The violence of which Belfast descends is disheartening. After thirty years of turmoil, the region has now raised a generation in peace. May that peace continue onward.
In September 2018, I visited Belfast for what I hope is the first time. As an Anglophile (someone who likes the United Kingdom), I enjoy dry humor and mostly know the subtle cue between a British joke and a serious statement. I was chauffeured by a wonderful taxi driver who was born and raised in Belfast. When I commented on how I loved the juxtaposition between the old and new buildings of Europe, he responded, “that’s because of all the bombs, dear. Belfast was the most bombed city in the world at one point.” I knew he was partly joking, as the United States has not retained its history as the European continent has. I knew he was partly serious, as Belfast had a violent history.
I then noted how excited I was to see the “peace walls.” Thinking aloud he mused, “I don’t understand how there can be peace with walls. There’s nothing peaceful if there’s a wall.” I knew that was serious. Cautiously, I asked if he thought they should be torn down. He shrugged. I asked no further questions.
I learned of “The Troubles” by happenstance. In high school, I read a book called The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve. From what I remember [spoiler alert], the Irish-American pilot lived a double-life as he cheated on his wife and supported the IRA. I remember the author fictionally intimated the deceased pilot may have felt “patriotic” in his activities. As I read it more than a decade ago, I don’t recall much else.
Before this novel, I didn’t know what the IRA was and I had never heard of them. Like most Americans, particularly those of a certain socioeconomic class, I never learned about events during my primary and secondary education that didn’t substantively affect the United States. What makes this more appalling is the role of former President Bill Clinton in facilitating the Good Friday Agreement. You’d think someone would’ve mentioned this in school; but the construction of the American education curriculum is a story unto itself.
That said, this book stayed with me. In university, I worked with a wonderful Scottish woman named Patricia. She was jolly and retained the thick accent of her homeland. Being a curious busybee, I casually walked into her office one day, and I asked her about the IRA, this book, and the portrayal of this character. Recognizing my unfettered juvenile ignorance, she quieted, closed the door, and whispered, “there was nothing patriotic about them, dear. They were terrorists, and they used to bomb us.”
Over the years my interest has returned to this conflict. Less as a sensation, and more to understand the depths of my own naiveté and the lack of discussion that surrounds the Troubles. In twelfth grade, I learned about the Rwandan Genocide. I learned of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Yasser Arafat. I knew who the Shia and Sunni Muslims were and the role each played in Iraq. I remember the day that oil hit sixty-dollars per barrel. All that said, I’d only heard the name Bobby Sands in passing as an adult. Until recently, I knew nothing of the standoff between him and Margaret Thatcher, nor had I known the names of Dolorous and Mariam Price.
When I visited Belfast City Hall, our tour-guide remarked how proud she was that Belfast was becoming a magnet for tourism. She remembered the Troubles and fled to England to escape their intensity. She was so thrilled that people wanted to visit her city. I was delighted that we had that effect. As I exited, I saw an art installation with quotes of family victims who’d lost loved ones during the conflict. I remember the story of a woman saying the IRA knocked down her door and executed her husband. She remarked that she didn’t know what happened or what could’ve been so important that he needed to be shot dead in his own home.
Many archived articles, excellent books, old BBC news reels, binging Derry Girls twice, and a few documentaries later, I’m no longer as ill-informed as I once was. I understand what a “loyalist/unionist” and “nationalist” are in their appropriate contexts.
Northern Ireland is now experiencing violence that’s given many community members pause. A bus was hijacked and incinerated. Petrol bombs were thrown at police cars. At present, seventy-four officers are injured. Reasons proffered for the disruption are Brexit, the 2,000-person funeral of former IRA member Bobby Storey in alleged violation of COVID19 regulations, and economic anxiety in different communities. As I am neither Irish nor British, I have not the temerity to speculate about the root causes or put forward suggestions for a solution. Many Americans pontificated from across the pond before, during, and after Brexit — I wasn’t one of them.
For all of humanity, I want us to be safe, loved, and unencumbered. Having visited Belfast I now feel a vested interest in its security and peace. I know how self-absorbed that sounds, that makes it no less genuine. When you’ve been to a place, patronized its pubs, photographed its castles, you leave a piece of yourself and you take a piece of it with you. Seeing the images on the news of late breaks my heart. Not because I’m an Anglophile, because of my tour guide.
I don’t remember her name. I remember how happy she was to return to her city. I remember how proud she was of Belfast. I remember the pride she took in the people of Northern Ireland. She beamed that Belfast was considered to be a top tourist destination; overjoyed that people no longer associated it with violence and disarray. She radiated a warmth demonstrative of strength from adversity, undeterred that her city would be known for something other than its sectarian conflict.
I hope this turmoil subsides. When I visit Belfast again, I want to see my tour guide. I want to see her joy, her glow, and her pride. I want to see her peace. I also want to see my taxi driver. When I do, I won’t ask about the walls, or the juxtaposition between buildings. I’ll ask about the people who worked through it all, who lived their lives, and made sure people like me, one day could visit.