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Published: October 8th 2019
We arrived late at night in Belfast, a city made famous because of it's turbulent past referred to by it’s people as “The Troubles.” Dennis had visited Belfast in the mid 90's and didn't have a chance to stay because of a car bombing that had occurred that day that scared off his travel companions, so he looked forward to finally returning.
The troubles were primarily from 1968-1998 when bombings and assassinations occurred between the Protestant “Loyalists,” who were supportive of a British controlled Northern Ireland, and the Catholic IRA “Republicans,” who were supportive of an independent and unified Ireland. There had been religious conflict between the Protestants and Catholics well before this time, but this is the period when armed conflict escalated and British troops were deployed to Northern Ireland and over 300 miles of walls were built in cities to keep Nationalists and Loyalists neighborhoods apart. Known as the “peace wall”, they divided communities and peoples and many believe that they exacerbated the problems. The walls still exist today and it's gates and doors are locked nightly at 7pm and not opened until 7am the following morning and completely closed on Sundays.
I stayed again with my
favorite Airbnb host Walter, who I looked forward for Dennis to meet. He tucked us in to bed with a Guinness from his backyard pub, making Dennis an instant fan. Walter was born in Belfast and lived through all of the troubles as a Catholic in a Republican neighborhood so he is a wealth of local knowledge and has a penchant for storytelling as is common for the Irish. The following morning Walter brought us on a West Belfast neighborhood tour where he pointed out locations of bombings, shootings and tales of torture while showing us countless neighborhood memorials and murals to the over 3,600 lives that had been lost during that time. 52% of those killed were civilians, 32% British security forces and 16% paramilitary groups (ie. IRA). Regardless of which side you were on the toll it took on this city was brutal and immense and the effects are still felt today. Walter pointed out curbs and utility boxes painted in colors to identify which neighborhood you are in. If you miss those subtle signs of the neighborhood affiliation, the flying of either the Union Jack flag or the Irish tricolor flag will let you know where the
people stand. Only 7% of schools are integrated between the religions so progress has been slow. I learned that these peoples are even separated and identified not only by their family names but by their language, being taught different pronunciations for letters in the alphabet depending on whether you are Catholic or Protestant. The more history I learn of this region the more it intrigues and baffles me.
We took a tour of the Crumlin Road Goal prison, made famous during the troubles, and then took a city walking tour, pointing out famous locations such as the Europa Hotel. The Europa is famous for having been bombed 36 times, earning the title as the “most bombed hotel in the world” because it was frequented primarily by journalists. This was the only hotel in Belfast up until the 2000's when the city began to stabilize enough to draw visitors. We were still told many times by locals how they are stunned that anyone comes to Belfast as a tourist, but are delighted it's earning a name for itself as a travel destination. We also stumbled upon a fascinating IRA museum, where we met the sister of the founder, who had
been imprisoned for years for political crimes.
The following day Walter had arranged for Dennis to meet a firefighter friend of his over coffee. Again we heard more tales of the troubles, and how fire engines were frequently targeted and windshields broken out, going unfixed for days while they continued to work.
We drove up the Antrim Coast in Northern Ireland, listed as one of the most scenic coastal roadways in the world and home to many Game of Thrones filming locations. I replicated the tour I had done last time with Mom, stopping at several sights along the way to include the Giants Causeway and the town of Bushmills, home to the oldest whiskey distillery in the world, built in 1608. The sweet smell of fermenting barley hung in the air throughout the town. As a side note apparently there religious lines even drawn for some on whiskeys, Jameson is Catholic because it's distilled in Cork, a Catholic community, and Bushmills Protestant, wow.
And then this brings me to our next stop Derry/Londonderry, or slash city. We were gently warned by our local friends about "Derry," telling us that they are not quite as
tolerant as Belfast as far as integration goes and that if you call the city Londonderry or Derry, you stand to upset someone depending on their loyalist or unionist sentiments, so best to avoid saying the name at all, hence the name slash city.
Derry is known as the birthplace of the troubles because Bloody Sunday occurred here in 1972, lighting the spark of revolution after British soldiers shot 28 unarmed protesters protesting human rights violations and the government practice of mass arrest and internment (no charges or trial for arrestees). Interestingly there is the first prosecution against a British solider involved going on right now, with trial set to commence again in December, 47 years later. This is clearly an open wound for many, and the government seems to be trying to right some of the wrongs committed so long ago, however feelings are mixed as to whether or not this is the way to do it. We also heard that the upcoming Brexit and pushes for a unification may cause unrest once again.
We really enjoyed our visit to this beautiful riverfront city, with it's 17th century intact fortress walls and gates
and cobblestone streets. We did a fascinating guided walking tour along it's walls and drove through the "bogside" to see some of it's famous murals.
Our last stop on the trip was an overnight in Dublin. Mom and I spent a few days here last year and Dennis and I enjoyed dinner, drinks and traditional music before flying out the following morning; the best way to spend a night in Dublin. And with that another trip comes to a close. This one was so different from the rest, carrying Mom beside me every step of the way, forever my best friend and travel buddy...
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