Friday, August 27, 2010

Venturing to the "North"

Finally, at the ebb of our time in Ireland, Katherine and I made it to the fabled land of Northern Ireland. If talked about at all in Cork, Ulster is usually mentioned along with a raised-eyebrows; an unspoken understanding that something's not quite right up there. Turns out that belief is not at all unfounded.

Katherine's sister Elizabeth was with us for ten days and for the first four days of that stretch we explored the capital of Protestant Ireland: Belfast. I learned much about the history of the Troubles and Catholic/Protestant violence in general, and I won't bore you with all of nuances. I'll just say that the Troubles were worse than you thought they were and, no, they're not exactly over. Well the shooting is (mostly) over, although even in 2010 an occasional British soldier is murdered and your odd car bomb goes off. But what remains is a startlingly segregated society.

From the American point-of-view one can't help but think of the Jim Crow South. Indeed, replace the word "black" with "Catholic," and you're on your way to understanding how Belfast and Ulster operate. Catholics are now allowed to serve in the police force (they now constitute nearly 30% of the officers) and they've even had Catholic Sinn Féin Lord Mayors. But it was unbelievable to hear, on a tour of West Belfast, that in all of Northern Ireland "there are now sixty integrated schools. It's not much, but it's a good start."

In the middle ground, the main "Peace Wall" in West Belfast between Catholic Falls and Protestant Shankill.

Going a bit farther than the American South are the so-called "Peace Walls" erected in Belfast and throughout the North. These are thirty and forty-foot tall barriers separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, and the oldest ones have been up for nearly forty years. The homes next to the walls have protective barriers to deflect petrol bombs and other explosives that could be hurled over from the other side. And far from being just a holdover from the Troubles, they are actually still building Peace Walls in volatile neighborhoods throughout the North.

As you can tell, for me the main attraction of the city was its politics, past and present. We hit up the famous political murals, an obligatory exercise for any first-time Belfast experience. But there was more than the Troubles. There was the Crown Liquor Saloon, the most visually stimulating bar I've ever set foot in. It's like drinking in a work of art: from the Italian-made painted tin ceiling, to the hand-carved and luxuriously decorated drinking booths, to the beautiful painted ceramic tiles covering almost every surface, you actually enjoy looking around more than the very good Guinness they sell. And it's right across the street from the Europa, "the most bombed hotel in the world."

Probably the most famous mural, this painting on the Sinn Féin HQ depicts Bobby Sands, the first of ten IRA men to die on a hunger strike in British prison in the early 1980s.

This charming number greets you while you're walking down toward Queens University. The Loyalist murals are almost always more militaristic and, well, terrifying.

Other worthy sights are Queens University and the magnificent Botanic Gardens. The Ulster Museum––located conveniently in the Gardens––is world-class.

A flower in one of the Botanic Gardens glass houses.

The sisters in the opulent city hall of Belfast. This rebuilt room actually suffered a direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomb during the Battle of Britain.

Elizabeth left for the States today, leaving Katherine and I about a week to prepare for our final foray into the Continent. We're visiting Switzerland after many suggestions to do so from Katherine's grandparents––just as important, though, is meeting up with Swiss friends we made during our honeymoon last year. Within days of our return to Ireland we'll be packing up and leaving Cork for good.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you guys so much for everything! I had an awesome trip and definitely learned a ton of stuff! I miss you both and see you soon!