Road-tripping to Belfast, Ireland

Editor’s note: this semester, a handful of our journalists are studying abroad in the green country of Ireland. Every week, they’ll share stories of their adventures with us in our new study abroad column.

A few weeks ago, we took a class trip to Belfast, which is in Northern Ireland. A lot of people don’t know this, but Northern Ireland is actually its own country, separate from Ireland. Northern Ireland belongs to the United Kingdom. Ireland has had a long and troubled history regarding its separation from Belfast and Northern Ireland. After Ireland was freed from the dominion of Great Britain in the early 1920s, it was decided in 1920 that Northern Ireland would secede from Ireland and remain part of the United Kingdom. However, the Irish were very divided on this issue. There were the unionists, who were loyal to Great Britain and the monarchy, typically Anglo-Irish Protestants, and then there were the nationalists, typically Irish Catholics, that were at odds in the decision about what to do with Northern Ireland. In the end, however, Northern Ireland became its own country, and the two feuding groups of Northern Ireland continued to dispute over this fact, and over their religion and political loyalties as well, for the centuries to come.

OK, so that’s a little historical background on Northern Ireland and Belfast. We traveled to Belfast twice actually, and the two experiences were very different. The first time we went, we went with a tour guide that was from Dublin. He took us to see the Peace Wall, the murals, and then we also went to the Titanic Museum. The Titanic Museum was really interesting because the Titanic was actually constructed in Belfast, and we were able to see the actual port from which it had been launched. However, the rest of the tour is the part that I think most of our group will remember the best.

Belfast is divided into two very strict and exclusive communities: the Protestants and the Catholics. No Catholics live in the Protestant side, and vice versa. There is neutral ground, such as in the city centre, but most of Belfast is divided. The Peace Wall divides these two neighborhoods with an immense wall, layered with at least three different materials like cement, chain, etc. This is because they have had to keep adding to the wall over time to make it higher, so that if one side throws something like rocks or small handmade bombs, it won’t go over to the other side. The wall is covered in graffiti and encouragements for peace, and is signed by political figures, activists, and a countless number of tourists that have visited it. We got to sign it as well.

There are also murals on both sides. The murals on the Catholic side depict images of the Catholics that died in hunger strikes while imprisoned by the Protestants, images of major political figures, and also the cruelty of the Protestants. Meanwhile, on the Protestant side there are images that salute their loyalty to the queen and British government, the power of the Protestant fighters, and countless union jacks. There was never any mistaking which side you were on.

On the second trip to Belfast, we were taken on Black Taxi tours, which are really famous in Belfast. They are literally black taxis that are driven by men that have grown up in Belfast, and experienced The Troubles first hand. The Troubles were the fighting and extreme violence that took place between the two groups that were at odds. Bombings, murder, rape, kidnapping, assaults and more were rampant between the two groups. The Troubles went from the 1960s all the way through the 20th century, up until the end. In 1998, Bill Clinton traveled to Ireland and helped initiate discussion between the two groups for peace, and they came up with the “Good Friday Agreement” which tried to produce a power-sharing government in Belfast between the two groups.

In fact, traces still exist today. Our taxi driver told us about how things have vastly improved since the Good Friday Agreement, but there is still tension in Belfast. We could feel it, and it was almost palpable in the air. A single act from either side could tip the scales and induce chaos once again in Northern Ireland. Our driver said that hopefully in the future peace will become more stable with the coming generations. However, this is difficult to promote because the schools are still divided. A sense of separateness and prejudice is what the kids grow up with in Belfast, and the feeling of dividedness is continuing to be fostered.

Belfast was eye-opening for all of us, to say the least. It was such a shock to me to pass the building with windows blown out from Molotov cocktails, religious slurs on the sides of buildings, and a giant wall dividing two communities. These are not things we’d ever see back in Dubuque. The sights in Belfast are ones that I would have associated with the Middle East or some far-off country, which I think is a false stereotype that a lot of us have sadly. We rarely associate such violence and tension with the Western world, something which is obviously false. After going on these two excursions to Belfast, it’s prompted me to think a lot about the feeling of safety and general security that we enjoy in America, at least in the small-town Midwest. Not everyone feels this way though, and there are most likely prejudices that will continue to exist for the rest of time, in places all around the world. Seeing that Peace Wall though and the feeling of being a Catholic in the Protestant neighborhood ­­­— that’s something that I won’t forget easily, although I was most likely perfectly safe. Safety, security and religious freedom are not necessarily rights, but more privileges in our world, and I’m going to do my best to not ever take advantage of them.

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