I was very interested to visit Belfast, since I have been a Londoner all my life, and was very much exposed to the IRA bombings throughout my childhood and teenage years.
I also studied what was quickly named The Troubles in Northern Ireland at school, as part of History GCSE. What I am trying to tell you is that many of these images that people in Northern Ireland see every day, I saw on the news after school, and looked at in books during the day.
I wanted to take one of the Black Taxi Tours to BOTH sides of the Peace Wall divide (you have to look for a taxi with a yellow sticker on the front, white or green stickered taxis can only stay on one side, thus you only get half the story according to our man in the taxi) and our driver promised to try and get us all through the political history tour in one hour, for £25 (pounds sterling are used in Northern Ireland. In Eire, or Southern Ireland, it's Euros) and as he was an official guide, I thought it was something of a bargain.
We passed the port, where the Titanic was built incidentally, and went straight down the Cromwell Road to Cromwell Prison, where the first political prisoners were held. This row of houses is where, at the height of The Troubles, prison guards would live. Across the road is where the offenders were sentenced. As you can see, it has fallen into disrepair, and has been granted planning permission to be converted into an Hotel. The prison itself will be turned into a museum, it was supposed to be finished in June, but will not be finished 'for a while yet'. He told us that we'd find this Belfast in many respects "Fifteen years behind everyone else" but that since the ceasefire 9 years ago (it doesn't seem that long) they've been building up much of the town again. They've also paid Unionists £5,000 per painting, to change negative gunmen-type images on the murals on the end of terraced houses in favour of more positive yet still Unionist historical figures, like this one of William of Orange.
Belfast is famous for these murals, both Unionist (Protestant) and Republican (Catholic) beyond the wall, especially this one, which I remember from news bulletins when I was young. It's famous because the gun itself follows you around as you pass in front of it. Then there are the Unionist heros. This man, "Top Gun" is known to have been responsible for the murder of at least 20 people. He died of a drug overdose in '93, but the floral tributes and letters look as if they were left only yesterday.
This mural was only painted about 6 months ago apparently. The thing that struck me was that these images are all close together, and are seen every day by locals. It's just part of their life, and they live with the memories of the Troubles on a daily basis.
We drove on, looking up at this tower block on the way. The top two floors of this block were occupied by the British Army for 2 years at the height of The Troubles, because it's the highest vantage point in the city.
These gates are closed at 6pm to provide a barrier between Catholic and Protestant, South and North, every night. There are several gates through the Peace Wall, and only one remains open 24 hours a day. There were actually two barriers that we drove through in order to get over to the Catholic side.
Here are the remnants of the July 11th Orange Order march. There is also a fire here, and I couldn't help but think how sombre a day it must really be, a civil march through Ulster passing by neighbours with whom you have such a troubled past, just because you have the right.
On the Catholic side, of course the murals are somewhat different, and the main collection is on this road. This man was a famous political prisoner who refused to wear an HMS (Her Majesty's Service) prison uniform, on account of his belief that he was not under the rule of the British crown, and so took to his cell, wearing only his blanket, starting the Blanket Protests. Then there's Bobby Sands, the first Catholic to die on hunger strike in prison.
This is the Peace Wall, seen still from the Protestant side. It's been built up higher a number of times, and apparently is being made stronger even now. There are no plans to remove it. If you could see the dark, stained segment in the far of this picture (I realised it's just out of the shot!), that's where the last petrol bomb was thrown, 4 years ago. Here are the original 10 murals, put there in the late 70's which apparently are being removed soon. We were told it's now customary to sign the wall. Here's me, writing all I could think of , "Remember, but now please, move on."
In this bunker, in the wall, 5,000 British Army troops waited, and were needed to curb the violence we were told.
On the other side is a road on which our guide told us at least 83 people died. These 83 are remembered in the Clonard Memorial Gardens (the pamphlet on which, our guide helped to write. I'd been fearful of asking his political views, but I think he must be Catholic separatist, in order to have taken the time to write about this. His tour was, however, very thorough and without bias.) at the end of the street that backs onto the wall. Several of these tributes are heartbreaking, including one
"Sean O'Riordan was born in Oranmore Street on March 23rd 1972. At the age of 13 Sean was shot dead by the British Army in Cawnpore Street. He was subsequently buried in the Republican plot in Milltown."
It is amazing how people in this street still live. They have cages on the back of their houses, just to make sure no petrol bombs or explosives land, literally in their back gardens.
In the Republican neighbourhoods, post boxes are green, not red. This is to symbolize that they don't want to be associated with the UK, or Royal, postal service.
On this house the black flag is still being flown, to commemorate the day the last individual died on hunger strike in prison.
I'm not going to lie, it wasn't an easy day, but I'm glad I saw these places, and on the positive side the situation has improved to the point that there is a ceasefire which people genuinely believe will last. Eric was affected too, but in ways I cannot really comprehend. Canada has it's own issues with Britain, with separatist and loyalist camps, but as he said "It just hasn't got this bad."
And our driver did take us to a nice pub for our lunch, to mull over what we'd seen. He tried to charge us £40, for going 15 minutes over the agreed hour, but we harmoniously came to a £35 arrangement, and parted ways.