Travels stories about Northern Ireland

Belfast is famous for how its sectarian divide is portrayed in the murals plastered on building walls in Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. The Belfast murals promote various factions in the centuries old struggle for dominance in this Irish city. They also serve as a marker for the wayward visitor who’s not sure which neighborhood he has just stumbled upon. Many of the images are violent, reflecting the armed struggle that has taken place here. Some highlight centuries old grievances in an attempt to make them relevant today.

The murals have come under fire in a now peaceful Belfast that is trying to look forward instead of dwelling on hurts of the past. One mural was even painted over to show children in a message of peace. Take a look at the photos below. Should the murals remain as a historical record or has their time passed, to be replaced by a hopeful message?

Protestant Belfast Murals

Belfast Murals

Belfast mural

Belfast mural

The Red Hand of Ulster shown above relates a local legend. Back in the olden days, the kingdom of Ulster was without a king so a boat race was contested. Whoever touched the shoreline first would be made king. Legend has it that upon seeing he was about to lose, one man cut off his hand and threw it to shore, thereby winning the contest. This myth gives some idea of the tenacity of the people here.

Picture of Belfast mural

Catholic Belfast Murals

The Catholic murals usually portray more recent events, meaning the last century.

Belfast mural

Belfast mural Bobby Sands

This mural represents Bobby Sands, he was the first of the hunger strikers to die in 1981, creating worldwide publicity for IRA prisoners.

Belfast mural Maghaberry Prisoner (525x443)

The Catholic murals are international in flavor as they advocate for what they feel are fellow struggles for freedom around the world as seen below:

Belfast Murals

Belfast mural Che Guevara

Six months into our  journey the most prevalent pop culture t-shirts we’ve seen for sale around the world are Manchester United, the New York Yankees and Che Guevara. Somehow there’s a message in that, we’re just not sure what it is.

The future message?

Belfast peace mural

There is a movement in Belfast to replace the violent images of the murals with more peaceful ones like the children portrayed above. However, as these replace the old ones, new images of violence continue to go up elsewhere in the troubled city.

What are your feelings about taking down the murals?

NOTE: The best way to see the murals is to take a tour with a private driver. Several companies offer this service–they generally have some version of “Black Cab” or “Black Taxi” in their name. (Google them or check TripAdvisor to find one that suits your needs.) The cost is approximately £30 for up to 3 passengers, with an extra charge for additional passengers. Tours last approximately 90 minutes.

Like it? Share it . . . Pin it!The murals of Belfast provide fascinating insight on the centuries-old conflict in this Irish city. Take a Black Cab tour to explore both sides of the struggle.

Click on the link to view a post about the dividing walls of Belfast.

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The “peace” wall in Belfast

The people of Belfast have suffered through the “Troubles” since the 1960’s. Due to rising violence, in 1969 the city government started building walls in Belfast between the Catholic and Protestant sections. They were given the un-ironic name of “peaceline” barriers.

The walls in Belfast were meant to keep each side safe. Kids soon got around this by throwing various items such as bricks, bottles and stones over them. The walls grew increasingly taller in response.

Peace wall in Belfast

The chimneys of the Catholic homes are just visible over the wall.

The authorities tried to end this random lobbing of missiles over the wall. They took groups of Protestant and Catholic kids out into the country where they could play together and get to know each other. One local told me, “When they returned to Belfast they kept throwing objects over the wall but at least now they knew who they were throwing them at.” I guess that’s a start.

Is the wall in Belfast still needed?

Since the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998, Belfast has known relative peace. During the height of the Troubles visitors to downtown had to pass through checkpoints where they were searched. Those are gone, along with the armored personal carriers loaded with British troops in full “battle rattle” that no longer roam the streets.

Nowadays you can get a frothy cappuccino at a shiny new downtown mall. Investment on this scale in Belfast would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. I assumed that everything else had changed too.

But a funny thing happened with the dawn of peace. Demand for the peace walls actually went up. Neighborhoods that presumably could now live peaceably side-by-side wanted even more barriers placed between them. In a time of supposed unity, the walls are getting longer and taller.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfZPMHPsPmw[/youtube]

 

The most prominent wall, shown in the above video, separates the Catholic “Falls” section from the Protestant “Shankill” section. Here the wall is over 30 feet high. I wouldn’t want to meet the kid that can lob a brick over that. This side of the wall has become a large outdoor art project covered with murals and sculptures. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig.

How the wall divides

Traveling through metal gates to the Catholic side reveals the wall’s true brute ugliness. It runs like a concrete scar through a tidy neighborhood of modest brick homes. Add some barbed wire and it would look just like the Berlin Wall did at the height of the Cold War.

The gates we passed through to enter the Catholic sector are still closed at night. It reminds me of my trip to Venice to see the site of the original ghetto. Starting in the 1500’s, this was the area where the Venetian government required all Jews to live. Every night at curfew the gates to the ghetto were closed. While Belfast Catholics are not confined by law to their section at night, and a few gates do remain open, the similarities are eerie.

Peace walls of Belfast

 The peace wall seen from the Catholic side.

In the 500 years since the creation of the first ghetto to divide people based on religion, this is how far we’ve progressed. We are still separating people because of their religion or ethnicity. We still fear the unknown “other” in our midst.

While Belfast is now peaceful, I get the sense that it is only one incident away from a resurgence of violence. Something unexpected and totally out-of-the-blue will be the spark to the powder keg that is today’s Belfast. The shiny new downtown structures are a modern Potemkin Village hiding brutal realities. People cannot continue to live peacefully side-by-side while still hating each other. It’s just not natural.

Click the link to see photos of the murals of Belfast.

Here are similar images of the defense wall in Jerusalem.

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