it was for want of seeing one of my favourite american singer-songwriters, jonatha brooke, that i went to belfast for the second time in my life. even after the fact, i’m not sure why she played in the dark, hazy northern capital when she could’ve performed for an audience thrice the size (at least) in dublin, fair city… but i digress. (bear with me, as i’m currently working on my 3rd corona and lime whilst typing this).
i don’t know if belfast has a catchy slogan or city motto, although it probably should from the way the city tour guide blatantly exaggerated it’s economic boom during her bus-ride speech. it was the morning after bill & i listened to jonatha croon in the upstairs room of a local haunt-come-superpub on the ormeau road in one of belfast’s southern-most nationalist neighborhoods (which becomes important in a minute).
here, it would be an apt time to interject that i’ve, occasionally, been asked by friends and acquaintances back in the U.S. of A. , whether ireland is a safe country. i always felt that was a question to be scoffed at, for even at the time when i first came to ireland (2003) it was never an issue, and locals in the “sunny south”ern republic would be the first to admit that (mostly) they’ve never been privy to much, if any of the violence that plagued the country for most of the mid-20th century, and divided the island in two.
i never do tour buses. but i was glad i did this one because, admittedly, it would still be difficult to get from one end of belfast to another unless you really knew where you were going. and running around with “southern” license plates certainly wouldn’t make you any close friends in certain of belfast’s neighborhoods (although it would probably beget blood brothers in others).
most telling are how close the streets are to one another. the shankhill road and the falls road, which run parallel to one another, were the primary sites of violence and sectarianism during the notorious Troubles. and i use the word “were” loosely here, as not much has really changed, aside from the erection of 20 foot tall corrugated fencing (running through literal backyards), unaptly named a “peace line,” that keep the two areas visibly separated. evenings and weekends, the intersecting roads that bring the two together are forcefully cut off by locked gates, making it literally impossible for the two sides to interact in any way. if they can’t see each other, they can’t shoot each other, joked our tour guide. sure looks that way to me.
beyond that, murals depicting various levels of violence and clannish dogma (read riflers in black masks) still fill the peripheral views on each side of each of these roads – all empty wall space is overtaken by the so-called artwork of sectarian zealots. the tour guide was often unintentionally humorous, at one point scorning we naughty tourists for thinking this was a “religious war” and warning us to spread the word back home that “this was a conflict about politics”, then resuming her memorised schpeel about protestant vs. catholic neighborhoods. i was unaware the catholic flag flew in green and orange and white.
nothing about this seemed peaceful to me. at best, it seemed frigid and sectarian. at worst, it seemed swept under the rug. how, after SO long and so little news media and such lack of violence, HOW can these so-called “peace lines” of bordered fence blocking still exist? it was enough to move me to furtive tears, mostly out of fear and shock that each day, people still wake up and take their morning coffee to views of green two-storey fences, quick reminders not to pull out the rifle and shoot across the street. and just 60 miles north of my home, no less.
i am so glad to live in dublin, fair city (times two), but i can’t help feeling overwhelmed and quite simply scared for belfasters. if having a 24-hour supermarket marks the city’s entrance to civility, perhaps we are all doomed on some level…