The Two Sides of the Troubles

Published: June 7th 2019
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“It takes a great deal of courage to see the world in all its tainted glory, and still to love it.” - Oscar Wilde

We started the day sleeping in until 8:30 (!), followed by a delicious breakfast at the Bullitt Hotel restaurant. I has the veggie Irish (poached eggs, grilled halloumi cheese, mushrooms, potatoes, grilled peppers, tomato chutney, and sourdough toast), and Susan had the full Irish (poached eggs, mushrooms, sausages, bacon, black pudding, white pudding, and sourdough toast). Yumm.

Well fortified for the day, we headed to the Ulster Museum, a nice smallish museum near Queen’s University. We visited the exhibit on the Troubles, which was well done, then explored the history floor, which encompassed Irish history from the Bronze Age to modern times, which was very informative. I enjoyed the small Egyptian exhibit, which included a 2500 year old mummy Takabuti. We wandered through the sections on Irish painters, including Yeats. We also admired the Game of Thrones tapestry at the museum. We are big GOT fans, so it was fun to see. It will be completed later this summer. There were numerous exuberant school groups in the museum when we were there, but they weren't at the exhibits we were at (we skipped the nature floor where they were having fun with the dinosaur exhibit). I think it's really great that school kids visit museums, but I don't necessarily want to be there when they are!

We checked out the gift shop (we got two Belleek Claddagh mugs, much cheaper than we had seen them previously), then hopped into a taxi to take us to the meeting place for our walking tour. We had booked a 3 hour “Conflicting Stories” political walking tour. These tours are led by ex political prisoners, one Republican and one Loyalist. The meeting place was Divis Tower, but we wanted to grab something to eat before the tour, so we had the taxi driver drop us off a few blocks away, where we had a sandwich and tea at a shop.

We met the first guide, an ex-member of the IRA, who was imprisoned from 1976-1981 in the infamous H-Block at Long Kesh prison. He was imprisoned with, and greatly admires, Bobby Sands, the first hunger striker to die (in 1981). In total 10 men would starve themselves to death, for the cause of being treated as political prisoners, not as ordinary criminals. The guide, whose name I unfortunately cannot remember, was really good and it was a real privilege to be able to hear his story and his views. We met at the Divis Tower, a very well known spot, where the first 2 causalities of the Troubles in this area were killed (a child and an off duty member of the British Army, ironically). The British Amy took over the top 3 stories of the Divis Tower during the Troubles, to carry out surveillance on the neighbourhood. We walked around the working class Falls Road area (Republican and Catholic) which, along with the neighbouring working class Shankill area (Loyalist and Protestant) suffered greatly during the Troubles.

We viewed some of the famous Republican murals in this area, and our guide told us his story. He was caught with explosives and was sent to prison. I think he was around 18 at the time. His older brother was also a member of the IRA (later murdered by loyalists in the 80s). Our guide was actually first arrested when he when he was 14, because of his brother's activity. When our guide got out of prison in 1981 he still believed in the cause, but no longer wanted to be involved in violence, so he got involved with Sinn Fein (a Republican political party which was founded in the early 20th C). He met his wife at Sinn Fein headquarters, where he worked. He worked in the basement, but his wife worked upstairs with the Sinn Fein leadership. In fact, Gerry Adams, long time past leader of the Sinn Fein and one of the past leaders of the IRA, was at his wedding in the 1980s.

Our Republican guide works with youth groups now, to try to ensure they have positive futures. He hopes, and thinks that in the future, the British will no longer rule Northern Ireland and the country will be reunited. He was a pretty positive man, especially considering what he went through in his life. All the people in the Falls Road and Shankill areas lived in a war zone for 30 years. It’s amazing they are able to manage, and carry on with their lives, considering the difficulties and violence they lived through.

Our Republican guide handed us over to our Loyalist guide, after shaking his hand, at the gates dividing the two communities. These gates are still locked at 9 pm each night. There are numerous, very high, ”Peace Walls” throughout Belfast, dividing the communities, and separating the Republican/Catholics from the Loyalist/Protestants. Although our Republican guide works with the Loyalist community on peace initiatives, he said he still would not be comfortable going for a pint in a Loyalist pub (our Loyalist guide said the same thing about going to a Republican pub). That is pretty sad that, 21 years after the 1998 Good Friday agreement brought peace, those men still wouldn’t go for a drink in each other’s neighbourhoods. It’s also sad that both guides thought that it would be premature to remove the Peace Walls.

Our Loyalist guide was imprisoned for 6 years in the late 70s-early 80s, also at Long Kesh prison but not in H-Block which I believe was just for Republican prisoners. He was a member of the UVF. He didn‘t tell us what he had done to be sent to prison. Everyone knows about the IRA, but everyone doesn’t know about the Loyalist paramilitary organizations, such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). These groups were also responsible for much violence, against the Catholic community. Both sides committed atrocities against each other. We visited a Loyalist memorial, where I found some of the displays particularly sectarian and disturbing. With such rhetoric, it's hard to see the divisions between the two sides lessening.

Susan later wondered whether our Loyalist guide considered himself British or Irish, and it would have been a really good question to ask, because I would have been really interested in his answer. Loyalists are determined to remain part of the UK, just as determined as the Republicans are to have Northern Ireland leave the UK and join the Republic. Our Loyalist guide said that the Catholics play certain sports, hurling and gaelic football, that the Protestants don’t play. So I think there are a lot of cultural differences too.

I would say that I enjoyed the Republican part of the tour more than the Loyalist, probably because I felt more connection with the Republican guide, and I do think that Ireland should be united. But I was very happy to also hear the Loyalist viewpoint. And I absolutely do not support or in any way excuse the violence of the IRA. They
Conflict Textiles - “Through the Barricades” Conflict Textiles - “Through the Barricades” Conflict Textiles - “Through the Barricades”

This is about people from opposing communities falling in love and having to meet in secret during the Troubles.
murdered many innocent people, and I would describe them as a terrorist organization, along with the Loyalist paramilitary groups.

It is hard to see any solution to this situation, but thank god the Troubles are over and the people can live in peace now. Everyone in Belfast who talked about the Troubles is so happy there is peace, and the city is thriving and looking towards the future.

After the Loyalist part of our walking tour finished, about 5:45, Susan and I walked about 10 minutes into the city centre. We had wanted to go on a walking Pub tour that evening, but it wasn’t running, so we headed to a really cute little pub near our hotel, Bittles Bar, that we had wanted to go to, stopping first at a shop to pick up a bottle of Paddy whiskey and a bottle of Cork dry gin (it makes a really nice G&T). We enjoyed a well-earned pint at Bittles. I had the Bittles Irish Pale Ale, brewed locally, which was very nice, and Susan had a Guinness. We were pretty hungry by this time so we headed to White’s Tavern, but their kitchen had closed for the
Conflict Textiles - “Praying for Peace”Conflict Textiles - “Praying for Peace”Conflict Textiles - “Praying for Peace”

Shows people with hands outstretched praying for peace, while in the background dark figures are intent on destroying the peace dove.
evening, so we continued to the Kitchen Bar where I had a nice open face sandwich with grilled halloumi cheese, and grilled vegetables on toasted sourdough, with chips (accompanied by a Guinness). Susan had ham with mash and cabbage, and another Guinness.

We walked back to the Bullitt Hotel and settled in for our last night in Belfast. It had been a long, thought provoking day. Tomorrow afternoon we take the train back to Dublin.

Additional photos below
Photos: 78, Displayed: 27


Frank McKelvey, Evening BallycastleFrank McKelvey, Evening Ballycastle
Frank McKelvey, Evening Ballycastle

All these are by Irish artists, We saw this scene yesterday on our day tour - see the photos in yesterday’s blog.
Ulster Museum GOT tapestryUlster Museum GOT tapestry
Ulster Museum GOT tapestry

It was pretty cool! It will be finished later this summer.

11th June 2019
Conflict Textiles - “Through the Barricades”

Where is the love?
I like this tribute to the people who saw people as people, and looked beyond religion and politics (although the crooked / uneven lines in the fabrics are doing my head in!) :) I feel a similar way to you when faced with such entrenched animosity between groups... I just don't see the point of it - we get one life, and it's too short to waste on hate.
11th June 2019
Conflict Textiles - “Through the Barricades”

Where is the love?
There are lots of people working at maintaining the peace, but I must admit I found the ongoing divisions a bit surprising. I suppose I shouldn't have, considering the Troubles went on for close to 30 years, and of course the history of English rule goes back 800 or so years ... I wonder if in a generation or two the animosity and divisions will have faded. I hope so.
12th June 2019

Belfast is an education.... religion, history and wonderful people.
12th June 2019

Yes, it certainly was. It was really a privilege to hear the views of both sides.
29th June 2019

The Troubles
I also took a walk through the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas during my visit last year. It was also for me a real eye opener into the situation, and made me realise how tricky it has been, and must still be, to move forward given the dark days of the past. It's truly incredible that the peace agreement was reached, and I continue to pray for the peaceful future of beautiful Northern Ireland.

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