Nicole O'Neil Photography
Belfast: A city divided?
I was trying to post this in the morning while I waited for my flight, but the internet wouldn’t work for me, so here is the latest Ireland post.
Well, I leave Ireland today. It's raining. I know, I know, you're shocked. But it was beautiful for my few last days and I saw more blue sky than I had in the first 10 days of the trip. This post is going to be a lot of reading because to understand the pictures, you need to understand some of what I learned. It is about my day in Belfast.
I cannot write everything I learned because it would be novel, but I’m happy to talk about it in person. As is the case with many of you, I knew history of the area. Some of you may know everything (or may only know a biased or media based history), some may only know bits and pieces, and some may know nothing. No matter what, as in anything, keep an open mind with things you read and never believe anything 100%. And don't take sides. Something I learned being there and meeting people is that they don't always take a side, so why should you when you haven't lived it. In addition, it is important to remember that there were years of build up leading to the first violence seen there.
Belfast is a city full of history, struggle, and torment. However, it is also home to many people and these people are just like you and me. There are many misconceptions about Belfast, especially about the safety in going there. When I would tell people that Belfast was going to be one of my stops, I got a lot of "Is it safe for you to go there?", "Why do you want to go there?", and "I heard it's dangerous, especially for someone alone." Well, my response was that I had talked to people who are knowledgeable about the area and I know people from there and it was fine. We tend to believe everything we hear and see in the media. Yes, Belfast has problems, like any city. In any city, you see segregation, gangs, extremists, and "problem areas". Belfast may have some areas that are a bit more dangerous depending on who you are, but that is true of everywhere.
I took a black taxi tour with Paddy Campbell's Black Taxi Tours. When my guide, Tom, picked me up at the hotel, he was full of energy and friendly. He is a Catholic who grew up in the Falls Rd area of Belfast. He spoke of the history and helped me to understand the struggles the city has faced from the point of view of someone who lived through it. He made it clear that not all residents are about fighting the "other side". He told me that he has friends on both sides (protestant and catholic) as do many other people. He also made it clear that this is not a religious issue, which I think many people believe. Historically, people tend to hide behind and use religion in fighting personal, political, and other "fights”. Belfast is no exception. This was and is first and foremost a political fight, not a religious one. (you may agree or disagree, but from all I’ve read and learned from those who lived it, that is what I think).
This first picture is an art piece that replaced an old mural of Oliver Cromwell on the wall in the background. This was one of many paramilitary murals being replaced (or just simply eliminated) with a newer murals or other pieces of art with different messages. The words here are Remember, Respect, Resolution.
This is all part of a project to bring a new image to the area. Unfortunately, there are still extremists who want to keep things the way they are, but as a community, the people want to show the world they are not the community as portrayed in the media. I decided to keep the fence closed in the picture because I feel it is symbolic. While there is a movement for things more positive, there is still separation. The following is an excerpt from the Shankill website about this sculpture:
This stainless steel triptych is part of the re-imaging process of the Shankill, and is also the first large scale statue to be found in the Shankill Estate. It is a physical manifestation of the community’s desire to remember and respect the past. It is also a commitment to working towards resolution and a peaceful future. Beside the statues are a group of benches, giving the community a space to sit and reflect. Website: http://shankillwelcomesyou.co.uk/rememberrespectresolution/
The next is a mural commemorating a top killer in the UDA. This man was responsible for at least 12 (known) Catholic killings. He is said to have died from a cocaine overdose, but there is some speculation on whether one of his own killed him (you can read about it all. He had angered some people in the UDA and other groups).
To be honest, I hope this will be on the list of murals to be replaced, as it certainly shows respect for a ruthless killer.
The next is a mural that replaced another negative one. It is made up of pictures from the area (you know I love this idea!) My guide, Tom's car was even represented. :)
This is a disturbing mural. The following is the description from the website: "This mural shows the development of various military and paramilitary groups until the development of the UDA, a paramilitary group."
The gun in the middle stays pointed at you no matter where you stand. Doesn't seem like a welcoming mural to me.
There are MANY flags hanging in the Shankill neighborhood. It seems they want to make it clear who they associate with. I barely saw any Irish flags in the Falls Rd.
Another mural of a UDA member (killed by UVF...a group the UDA was at odds with from the same "side").
The next pictures are of the "peace wall". The first is a gate that is opened to create a passing between the two areas. These used to stay closed at all times, but are now open for the daytime hours (well, most of them). They are still locked up at night.
You may wonder why, if it is not as dangerous as it is portrayed, why the wall still stands and why the gates are there and locked. Well, there are still people that hold anger toward the “other side” and cause problems. The residents feel it actually keeps peace to have the areas separated and they are also used to life like this. They will tell you that even having the gates opened at all is a huge step forward. The wall is not the only one in Belfast, although it is the longest and highest. I will tell you about the wall’s height a little farther down. There are 40 of these such walls across Belfast separating neighborhoods and if put together, would stretch over 13 miles.
The second picture shows the Dalai Lama’s contribution, a quote: “Open your arms to change but don’t let go of your values..This is followed by a quote by Bill Clinton, “Strength and wisdom are not opposing values.”
I signed to the left of this. (The one of me signing is an iphone pic.
We crossed through the gates and were now in the Falls Road, the “Catholic” side. This neighborhood has identified with being Irish and not British. There are not a lot of flags like the other side and to be honest, there is a different feel (at least to me). We stopped at Bombay St, which was the epicenter of the 1969 violent rampages of attacks and burnings of many Catholic residences and businesses. Almost all the houses on Bombay St were completely destroyed. The scene has been described as horrific and there were many refugees as a result. There was no peace wall then, but there was after.
The wall was even made higher at one point because there were still things being thrown over to attack those on the other side. You can see in a photo below, that there are even what look like cages covering the back of the homes, as an added protection from anything that makes it over the wall. They say things are still thrown, though now, it is less to do with gangs and violence and more to do with sports teams winning/losing. Either way, this is life on Bombay St and most people would rather keep the wall to avoid any troubles that could arise if it were removed. There are also some pictures showing plaques and memorials to those from the neighborhood that had been killed or died during "The Troubles".
I actually found this old interview from the day after the attack. http://www.rte.ie/archives/exhibitions/1042-northern-ireland-1969/1048-august-1969/320452-vast-areas-in-ruins/
The next two murals are representative of the Hunger Strike. There was a hunger strike in 1980 which was a culmination of 5 years of protests. That one ended after 53 days, but another one took place in 1981. Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia.
"The second hunger strike took place in 1981 and was a showdown between the prisoners and the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. One hunger striker, Bobby Sands, was elected as a Member of Parliament during the strike, prompting media interest from around the world. The strike was called off after ten prisoners had starved themselves to death—including Sands, whose funeral was attended by 100,000 people. The strike radicalised nationalist politics, and was the driving force that enabled Sinn Féin to become a mainstream political party."
You will see near the bottom of this post photos from a visit to the Milltown Cemetery where the hunger strikers are buried.
Sinn Fein Headquarters
The following are along Falls Rd and are murals depicting different political messages both in Ireland and abroad. The painter of the murals is also pictured as he cleans up from the day. Tom said new murals pop up constantly and even he doesn’t know what they all mean.
It would be hard to visit every mural in Belfast, as there are so many.
Well, after an informative and eye opening tour, I was dropped off at the Titanic Museum, not far from where the Titanic was built. It brings you through the process from the history of the shipbuilding industry through the aftermath of the Titanic tragedy. If you get to Belfast, make sure these two things are part of your trip.
The next morning before heading off, I stopped at Milltown Cemetery. It is a very large and beautiful cemetery and also famous because many of the fighters for the IRA are buried there. I have always like cemeteries. I think sometimes they can seem creepy, but there is also something peaceful about them, especially when they are old. There is history there.
Since this was heavy, I leave you with a picture that represents driving in this country. This was at the end of a road. I wish I had gotten a picture of one of the 100km signs in front of a sign that showed sharp curves ahead. (And, yes, they still drive fast around the curves…with only fences or walls of trees/bushes on the sides.
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