A City Divided: Belfast, UK

At the beginning of this trip, we hardly knew anything about the United Kingdom and Ireland division and past tensions. In fact, our travel friend whom we met in Bulgaria, Brian, graciously took the time to explain that Northern Ireland is actually part of the United Kingdom and how it worked. Even then, the deep divisions that ran through Belfast were not all that clear until we arrived and learned more.

Our guide explained that art work and murals on the wall often depict other authoritarian regimes and humanitarian issues across the world as a way of gaining sympathy for the cause.

A highly recommended experience in Belfast was the Black Taxi Tour. The tours are operated by cabbies who lived through the majority of unrest and have first hand experience to assist with the narrative. Our tour guide was excellent and took the time to answer our questions and show us some of the remarkably juxtaposed sights less than a mile from one another.

Belfast has classically been known as a division between “Catholic” and “Protestant”, but our guide clarified that religion is religion and most of the division related to politics more than anything. In Northern Belfast, the vast majority of inhabitants are Protestants who are loyal to the United Kingdom. The southern parts are traditionally Catholic and vied for full Irish independence from the United Kingdom. Our guide explained that at one point, all of the island was under the United Kingdom jurisdiction, but an Irish uprising took back most of it aside from the top portion now known as “Northern Ireland”. Groups like the IRA and other factions took part in armed insurrection and domestic terrorism in a continued fight for independence throughout the 1960s and beyond. He also highlighted the concept of Ireland being a colony of the United Kingdom vying for independence and how important that was during WW1 and WW2. There were even deviant IRA members who made efforts to propose a “backdoor” to German submarines on the west coast of Ireland as a way to attack the UK in a vulnerable spot. It was very eye opening and the guide actually stayed fairly unbiased and tried to present things in a historical context while still referencing the present.

In 2019, these divisions are still present. At 7am each morning and 7-9PM each evening, a security contractor closes the open gates linking north and south Belfast. Our guide showed us the southern half, filled with odes to Irish martyrs and commemoration gardens detailing the struggles. Murals painted across the southern walls liken the UK occupation to other oppressive regimes seen throughout the world. Similarities are drawn between various “walls” that have separated societies. On the northern half, graffiti with inspiring messages are written beside quotations from world leaders. Homes lined adjacent to the wall have cages around their back half to repel petrol bombs and cocktails. It was surreal witnessing such precautions in modernity.

Houses backing up to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The houses have cages built on the back to stop stones from breaking windows or molotov cocktails from burning the homes down.

Our guide mentioned than Protestant northerners and Catholic southerners go for pints with one another after work, but also realize the gates still close at a certain time and must go home prior. Interestingly, the city center lies open to both sides and they can circumvent the gates, but by a lengthy detour. They work together, socialize, and live side by side, but the division and fear persists. I had done reading that indicated Belfast was previously one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but now is one of the safest in the United Kingdom.

Our Airbnb host told us that shortly, on July 12th, he will not even feel safe walking certain streets as an Irish Catholic. July 12th is a day commemorating the Protestant ascension and celebration of King William. Our host also explained that his generation has been impacted heavily by the strife of the past. His peers struggle with alcoholism and addiction in a greater percentage than other cities. This echoed with what our tour guide said, that 1 in 4 kids have a mental health condition in Belfast.

An English Breakfast and scone that we shared, massive portions, and delicious.

Belfast was nevertheless a great city to visit. It held rich history, having also been the location of the building of the Titanic. We walked beside calm waterfronts as orange and yellow kayaks cut beneath the low bridges. Students happily walked around in graduation robes and stoles beside the beautiful Queen’s University. We nestled into a pleasant café named Maggie Mays on more than one occasion for English breakfast, scones, or Irish pies. Pubs with gilded interiors offered pints to passersby.

It was difficult to imagine that the city held such a violent and dangerous past. Its citizens had smiles on their faces and friendly banter was a common sound that reverberated through the boulevards. Nevertheless, it was an experience that inspired hope. If this dangerous battleground city could learn from its history and begin to repair divisions peacefully, others across the world can, too.


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