After a short flight from Edinburgh to Belfast, I settled in to a hotel in the center of Belfast and headed out for an early dinner. After a month away from home the vagabond life has begun to take its toll, so it’s early to bed tonight.
Next morning I board Northern Ireland’s version of a Greyhound bus and head across the country to Derry. It’s a short trip (less than two hours). Northern Ireland is small, roughly the size of Connecticut, with an equally small populations (1.8 million). In comparison, the city of Philadelphia is 1.55 million.
Having previously visited the Republic of Ireland and now Northern Ireland, the impact of the “troubles” just seems more evident in Derry, Northern Ireland. I joined an afternoon walking tour with John from McCrossan’s City Tours. John gives an excellent overview of Derry, its pre 20th century history, as well as the history of the troubles. Much of the story of the troubles is depicted in murals throughout Derry, none more poignant that the mural of Annette McGavigan, a 14 year old killed in the crossfire in 1971. Because of my Irish Catholic ancestry, I wanted an unbiased tour of Derry and John delivered. At the end of his tour I honestly did not know if he is English/Protestant/Irish/ Catholic. Regardless of faith or nationality, the citizens of Derry (as well as the rest of Northern Ireland) suffered greatly during the troubles. John pointed out that Catholics in Northern Ireland were motivated to protest by seeing Martin Luther King, Jr and the struggle for civil rights in the states.
Many of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s watched the violence on our televisions at home. As a refresher, the article below is a very brief overview of the conflict and some of its origins.
A Brief History of “The Troubles”
By Brendan McAllister | February 25th, 2009
Centuries ago Ireland came under the control of England. As part of that process, large numbers of English and Scottish people were encouraged to settle in the north of Ireland. While most of the native Irish were Catholic, most of the settlers were Protestant. At the start of the twentieth century there was a sustained campaign to break the link with Britain. However, in the north there was a campaign to maintain the link or union with Great Britain. On both sides of this argument, significant numbers were prepared to use violence in support of their cause. In 1920 the British settled the matter by dividing Ireland – granting independence to most of it and keeping the northern part within the United Kingdom. However, around 40% of northerners were Irish nationalists – people who wanted independence from Britain. Therefore, from its creation in 1920, Northern Ireland was a state whose citizens differed over their national allegiance. Consequently, for several decades, the leaders of the Protestant, unionist majority, discriminated against the Catholic, nationalist minority. The laws and institutions of the State reflected this discrimination.
By the 1960s, frustrations within the Catholic, nationalist community found expression in a campaign for civil rights. The state responded with brutal force. Within the Catholic community, there were people who began a new campaign of violence to end British rule and end the partition of Ireland. These people are known as republicans. Within the Protestant community, there were people who took up the gun to defend the link with Britain. These people are known as loyalists.
While the majority of Catholics (nationalists) and Protestants (unionists) did not support the use of violence, the terrorist campaign fought by republicans and loyalists and the State’s campaign of counter-terrorism by the use of the British army and the police, meant that the Northern Ireland conflict became defined by widespread violence. 3,500 were killed. Thousands more were injured. Thousands were traumatized by violence. Thousands were sent to prison. However by the 1990s there was recognition that violence would not deliver a solution to the conflict and that any effort to find a political answer would only succeed if republican and loyalist paramilitaries were given a voice at the negotiating table.
In Ireland, over the last 15 years or so, we have been living through a period known as ‘the Peace Process’. This period has seen the establishment of political negotiations, ceasefires by the main republican and loyalist paramilitary organizations and fundamental reform of aspects of our system of governance in order to command the respect and allegiance of all our citizens.
Progress has been so profound that it is possible now to speak of the end of ‘the Troubles’ – a 30-year period when our conflict was expressed in violence and a generation grew up in the shadow of the gun and the bomb.
From “Restorative Justice and Peace in Northern Ireland,” an address by Brendan McAllister (SPI ’96 & ’98) at the European Forum for Restorative Justice in Barcelona, June 16, 2006. (Reprinted as originally written.)
Before leaving home I also watched a documentary – Voices From the Grave – which presents both points of view. Easy to find on YouTube and at 90 minutes, its a worthwhile investment of your time.
Next day, I was back in Belfast and took advantage of the Hop On/Off bus to see many of the sites of the city. While I didn’t go into the Titanic Museum, it is an interesting structure. Designed to resemble a large ship, but with a shimmering façade. Next, I hopped off the bus at St. George’s Market. It’s sort of a Rice’s Market (New Hope, Pa) and a Reading Terminal Market (Philadelphia, Pa) all wrapped up in one. Picked up a souvenir just in time to hop back on a bus and go to Queens University. It’s a great place to hop off because this stop puts you right in the middle of the college, the Botanic Garden, and the Ulster Museum. The Ulster Museum is a modern and airy space and on the day I visited it was full of school children. Schools here don’t finish up until July.
The most emotional sites in Belfast are the peace wall murals on the Falls Road and Shankill Road. They depict the fear, the hope, and the violence of the decades long conflict known as the ‘troubles”. As an Irish American, it’s difficult to adequately convey the emotion one feels standing in front of these depictions of both sides of the struggle. This link provides better information than I can provide and also better pictures of the murals.
Next morning I awake to clouds and drizzle – not the best weather to explore the Antrium Coast, but I am not deterred. I join a local tour where I am the only American. Most of my 12 or so fellow travelers are from the UK, and others are from Asia, Australia, and Norway. After a brief stop outside the Carrickfergus Castle, we journey to the entry to the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge. After a short hike from the parking area, we arrive at the queue to cross the bridge. The coastal setting is beautiful even on this overcast and drizzly day. I have previously overcome most of my old fear of heights, but as I step onto the wet wooden slats of the bridge and feel it bounce with the weight of those of us crossing it, I’ll admit to a momentary hesitation. But I make it safely to the other side secure in the knowledge that the return trip won’t be so daunting.
After a quick stop at the Dunluce Castle ruin, we enjoyed a hot and hearty meal and a taste of whiskey at the Bushmills Distillery. Just a short drive along the coast we arrive at the Giants Causeway and opt for a guided hike. Ten minutes in and the drizzle becomes a steady downpour and the temperature drops to the 50s. I am prepared with gloves, a scarf, jacket, and umbrella….ah the lovely summer climate of The United Kingdom.
I should mention that from the time I arrived in Scotland in late May, until I departed Northern Ireland at the end of June, the daily topic of conversation was BREXIT. The referendum that would decide whether the UK would leave the European Union was the subject of mostly friendly debate. The majority of people I met and worked with in Scotland preferred to stay in the EU. Attitudes in Northern Ireland were similar. I did referee some intra family discussions about BREXIT, but they were always good natured. Time will tell if the right decision has been made.
This adventure has been a wonderful mix of volunteering, traveling with friends, and going solo. I enjoyed every bit of it, but home and family are calling to me. Until next time….don’t be afraid to cross a bridge.