A day at a time in Northern Ireland

Republican mural, Derry/Londonderry
Republican mural, Derry/Londonderry

Is Northern Ireland over its Troubles?

The question is impossible to ignore, given the conspicuous reminders of conflict in both Belfast and Derry/Londonderry.

In Belfast, tour companies and cab drivers offer “political tours” or “mural tours” through sectarian neighborhoods, allowing tourists to take photos of posters and memorials. In Derry/Londonderry, where even the city’s name is in dispute, the story of the conflict is told in several museums. The Troubles are still in the headlines.

While I was in Northern Ireland, Prince Charles and Gerry Adams, president of the Sinn Féin political party, made news by shaking hands. Adams’ former comrades say he was on the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA’s) ruling council in 1979 when the prince’s great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was murdered. The widely publicized handshake once seemed unthinkable.

Red Hand of Ulster
Red Hand of Ulster

It would seem like progress, right?

Except for the additional news: “Irish Army bomb experts disarmed several potentially lethal devices and the police arrested six men with links to dissident republican groups amid heightened security before next week’s visit by Prince Charles of Britain and his wife, Camilla Parker Bowles, a police spokesman said on Thursday.”

“In Belfast police found a bomb in early May and the former commander of the IRA Gerard ‘Jock’ Davidson was shot dead May 5.”

Titanic Memorial, Belfast
Titanic Memorial, Belfast City Hall

Touring the battlefield

Belfast is the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland with a population of nearly six hundred thousand. Historically, it was a center for the production of Irish linen and the building of ships, including RMS Titanic.

I took a bipartisan political tour of the tinderbox Falls Road and Shankill Road areas with recommended guide Ken. A native of Belfast, he began by grounding me with a brief history. Northern Ireland was created in 1921, when the island of Ireland was divided. Unlike southern Ireland, which became its own country, the majority of Northern Ireland’s population wanted to stay with the United Kingdom. Most were the Protestant descendants of colonists from Britain. However, the Catholic minority wanted unity with Ireland and independence from British rule.

The Troubles was the period of violence that occurred in 1968-1998 between factions of the two communities, the republicans (self-identified as Irish and/or Roman Catholic) and the unionists (self-identified as British and/or Protestant). More than thirty-five hundred people were killed in the conflict, more than half of them civilians. The Troubles were brought to an end by a peace process, resulting in the Good Friday Agreement. But there has been sporadic violence since.

Bobby Sands's mural, Belfast
Bobby Sands’s mural, Belfast

Ken started the tour in the republican neighborhood of Falls Road. He stopped the car several times so I could visit memorials, including Bobby Sands’s mural on the side of Sinn Féin’s offices. Sands was a member of the Provisional IRA who died in 1981 during a hunger strike while in prison. The strikers were fighting to be recognized as prisoners of war instead of criminals. The strike generated international awareness and made Sands a martyr. One hundred thousand people attended his funeral.

We left the republican zone and drove through a gate in the “peace wall” for a closer look at its artwork and graffiti. President Bill Clinton has signed the wall. He and George Mitchell are revered in Northern Ireland for their involvement in the peace process.

The first peace wall went up in 1969, built to buffer the neighborhoods. Some are only a few hundred yards long, some over three miles. Some are short fences, some are as high as twenty-five feet. Some have gates, which are locked at night. Ken said Belfast has ten gates, only two of which are open twenty-four hours.

Unionist mural, Belfast
Unionist mural, Belfast

On the unionist side of the wall, we drove down Shankill Road, again stopping at murals and memorials. The wording of the memorials on both sides is not subtle, calling the perpetrators “murderers.”

We drove streets where Orange marches have sparked violence and passed vacant lots used for bonfires. The Twelfth (also called Orangemen’s Day) is an Ulster Protestant celebration held on July 12 each year. It celebrates the victory of Protestant King William III of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690). On the Twelfth, parades are held by the Orange Order and Ulster loyalist marching bands, streets are bedecked with Union Jacks, and large bonfires are lit.

In republican areas the themes of murals include solidarity with other disenfranchised communities, such as the Palestinians and the Basques, and remembrances of specific tragedies, such as the Ballymurphy Massacre and McGurk’s Bar Bombing. In unionist communities, murals promote Ulster loyalist paramilitary groups and honor their deceased members. Also common are traditional themes relating to King William III and the Battle of the Boyne.

Republican mural, Belfast
Republican mural, Belfast

One mural remembered Father Alec Reid, a priest who played a key and secret role in facilitating peace talks in 1988 between the two sides. Despite setbacks, these talks laid the groundwork for the ceasefire of 1994 and eventually the Good Friday Agreement. We visited the Most Holy Redeemer Church and the adjoining Clonard Monastery, the venue of the secret negotiations.

Along the tour I visited memorials in locations where bombs had exploded and innocent people had been killed. Throughout Ken rattled off names and dates, many more than I could absorb. I sensed that recalling what he had experienced helped with his healing.

I asked him if he thought future generations would be able to live in peace. “Unfortunately they are growing up in segregated communities,” he said. I stepped out of the cab, somewhat overwhelmed by all I had seen. We shook hands. “May God bless you,” he said.

I decided to distract myself from the tragic history of the Troubles with the tragic history of RMS Titanic.

Titanic Belfast
Titanic Belfast

Trading on tragedy The Titanic Belfast museum is housed in an architecturally stunning building on the site of the former shipyard of Harland & Wolff, where Titanic was built and launched in 1912. The exhibit traces the history of Belfast, its success at shipbuilding, the launching of Titanic and her sister ships, and the aftermath of her sinking. Included is video of the wreck as it sits on the ocean floor today.

Belfast suffered greatly during the Troubles and seems to have accepted the economic need to profit from its various  tragedies. Some question the morality of offering tours of the neighborhoods’ memorials to the dead. Others believe the tours are making heroes of murderers. Reproductions of murals are available for sale in nearby gift shops. In Titanic‘s shop, you can choose among hundreds of souvenirs of the disaster, such as darkly humorous captain’s caps. I was half expecting to see Titanic-logoed swimwear.

Botanic Gardens, Belfast
Botanic Gardens, Belfast

Belfast’s ornate City Hall opened in 1906, following Queen Victoria’s conference of city status upon Belfast. A statue of her stands in front. The 1613 original charter of Belfast granted by King James I is on display inside the main entrance. The Great Hall was largely destroyed in WWII by German bombers that were aiming for the shipyards. On a tour of the elaborate Council Chamber, I was invited to sit in the Lord Mayor’s chair. The seats of the opposing parties are separated by “two sword’s lengths.”

Nearby, the two-hundred-year-old Linen Hall Library maintains a politically neutral collection of literature and posters about the Troubles.

Across the street from Hotel Europa, “the most bombed hotel in the world,” is the Victorian-style Grand Opera House, built in 1895. The opera house was bombed and rebuilt twice in the 1990s. Across the street is the never-bombed, but equally Victorian, Crown Liquor Saloon, built in 1849. It is now a part of the National Trust.

Unionist mural, Belfast
Unionist mural, Belfast

Up against the wall

The next day after a sausage-and-egg bap at busy Saint George’s Market, I took another political tour. This one was led by sixty-two-year-old chain-smoking Joe, a former IRA prisoner. A gruff, sturdy, white-haired man, he had been incarcerated for eighteen years for his activities while a member of the IRA. He said he was beaten many times in prison and is missing some teeth to prove it. His history has made him virtually unemployable, although he claimed to have a PhD and teach college classes in psychology. Ex-IRA members depend upon sympathizers in the community to support them, he said.

We walked up Falls Road, stopping at sites of violence, murals, and gardens of remembrance. Joe pointed out bullet holes in brick walls. He explained how the IRA planted bombs and hid guns. Every few steps he paused to tell a story about a shooting, a bombing, or his experiences in prison.

I was expecting a one-sided political perspective from Joe but got more than I bargained for. He said he was arrested three times, once for firing into a British armored vehicle. His stories were graphic, often culminating in point-blank shots to the head or slit throats. Yet he was nonchalant about the violence, even snobbish. “We (the Provisional IRA) used to do in a morning what it takes them (the Real IRA) a year to do now.” “The unionists don’t know how to make bombs like we do.” Joe is about my age. I suppose violence is all he has ever known.

Bobby Sands's grave
Bobby Sands’s grave

We arrived at the Milltown Cemetery where we visited the IRA section and Bobby Sands’s flower-bedecked grave. Joe knew Sands from prison. The final stop on the tour was Felons, a club started by ex-prisoners, where Joe bought a complimentary pint of Guinness.

Upon parting he asked if I had any questions. Several were lurking in my mind. Then he laughed, “Once a schoolboy asked me, ‘So how many people did you kill?'” He shook his head. “I don’t even want to think about it.”

It was the question I didn’t have the nerve to ask.

I flagged a taxi for a ride back to the city center and found Kelly’s Cellars in a back alley. Three-hundred-year-old Kelly’s was once a rebel hangout. In the back corner six musicians played traditional music with acoustic instruments, taking turns singing and stepping outside to smoke. Music was a welcome relief from the intensity of Joe’s tour.

Mount Stewart Gardens
Mount Stewart Gardens

Leaving Troubles behind

Time to move on. Near Bangor, I visited the Somme Heritage Center. The museum explains Northern Ireland’s role in WWI with emphasis on three local volunteer divisions.

At a reconstructed trench, explosions sound and lights flash in the dark, attempting to suggest the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Of the seven hundred and sixty men recruited for the 36th Ulster Division from the Shankill Road neighborhood in Belfast, only ten percent survived.

South in County Down, I toured Mount Stewart, a mansion and gardens from the 1700s, owned by the National Trust. In the dining room are the desk and chairs used by the European heads of state at the signing of the treaty after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. A fourteen-foot-by-eight-foot painting of a championship racehorse, Hambletonian, Rubbing Down, by George Stubbs hangs in the grand staircase. A similar painting by Stubbs sold for over $35 million in 2011.

Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway

Next day I followed the rocky route along the Antrim Coast, mountains sloping steeply to the sea, rolling meadows dotted with sheep and divided by bright-yellow gorse hedges, stone walls, white houses trimmed in black, crumbling castles, lambs and calves in the greenest-green fields. Farmers stood nonchalantly in the drizzling rain, talking and smoking. Border collies hunkered when I passed. The road was a joy to drive and I often had it to myself. Circled the beautiful and majestic Glenariff. Took the high back road along the water to Torr Head. The fog disguised the steepness.

I had always wanted to see Giant’s Causeway. The next morning I rushed to beat the crowds and managed to be one of the first to the site. The basalt columns that make up the causeway were formed by volcanic activity more than sixty million years ago. The lava cooled and crystallized into hexagonal columns that, over time, broke into stair steps. I clambered around the pillars, taking photos. They are other-worldly, which may be why Led Zeppelin featured an image of them on the cover of Houses of the Holy.

Dark Hedges
Dark Hedges

Next I searched for Dark Hedges—difficult to find as it is unmarked on maps. I guessed at its location and, after a couple of wrong turns, found it, Bregagh Road near Stranocum. The Stuart family planted the avenue of beech trees in the 1700s as an entrance to their mansion, Gracehill House. Two centuries later, the eerie canopy of trees has been featured in Game of Thrones.

After breakfast on a rainy day in Portrush I visited Dunluce Castle. First built in the 1200s, the castle was occupied over the centuries by McQuillans, MacDonnells, and MacDonalds. It is situated on a pinnacle with steep drops on all sides. In 1639 the kitchen, along with most of the kitchen staff, collapsed into the sea, after which the lady of the house refused to live in the castle any longer. (Most likely the dinner party was ruined too.)

For over three hundred and fifty years, local fisherman used a narrow rope-and-plank bridge to cross from the mainland to Carrickarede Island to lay nets for migrating salmon. The chasm is only sixty-five feet across but one hundred feet above the rocks below.  When I crossed the swinging bridge, I was pummelled by wind and sheets of sideways rain that slung the bridge sideways. Looking between the slippery planks, I could see waves crashing below. A woman behind me panicked. They closed the bridge to help her across.

Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge

Soaked, I decided it was time for an indoor activity, a tour of Old Bushmills. King James I (famous for his Bibles) granted Bushmills its license to distill in 1608, although the distillery had been in operation since the 1200s. It claims to be the oldest licensed distillery in the world. Bushmills’s water is drawn from Saint Columb’s Rill, a tributary of the River Bush.

Next morning in the sunshine I took a ferry across the Sea of Moyle to Rathlin Island. The island has approximately seventy-five residents. Upon arrival, I visited the seals in the harbor, then rented a bike and pedaled the hills to the West Lighthouse and the Seabird Centre. It clings to the side of a cliff with stunning views of three-hundred-foot sea stacks, teeming with tens of thousands of birds, including puffins. The stench of guano was, umm, strong.

Seabird Centre, Rathlin Island
Seabird Centre, Rathlin Island

Rathlin is the possible location of Robert the Bruce’s mythological encounter with a spider. After Bruce was defeated by the English and driven into exile, he supposedly holed up in a cave. While there, a spider worked at building a web. Twice the spider fell, but the third time it succeeded. Bruce was inspired by the spider’s persistence and went on to defeat the English at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Various locations have been put forward as the legendary cave, including three in Scotland and two on Rathlin Island: Bruce’s Cave and Oweynagolman Cave (currently favored). The spider part of the legend is probably fiction, written in the 1800s by Sir Walter Scott. However, there is evidence Bruce wintered on Rathlin in 1306–07. His family owned a castle there.

County Antrim
County Antrim

Under siege in Slash City

On the train from Dublin to Belfast, I asked a couple of young professionals what I should call the city known as both Derry and Londonderry. They said, “You’re an American. You can get away with either.”

Derry/Londonderry is the second-largest city in Northern Ireland. The population of the urban area is ninety thousand. Its name has been a point of contention between republicans and unionists for years. Accordingly its city council has two sets of stationery, one for each name. On the way I saw road signs for L’Derry. Someone nicknamed it Slash City, a nod to the punctuation mark.

Saint Columba (Saint Colmcille) is considered the founder. He established a monastery around 546 CE and named the area Doire, meaning “oak grove.” Doire was anglicized to Derry. He later was banished (or banished himself) to the Isle of Iona, Scotland. From there, he is credited with spreading Christianity throughout Scotland. His monks created illuminated manuscripts and carved Celtic crosses.

Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle

Derry is the only remaining completely intact walled city in Ireland and the last walled city to be built in Europe. The walls were built between 1613 and 1618. They are a mile around and up to twenty-six feet high. They played a key role in Derry/Londonderry’s history.

In 1689 Catholic King James II laid siege to the city for one hundred and five days. Thirteen orphaned apprentice boys famously shut the gate against the king’s advancing troops and rallied the mostly Protestant townspeople to withstand the assault. Though reduced to eating rats, two-thirds of the original twenty thousand survived until reinforcements arrived and the king withdrew.

I stepped into Saint Columba Cathedral, built between 1628 and 1633. During the siege, cannons were mounted on its roof and the lead in its spire was melted for cannonballs. In the graveyard a grassy mound marks the spot where some of those who died during the siege are buried. Inside is a hollow cannonball, once fired into the city with surrender terms inside. The original locks to the gates of the city are also on display.

Guild Hall, Derry/Londonderry
Guild Hall, Derry/Londonderry

Along the wall, I passed the heavily secured Memorial Hall of the Apprentice Boys of Derry. During the Troubles, the Apprentice Boys’s marches regularly drew protests and incited violence. They appear to be adding a museum to tell their side of the story. A nearby pedestal once held the statue of George Walker, governor during the siege. The IRA blew it up in 1973.

Guild Hall has a well-explained history of Derry/Londonderry’s plantation days, a failed attempt by England to take control of Ireland. I toured the Tower Museum, which tells the story of Derry/Londonderry from the founding of Saint Columba’s monastery to the Troubles. Included were sample uniforms and weapons of the illegal paramilitaries, the police, and the military.

The Museum of Free Derry provides a history of the Troubles with an emphasis on Bloody Sunday. On January 30, 1972, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association organized a march to protest British internment without trial. Fifteen thousand marchers ran into Britain’s elite Parachute Regiment. The soldiers opened fire upon the crowd. Fourteen unarmed people were killed and thirteen more wounded.

Free Derry

In 1972 a British inquiry whitewashed the military’s actions. In 1998 Prime Minister Tony Blair reopened the inquiry. The Bloody Sunday report was published in 2010. Prime Minister David Cameron publicly acknowledged that the paratroopers had fired the first shot, had fired on fleeing unarmed civilians, and had executed one man who was already wounded. He apologized for the deaths on behalf of the British Government. The museum attendant’s brother, seventeen-year-old Michael Kelly, was one of the victims.

In Derry/Londonderry the Troubles are portrayed by the republicans as a civil-rights movement—Catholics protesting prejudicial treatment and demanding fair consideration for jobs and housing. Both republican and unionist communities used painted murals for propaganda. The Bogside murals, just outside the walls, are particularly famous and include the iconic Free Derry sign. I walked the street where the Bloody Sunday shootings occurred, touring the murals. As they now attract tourists, I doubt they will be removed in the near future. And perhaps they shouldn’t be, as they serve as a reminder of the city’s tragic history.

Unionist mural, Derry/Londonderry
Unionist mural, Derry/Londonderry

I crossed the graceful S-shaped Peace Bridge over the River Foyle and toured the James Street unionist murals. Some appeared painted over and the rest are fading.

Slash City is a gritty city, its citizens survivors of numerous sieges, famines, the Troubles. Its walls were never breached. Its churches display cannonballs. Its shop windows are covered with metal curtains each day at 5 p.m. Instead of “Goodbye,” people say, “Watch your step.” Its unsettling history is on view for the world to see.

While walking around, I saw a man carrying a rifle. It gave me pause, given the history of the place.

On the way back to the B&B I heard music. Thinking it was a live trad band, I stepped into the pub and found karaoke instead. The place was packed, everyone drinking their Guinnesses and their Harps, laughing, dancing in the aisles, back-slapping each other. The music was American, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s—Connie Francis, Elvis, the Four Tops. It was a pleasure to watch them having a good time.

County Antrim

An uneasy peace

The Good Friday agreement is only seventeen years old. Many people alive today lost loved ones during the conflict.

Strong feelings lie just below the surface. Suspicions linger.

In Belfast and Derry/Londonderry I sensed wariness. Who is this unknown person (me) walking through my neighborhood?

Horrible atrocities were committed on both sides. Neighbors murdered neighbors. Innocents died in bombings. Questions must be asked with delicacy. Or not at all.

Some, driven by politics or bigotry, are still fighting, mostly through political channels, occasionally through violence.

The Troubles spawned violent gangs that still operate. Some are continuing their illegal activities, such as drug trafficking.

Peace Bridge, Derry/Londonderry
Peace Bridge, Derry/Londonderry

Some survivors are seeking acknowledgement of wrongdoing, if not retribution. A poster in Derry/Londonderry displays graphic photos of a bullet-ridden body, displayed by a mother demanding that Britain apologize for murdering her son.

Some are moving on, relieved to see businesses, tourists, and job opportunities returning. Some are capitalizing on the attraction of the Troubles.

And some are working to heal the rift between the communities. The driver of a taxi proudly told me his son had been to Kansas City. Why Kansas City, I asked. “He is in a program,” he said, “in which Catholic and Protestant kids share bonding experiences and discover their similarities.”

“It may take a couple of generations,” he added.

Back in the States, I found this short video by NPR on life after the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

1 thought on “A day at a time in Northern Ireland

  1. Insightful as always. The account of your sojourn to northern Ireland shows a depth of knowledge and understanding as well as showing marvellous pictures and oh so interesting tales from the past and present. I really need to toughen up and dare to visit now thus inspired. (Yes. Robert the Bruce and that spider got around but it was always a good story for the weans…)

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