And Still, Wounds Fester: The Fragile Calm of Belfast

Unionist Flag 2

I would be fooling no one if I said that I knew a lot about the conflict that has left Catholic and Protestant blood on the soil of Ireland for hundreds of years. Most Americans’ knowledge of European history is probably limited to one or two classes in high school; I’m an atypical American in the sense that I was actually fascinated by European history and took additional classes in university. I could tell you what Bloody Sunday was or what IRA stands for, but I couldn’t really tell you why or how this part of the world came to be so entrenched in partisanship and sectarian violence. My couchsurfing host John has lived here for most of his life, and he has shown me a bizarre and unsettling side to the city I will be calling home for the next week.

City Hall

Yesterday I left Dublin early in the morning and arrived in Belfast’s city center by bus, not too far from their city hall. It’s hard to see, but the Union Jack flying from the City Hall was up for the first time in quite a while. Last year, the Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days in which the British flag flew over City Hall to 18, the minimum as stipulated under British law. Yesterday was Remembrance Day in the UK, so in honor of British soldiers killed in the line of duty, the flag flew. In the city center, some people wore red poppies on their coats in remembrance–and in allegiance–and some did not.

The Orangemen Marching In

After taking me by his apartment to drop off my bag, John took me out of the city center to a neighborhood called Ardoyne. It was here that I saw a group of about fifty men dressed in suits, bowler hats and orange sashes sing hymns and then march down the road. However, this was no ordinary parade; this group of men was surrounded on one side by dozens of heavily armed police. After the Orangemen marched down the street, the police cordon broke off and John and I crossed a road into the Catholic side of Ardoyne.

Unionist Flag 1

As we walked by where the Orangemen had been standing, we passed numerous banners erected by the Unionists. Many of them had Scottish or English place names on them; there were Rangers FC banners—Rangers are the famous Glasgow club associated with Protestants, while their archrival Celtic are associated with Catholics—as well as flags with acronyms for several different Unionist political parties and military groups, such as the Ulster Defense Regiment.

Children are the Future

Literally the next street over from the marching Orangemen was this mural, and on a cul-de-sac nearby were several children, some kicking a football, others jumping rope. It is a strange sight to see such innocence and tranquility only steps away from red-blooded nationalism. If not for the police force blocking entry to this street, the Orangemen would attempt to march through this part of Ardyone. On past occasions where this has happened, widespread rioting has engulfed the neighborhood.

No one wins

John and I walked further down the street, John clearly more relaxed now that we were in a Catholic neighborhood. We stopped beneath this mural, which to me epitomizes the blindness of sectarian conflict. Each side views itself as irrevocably the stronger, the morally right, the just, the victor. Each side views the other as the tyrant, the murderer, the aggressor, the loser.

Easter Rising

Over the years there have been countless accords, treaties, and agreements meant to put an end to the sectarian violence between the two sides. And after the initial calm that greets each ceasefire, tensions boil over and inevitably blood is spilled again. In the middle of the night, a car screeches to a halt and men toss a can of paint across a mural. A flag tied to a pole the day before is ripped off and left lying in the street. A parade of people who speak in the same accented tongue wish to walk down the street of a people who look the same and speak the same language, and the menace of needless death and destruction looms. And one street over, children play, oblivious to the senseless hatred that festers beneath the surface, a hatred that threatens to mar the fragile peace that sways back and forth beneath partisan winds.

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13 thoughts on “And Still, Wounds Fester: The Fragile Calm of Belfast

  1. Interesting read for me. I’ve been following your blog because of my pilgrimage to Spain this past summer. It wasn’t on the El Camino though. I wrote about it on this post: I’ve been given a unique window into both Protestanism and Catholicism. So I regularly pray for unity between them. Thanks for sharing about the divide in Ireland. One day there will be unity.

    1. Thank you Ardis for following along so diligently-believe me, I know who’s a familiar face and who isn’t. I’m not so sure there will be unity, because violence tends to follow a cyclical pattern. Hate begets hate. If things can stay as they are now, with a fragile calm and a lot of pompous, blustering people marching around, that’s really not too bad.

  2. Great post Nathan! As a child of ex-pat Irish I have a one-generation removed understanding of the complex nature of ‘the troubles’. At the risk of offending Irish Catholic and/or Protestant people, as a one-generation removed person I also have the personal view that the on-going situation comes down to obstinacy, intolerance, lack of education and deeply entrenched daily culture. A wise man once said that the Irish temperament was made to fight, and fight they will against foe real or imagined. I saw that in my own family history 🙂

    I think it’s great that you have the opportunity to experience the pain of this situation for yourself – it has to give perspective on tolerance and peace.

  3. That was definitely a wise man–I think the foe in this case is more imaginary. It is very easy to paint your enemies with a wide brush and assume that just because they’re all on the “other” side they must all hate you. When Ireland divides itself and Catholics and Protestants hardly ever see each other it makes it much easier for them to make these assumptions; when you put these people in the same room and they look into each others’ eyes, perhaps then they will recognize their common humanity and realize how tragic and stupid the Troubles are.

    All this said, just wait til I get to Israel (I haven’t been yet, but I will at some point on this trip). It’s easy as an outsider to see things clearly; when I find myself in a place where “my” people are on one side of the fence it’s probably going to be a bit more confusing. But it’s good that I’m seeing a place like Belfast beforehand so I have some context.

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