Monday, May 22, 2017

Day Tripping: Belfast & The Giants Causeway

Day 5

Part One: Belfast and "The Trouble"

On a previous trip to Ireland my daughter and I focused on the southern, western and middle of the island. 

This visit I scheduled a day trip to the two major northern destinations; Belfast and the amazing basalt coastline formations known as The Giants Causeway.

In our first stop the City of Belfast I hoped to gain insight about what the Irish refer to as "The Troubles".

The story is told via local cabbies who conduct "Black Cab Tours" to key sites in the civil war. Hearing the story from locals who have lived it is emotional and heartbreaking.

The title: The Troubles is an epic example of Irish understatement. Anyone living during the 60's-80's remeber nightly developments in Northern Ireland's tragic civil war.

In fact on my first trip to Europe, just after graduating high school, I experienced its consequences. The day after our student group toured the Tower of London it was bombed by the IRA.

Just a few years ago on a return trip to the Tower I inquired about the bombing and was directed to a very discrete bronze plaque denoting where that bomb had been placed. There is no other evidence of the event.

The history of Ireland is a litany of theft and abuse from the Normans to Cromwell.

Modern history centers around the Irish War of Indepndence from 1919 to 1921. The conflict ended in a 1921 truce partitioning the nation. The British would retain rule over 26 counties and a provisional government was formed. In 1922 all but 6 counties in Northern Ireland became an independent republic. The 6 counties remained under British control.

Within the 6 counties there is a deep divide between the Unionists / Loyalists that tend to be Protestant and consider themselves British and the Nationalists / Republicans that tend to be Catholic and desire to see all of Ireland united. 

To this day neighborhoods in Belfast are precisely divided between Republican and Unionist. Massive walls divide the neighborhoods and steel gates must be closed every evening to keep residents separated.

King William Mural in a Unionist/Protestant Neighborhood

 Tribute to a Unionist Sniper 

The "heroic" martyr portrayed in this mural began life as a skinhead. He went on to drug dealing, money laundering and the sniper killing at least 12. His kills were frequently random, innocent, Catholics. His attacks featured the killing of a man called to deliver a pizza, using an uzi in a crowded pub and the maiming of an 8 year old boy. 

After killing shop worker Philomena he was reported to be heard singing "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" as he drove off. 

He died from a lethal dose of painkillers and cocaine. The fact that his life is celebrated offers proof of the ongoing animus.

The Steel Gates and The Wall

Republican Anti-Royal Ulster Constabulary Mural

Republican Martyrs Mural

During the height of The Trouble the British under Thatcher responded by sending thousands of troops rather than attempt any sort of diplomacy. Spotters took their place on top of one of Belfast's tallest buildings and the hit and run war of tit for tat terrorism and violence jst escalated.

Perhaps the most notorious event took place on January 30, 1972. Known as Bloody Sunday, this is the date British Soldiers shot and killed 13 unarmed male civilians marching for the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. 

This was followed by an internment program where over a thousand Catholics were rounded up, interrogated (and generally abused) by almost exclusively Protestant guards; all without trial.

An uneasy ceasefire was negotiated in part when Bill Clinton sent George Mitchel as a Special Envoy to Northern Ireland to establish a schedule for ceasefire and disarmament. 

Yet, Belfast today remains a deeply troubled place. Annual parades and bonfires continue to remind everyone of ongoing animosity. The Black Cabs take tourists to view the physical elements associated with the dispute; murals, massive walls and the steel gates that still close each night to divide Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. They take you to view the prominent martyr memorials celebrating the urban terrorists of both sides. What can't be readily shown is the generational human toll that has surrendered to hatred and war.

All these years later while the rest of Ireland thrives, Belfast remains a sad, hateful, deeply divided  place with high unemployment.

It's two major tourist draws are based on disasters; the black cabs explaining The Troubles and a severely shaped museum dedicated to the HMS Titanic (which was built in Belfast, during its shipbuilding era).

 The Titanic Experience

Roadboys Travels © 2017

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