Northern Ireland - Un(known) Belfast


Time to change Middle East countries come to reality. I was little bit afraid because of it. I didn´t know what can I expect. How it will be with the people? They will be nice to me? Can they make my trip comfortable? As we know, it´s common rule to think, the people on the West are not so open like the people in Asia. And what about conflicting past. Is Belfast and Norhern Ireland safe for tourists? Safe for Catholics? Well, look at everything in the article.

I suppose most readers recognize the Irish music band U2 and maybe even their famous song Bloody Sunday. It wasn't until my trip to Northern Ireland that I learned the meaning of this song.

There's many lost, but tell me,

who has won...

How long...

How long must we sing this song?

How long...

'Cause tonight...we can be as one

Tonight... Tonight...

I knew little about the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Western Europe, but I began to explore this issue more until, honestly, I was scared of what a person could do in anger, hatred, and the desire for revenge. So I couldn't resist exploring the roots of this conflict on my own.

For the entire second half of the 20th century, violence, protests and bombings were practically daily thing in Northern Ireland, because of the group called the IRA (Irish Republican Army), which had no remorse at committing such heinous acts when trying to break away from England. In 1972, one of the most famous massacres took place in the town of Derry (for British Londonderry ), where 14 civilians were shot to death. Originally a non-violent protest for human rights turned into a bloodbath, when the British troops began to shoot at Catholics. They also shot at those who only defended themselves and fled to safety. So far, Britain has not apologized for this act. This event also led to creation of the above mentioned song, from which I brought you a text above.

Meeting with a cowboy from Texas

On Saturday at 3 am I have an appointment with Mitch - an American who came from Texas and, in his own words, his grandfather was a real cowboy. Mitch won't deny his ancestry. Near the town hall I recognise him from a distance - he has a hat and a cigarette. He has lived in Belfast for 10 years, has a Irish wife, and works here as a science doctor specializing in religion research. I can't have any better person to guide me around Belfast, I think to myself. We were united by luck. I was just looking for a photo on the back booklet of the music album I am publishing on various photo banks and I found a great Mitch photo, whose hobby is also photography. I see in profile that Mitch comes from Belfast. I am heading there soon, I think to myself. So I contact him immediately to see if he is interested to go for a beer. He agrees and so we soon are sweeping through various pubs right in the city.

We start in ones in the centre, where typical Irish music is played and where the beer is enjoyed in fullest by tourists. I pay for one round, Mitch for another one. This is how we take turns when I finally (after about seven o'clock) ask my new host to take me to a proper local pub without tourists and Irish music. We cross the river, into a neighbourhood which name I did not remember and did not investigate (I fully trusted Mitch) and immediately after getting dark we stand at one of the taverns. Immediately opposite the tavern stands out a painting with British "volunteers" in hoods and with guns. That's the place I was looking for, I noted right away. We find ourselves in a harsh royalist district where part of the population, especially the elders, resemble the recent past. Some guys are tattooed, not with very inviting faces, but it seems they are not interested in a Catholic tourist. I'm sitting with Mitch and his friends. To Harry, who commands respect from the very first moment I saw him, i show inscriptions from the so-called Peace Wall, which still divides Protestant lives from Catholics, from which I have described some interesting sentences. Here are a few:

Take down the wall for the future of our children

Treat people with kindness.

Peace through compromise.

One God, two faiths. So what's the difference?

Religion is not your definition.

The violence caused such silence.

Bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity.

Harry reads carefully, smiles at the last quotation, borrows a pen, and writes to me in the notebook:

Prepared for peace, ready for war(UVF - Ulster Volunteer Force)

I'm telling Mitch that I like the woman at the bar. She is already 45+ (my favourite age category), but she looks nice and tattooed. She communicates with everyone in a friendly way, and I also want to communicate with her in a friendly way. But Mitch discourages me from this idea very quickly. I ask him why. "You know, I know this woman, she has a boyfriend." Since I drank about eight beers, I don't care and emphasize with noise suitable for the fourth price group device: "Well, that may not be such a problem!" "But it is my friend, her boyfriend is the owner of several weapons." Mitch adds. This changes everything, and it seems that thanks to Mitch I have only a pleasant experience from Belfast. Later, the woman's dude comes and looks exactly like a man who owns several weapons.

Within reach of the unsinkable ship

Another day and in another pub I meet two Williams. Both gentlemen are already retired and enjoy a good beer and I enjoy it with them. William tells me he worked almost all his life at the docks, building ships. He has fathered 7 children. He's the right guy who seems to drink a little more, but at his age and with such experience, I might as well do the same.

Did you know that a Titanic was built in Belfast? A few years ago they built an amazing museum where you can really learn everything that is associated with this legendary ship. I confessed to one of the employees that whenever I see James Cameron's Titanic, I cry. The employee sympathizes with me and admits that it happens to her too.

Not far from the interactive museum is the ship called Nomadic, the last one built by the White Star Line (which also brought Titanic to life), in one of the docks. The ticket you purchase at the museum also includes a tour of this boat. I will not reveal much, go there and enjoy it for yourself. It's definitely worth it.

Visiting the prison and meeting with former political prisoners

I have always been fascinated by prisons (even cemeteries, but that is for another article). When I saw the film Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood, I had to visit a similar place (of course, as a tourist, not as a convict). Belfast can provide you with a similar experience. Near Shankill Road (where I lived) there is a prison called Crumlin Road Goal, which was built in 1846 and closed in 1996. It is precisely this prison that "hosted" many of the major political prisoners, such as Michael McGuinness, Michael Stone, Éamon de Valer or Bobby Sands. The prison also recorded several successful attempts to escape. On the board in one of the rooms you will see in which years and how many people escaped from the prison. The young guide will be happy to tell you about the spirit of a girl, the secret execution room and the request to marry directly under the gallows.

It is not uncommon to meet current (and at the same time) former political prisoners. While at home before the trip, I booked a so-called three-hour political conflict walking tour, where the former inmates are your guides and remind you of all the terrible things that happened during the attacks of the Republican Army and the "enthusiastic" British volunteers. There are lots of paintings (called murals) around Shankill Road, reminiscent of the tragedies that occurred in the late 20th century). One of the guides was a direct witness to one of the assassinations that had happened when he was having a drink with his friends in a nearby pub. There are places, where it is really hard to believe that you are in Western Europe and not in some Middle Eastern or African country.

A tourist city?

Even though Belfast is known for its terrible recent past, you have no doubt in the city centre that it is a tourist destination. Double-decker buses HOP ON HOP OFF travelling the streets, historic buildings and churches providing a chance for breathtaking photography and the local vibrant Layon Place market, about 5 times bigger and more crowded than our Bratislava market. You can get a variety of domestic and world quality beers almost everywhere and it is worth a while to taste delicious Irish whiskey. However, once you go a short distance beyond the centre, you can see Belfast, as it looked like years ago - without tourists and foreigners from Eastern Europe. People, despite the really unpredictable weather (indeed, I do not regret that I took the raincoat), are nice and respectful and interested in you. You are greeted on the street, there is always a smiling worker in the shop, bus coaches are always willing to help. Something that is still not the rule in Slovakia, seems to be a matter of course here. Being a lover and frequent visitor of Middle Eastern countries (where there is no lack of social life), I was afraid of some form of individualism on my way to Northern Ireland and assumed that I would be alone in my wandering. I was not. I haven't experienced so many spontaneous meetings and conversations in a long time.

So, at the end, don't be afraid of Northern Ireland and you don't have to worry about going alone, if your friends happen to be busy and your partner isn't interested in your plans. I will certainly return to these places. Have a nice trip.

Date of trip: January 2020

Author: Peter Gregor