Monday, we did the tour again, after spending some time in the Public Records Office trying to track down my (Pip’s) Northern Irish McDonald ancestors without much success. The tour guides were very knowledgeable and funny – before I get onto the actual Troubles bit, they told about how Stormont, during the Second World War, was painted with a ‘paint’ of bitumen and cow manure, to camouflage it from German attack, as Belfast was bombed during the war. However, the ‘paint’ proved very difficult to remove from the whitish bricks once the war was over and traces of it still linger in the upper areas. As the guide said, “and a lot more of the manure is still found inside!”
We bought a hop on, hop off bus pass shortly after arriving in Belfast. This let us tour the city at will for 48 hours, which we did three times. The first time was just to give us a general idea of what was where – we did not get off at all. The tour covers Belfast city centre, the Titanic Quarter, Stormont (the Northern Irish parliament/Assembly), Crumlin Jail, the Falls and Shankill Roads area with peace walls and multiple murals, not to mention flags…then back to the city centre.
The second tour we took the bus to the Titanic exhibition which Bruce has already written about, then got back on and did the rest again, hopping off down at George St Market which was crowded but interesting – food, crafts, a bit of live music. We walked back to our hotel. Belfast is not a huge city centre and our hotel was well located.
It was raining most of the times we were touring around, but Bruce managed to get some good photos of the peace murals. The guides were very keen to reinforce that it’s too simplistic to describe the Troubles as Catholic versus Protestant. In the 17th Century, under James 1st, large portions of Ulster, especially in Counties Down and Derry, were seized by the British and forcibly resettled with Scots and English landowners. The rule was that they had to speak English, and not be Catholic. Wikipedia explains: Colonising Ulster with loyal settlers was seen as a way to prevent further rebellion, as it had been the region most resistant to English control during the preceding century.
Since then, there have been many attempts by the native Irish to reclaim control of Northern Ireland – the political party Sinn Fein (“Ourselves Alone”) is one evidence of that, continuing to this day. So, much of the Troubles was an attempt by proud Irish people, mostly Catholic, to reclaim self-rule and to throw off the shackles of the British. The later arrivals, who had lived in Ireland for centuries by then, resisted this pressure. Most were Protestant, either Presbyterians from Scotland or Church of Ireland (Anglican) from England. Inevitably you got extremists on either side escalating tension, and the resultant murders, bombing and terrorism from both sides are well known.
A peace accord was signed in 1998 which all our guides reckon is resulting in a considerable de-escalation of tension, and indeed we felt that Belfast people in general were relaxed and welcoming – Belfast has twice been declared among the top ten safest cities in Europe to walk around at night. But not necessarily in the Falls and Shankill Roads area. The peace walls built to keep the two districts apart are 18 feet high, very solid, and with gates allowing access through streets, which are locked at night. Even our guides said you’d proceed with considerable caution at night. An article I read yesterday said there’d been a referendum on whether the peace walls should be removed, and 69% of people in the affected areas still voted to keep them in place ‘meanwhile’.
A final comment from the guide on the last trip: in one place he told us that the peace wall crosses a duck pond. Catholic ducks to the left, Protestant ducks to the right! But as he later told us Belfast people are great liars, we didn’t know whether to take that one seriously!
There are several kilometers of murals, of which a few are shown below. The bus was travelling quite quickly which made for some out of focus shots at times but we include them anyway for the record.
- The Ring of Kerry