The Island of Ireland is actually two different countries. Dublin is the capital of the Republic of Ireland, which is independent. Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland and part of the UK. This bit of geography had eluded me. I had no idea they used different money (euros vs pounds) street signs (Gaelic vs English) measurements (meters vs miles; liters vs gallons). Belfast was a shock to me.
We met my sister Jolyn and her daughter Kerry at a lovely B & B in Belfast called Tara Lodge. Our job was to uncover their Irish roots in County Down. Belfast was an hour away from our destination, and it had the archives, library and airport.
Four times we took one of Belfast's famous Black Taxis, and each driver was excited that we were doing family history. "There's a lot of people doing their genealogy here," one said. "Irish families have been torn apart by poverty, famine, revolution and lately, The Troubles. It's good they're finding each other again."
The Troubles came up in every conversation. So did a declaration of religion: "I'm Catholic but I married a Protestant so we live in a 'mixed neighborhood.'" "I'm Protestant, my brother married a Catholic so we were on opposite sides in The Troubles.'" "My uncle was killed in The Troubles. Everybody knows somebody who was killed."
Each driver was friendly and funny, and anxious to show us some of the almost 1,000 murals that depict the violence and chaos that reigned in the neighborhoods of Belfast for thirty years. A multi-generational war, this one started in the late '60s and finally ended with the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998. Until then, bombs went off unexpectedly in shopping centers and snipers shot civilians in the streets of the small city. Mothers fought sons, grandfathers fought sisters . . . it was ugly.
The Troubles, both sides painted large murals on buildings and terraced row houses where the fighting took place. It was a way to declare the allegiance of the neighborhood.
Instead of having a gated community, this neighborhood had a Mona Lisa-type sniper. His eyes and gun seem to follow you as you walk through the park. (This is near a school playground.)
Many of the murals depict scenes from Irish history and each side identifies with the martyrs of the past.
The politically inspired murals of Belfast are among the most startling sights in the city, and I found them troubling. Because I couldn't understand the deep reasons for the fighting, it seemed like a traditional feud, with extremists on each side running the show. The murals usually represented one side's political point of view, and inflamed the other side into action.
Our Catholic and Protestant drivers all wanted continued peace in their city for their children's sake, but admitted that there are neighborhoods, pubs and streets they won't enter now for fear of their lives. Most schools are still segregated between Catholics and Protestants and the kids grow up with the age-old prejudices.
This mural memorializes the Taxi drivers who lost their lives during The Troubles. There are new political stirrings that concern Belfast citizens. In such a traditional battle, there are bound to be sparks left that could set things blazing again. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail.
Peace Wall used to be a barrier between a Catholic and Protestant neighborhood. It goes right up to the back doors of some of the houses. Behind it there are private family gardens with pictures of regular people who died in the crossfire. A teenage boy scaled the wall to secretly visit his girlfriend and was shot by her father. A young mother walked her three kids to school and they were blown up by a bomb. Countless tragedies—this was happening just thirteen years ago!
Belfast was interesting, and we left impressed by the hopeful attitude of the people there who have suffered so intensely. But we were searching for greener fields outside the city. We set off for County Down and Portaferry.