican Army, who are either freedom fighters or terrorists depending on whose side you're on, believe that physical force and violence, like bombs and shootings, will allow them to unite all 32 counties in the Republic of Ireland once again.
Peace walls were erected in order to physically separate the Catholics and Protestants, who fight more over their representation of the Irish and British than actual differing religious beliefs. These two groups demand equal services from the government, which means that in Belfast, for example, both sides of the peace wall get the same number of schools, public swimming pools, football fields, etc. There is actually a gate that closes at night to keep the groups from mixing after dark.
In 1998, a ceasefire was called in order to stop the violence by the IRA and to try to establish a more peaceful state. This meant the building of more peace walls and just more secretive violent attacks.
In 1998, I went to Disney World for the first time. Talk about perspective.
So, being briefed on conversation etiquette (no political discussions in the pubs unless you clearly know whose territory you're in, and even then, be careful), we headed up to Belfast on Friday and had a bus tour of the city. There are murals on so many buildings depicting different historical events and differing between Catholic and Protestant areas.
It's pretty clear which territory is which as the Protestant curbs tend to be painted red, white and blue, and the Catholic shops tend to look very Irish and have Irish names. Every citizen of Northern Ireland has dual citizenship with England and Ireland, but the passport they choose to carry speaks volumes for their political beliefs.
We then arrived at the Belfast Peace Wall, which is literally just concrete and barbed wire separating the neighborhoods. There is actually a gate that closes at night, fully separating the two. People from all over the world come and sign the wall, offering messages of peace and hope. Of course, I had to add mine.
The tour guide said that the murals and walls bring much tourism to the area and helps with the economy, but that leaving the murals and walls up only means continuing the conflict. Those who live there are at a crossroads as to how to move on.
We went out at night to the pubs, where the heaviness of the political mess isn't as intense. We were in a pretty neutral area, so no one was saying much either way. There was a live Irish band at the pub, and I bought their CD for 1o pounds. One of the guys in the band offered to sign it for me, and asked me what I wanted it to read. Forgetting I was in UK territory, I said, "I don't know, write something in Irish." He looked at me like I told him to write something in Swahili and said, "I don't know Irish. I could ask my wife if you really want me to." Worrying that I might have offended him, I quickly apologized and told him English was fine, so I got, "To Meghan, Best Wishes."
The next morning a few of us got up before the sun to head down to St. George's Market, where they were setting up to sell fish, meat, bread, pastries, cheese, etc. Colleen and I split a delicious potato and cheese pancake, then I got a tea, a red velvet cupcake and a croissant for the road.
On our way to Derry, we stopped at the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge for some sightseeing. We all crossed the rope bridge, and disobeyed trespassing signs once again.
Then we headed off to Giant's Causeway for some more sightseeing of some rocks that were naturally eroded away to look like towers.
We piled back into the bus and headed off to Derry, where the very large majority of the population is Catholic and identifies with Ireland. We arrived and got a walking tour of the town, which is the site of the Bloody Sunday massacres 30 years ago, where police opened fire on a peaceful protest, where most of the participants were teenaged boys.
This sign usually says, "You are now entering Free Derry," as opposed to the British name for the town, Londonderry. In memory of one of the boys who was killed on Bloody Sunday, someone put his eyes up over the sign instead.
Then we saw the Protestant Loyalist area, where the residents choose to live behind two fences. However, the taxpayers are the ones paying for the fences, which is a major point of contention for Derry residents. Nowhere else in the United Kingdom could one religious group get others to pay for their segregation. The tour guide said that at night, bombs still get thrown over the fences by rowdy teens who feel it's now their job to continue the fight. However, amidst the broken class scattered on the streets and the barbed wire and security cameras on every building, he feels that Derry is a safe place where there don't need to be fences and walls. He believes that the main fear of the Protestants living behind the fences is that if the boundaries come down, their children might actually, gasp, become friends with Catholic children. Pride is so important to the Irish that they don't want to give up on anything.
We checked into our nicest hostel yet, as you can obviously tell from the pictures. Four of us had our own bathroom! With hot water! Oh, and an insane asylum's warden used to live here and he killed his family in our room. But we had hot showers!
At night, we went to a local pub, where tourists were very welcome. Before I had even taken off my coat, a few men at the bar asked me why in the world I was in Derry. Once I said I was in Dublin for the semester, they asked if I was Irish. I told them my last name and they said, "Oh, well then you like the IRA?" A dumb, "Uhhhh..." came out of my mouth before I said, "We don't need to talk about the IRA." The men were obviously IRA members at this point, since they started saying how great it was, so I politely excused myself to find my friends. Not that I was in any danger whatsoever, but it's hard to listen to the history of this conflict and then sit down for a pint with people who are so very into the politics.
The next day consisted mostly of the bus ride home, only to hop back on a bus into Dublin city center to watch the Super Bowl. The game was obviously great, I love when Peyton Manning throws those beautiful touchdown passes, but I was so physically and emotionally drained from the weekend that I just about fell asleep in my chair. It didn't help that the game was over around 2:30 a.m. here and that we had no American commercials to keep us occupied in between plays.
I'm glad I had the opportunity to experience this weekend and the conflict first hand, but it certainly wasn't uplifting. It was absolutely draining, but equally as necessary.