Hi. I posted the original draft of this piece when it occurred but I’ve revised it since then so here is an updated version.
War-torn cities aren’t always in active conflict, and Belfast is a prime example. The city isn’t as overtly sketchy as Dublin, but the war is hidden just below the surface. My tour of the city was heartbreaking, enlightening, and unforgettable. It was a privilege and a burden to walk among the fault lines of a divided community and witness the beginnings of true healing. The city is in the process of recovering from a century of conflict, but small acts of empathy and solidarity can have ripple effects of healing.
We met our tour guide Paul and I was instantly impressed. He was a teacher who transitioned into being a professional mediator between the broken families. The conflict in Belfast has been between the Irish Republican Army who support Ireland’s independence and are mainly Catholic, and those who support Ireland’s union with Britain and are mainly Protestant. As a professional mediator between warring factions, Paul is making tangible changes in the community, helping rebuild friendships and stretching the boundaries of coexistence. There are Protestant tour guides who won’t even walk into the Catholic part of the city or vice versa, and Paul got recognized by a local for being willing to walk through both sides.
On our walk, we saw two memorial gardens, one for each side of the conflict. The IRA garden felt angrier and more militaristic, with imagery of particular faces of activists and martyrs The faces were not serene and calm, but many seemed to be in the middle of shouting. The martyrs also held a plethora of guns and weapons, fighting for freedom even after death. The anger and grief make sense, given that the Irish garden was illegally built without a permit after the IRA was forcibly disbanded by a ceasefire. The British garden felt much tamer and cleaner, like a common cemetery, with uniform and tidy flower arrangements and generic epitaphs differentiated only by the details of the deceased. While the air of clean and orderly reverence makes sense, there is also an air of impersonal distance. A viewer can tell that the British cemetery is meant to honor.a long-forgotten victory while the IRA memorial garden offered validation for a still-smarting wound. The British military formally left Belfast in 2005, when the policies of the 1998 Good Friday agreement were finally enacted, meaning the violence ended just over 15 years ago and locals are still adjusting to new ways of life.
These two memorials stand in sharp contrast to many American cemeteries. In America, people are usually buried with an individual epigraph and a decently decorated tombstone, showing a personal touch and a desire for decency and reverence and honor. But in this city, even a garden makes a political statement.
This wall divides the Catholic neighborhood from the Protestant. The gates at the end of the streets, are known as “dead zones” and are locked at 7 pm each night to minimize the chance of violence in the no-man’s-land. As the walls have risen since 1969, history rises around the people of Dublin rather than disintegrating beneath the earth as history tends to do.
This mural on the International Wall struck me because of the powerful contrast of these two images. On the left, the Irish Uprising of 1916 is memorialized, when the Irish Republican Army first began their fight for an independent nation. On the right, 10 hunger strikers from 1981 are represented. For almost seventy years, Ireland has been at civil war. As Paul said, “the electricity of tension that used to dominate daily life has softened”, but it can easily be triggered. While I don’t necessarily feel safe alone in Belfast, I respect all that the city has been through and pray for healing and recovery. Paul told us that more people died by suicide in the last 11 years than by direct conflict in the previous 30. It’s not just about individual trauma from isolated violence, as awful as that is. It’s a raw national trauma that spans multiple generations.
With the many posters and memorials on common streets, the daily lives of the citizens of Belfast are haunted by the past. Even on the sides of such simple buildings as supermarkets, there are political posters such as this one. It was made by the British supporters to ask the IRA “Where is the integrity in murder?” It is a valid question. Paul told us that both sides have made political statements throughout town, unwilling to truly lay the matter to rest,
This sign was outside the church in the middle of one of the “dead zones”. The sign says “peace” in both English and Gaelic, and the church is making tangible strides to bring a divided community together in small but powerful ways, such as having Protestant and Catholic women work together in childcare. Paul talked about how successes in politics and international relations are typically widely shared, but leaders in Belfast are hesitant to do so, for fear of jinxing the progress. The fact that success has to be kept a secret shows just how gradual the healing process is here.
The eeriness of walking through a war-torn city was a lot to think about in one day. The memories of many of the recent memories of townspeople are corroded with violence and grief, even as the next generation continues to slowly turn the walls of religious conflict into bridges of understanding and empathy.
It was an enlightening weekend to say the very least. Belfast is unlike any other city we’ve been to and I’m incredibly grateful to have the chance to explore this unique perspective. It definitely redefined how I think of abstract ideas of “conflict” and “civil war” in modern Western society. Belfast has been through so much over the century, but I have faith in people like Paul, taking small steps that have ripple effects of healing.