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Living with History: A Belfast Travelogue

Annie Tock Morrisette, Ph.D. Candidate

I recently returned from a research trip to Ireland. My dissertation explores the relationship between historical memory and the perpetuation of collective violence within the context of Irish sectarian conflict. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which the conflict moved across the Atlantic from Ireland to eastern Canada during the first half of the 19th century and was expressed in riots on historically significant dates like July 12. One of my primary objectives for this trip was to scout out the primary sources held by the National Archives of Ireland in Dublin and to also begin to get a sense of the ways the long memory of sectarian violence continues to affect Irish culture. I think that I accomplished these goals and also recognized that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this incredibly complex and deeply rooted conflict.  I want to use this space in Khronikos to talk briefly about my visit to Belfast, a beautiful and raw place where it seems many people on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide (which is less about religion and more about hereditary social status and power sharing) are trying to come to grips with an Troubled past and talking honestly about the scars of the past, the open wounds of the present, and the challenges of the hoped for healing process of the future.

Because we’d never been to Northern Ireland (or the Republic, for that matter) before, we booked a Black Cab Taxi tour through Paddywagon tour company. I was going to provide a link, but apparently there are several Black Cab tour companies in Belfast, so you can Google it if you’re interested. One of the main purposes of these companies is to show people around the sites of the recent Troubles (the violence between Protestants and Catholics (heard of the IRA – Irish Republican Army? The Protestant military wing was the UVF – Ulster Volunteer Force) that took place between the late 1960s and the mid 1990s and to educate visitors to Belfast about the conflict. The company we went with employed drivers on both sides of the conflict who had firsthand experience with the Troubles. On our tour there were two cabs, one with a Catholic driver and the other Protestant; the Catholic talked about the Protestant neighborhood, and the Protestant talked about the Catholic area. I don’t know if this is standard procedure, or if they switch things up, but our driver (the Protestant) said they make a point of not listening to each other’s talks to avoid being influenced (or tempted to counteract?).

The Shankill UVF Mural

The Shankill UVF Mural

The Protestant area we visited was known as the Shankill (named after the main road through the neighborhood). Belfast is famous for its political murals, and the Shankill features some great examples.

Shankill mural. The hero commemorated here is considered by some Catholics to have been a psychopath.

Shankill mural. The hero commemorated here is considered by some Catholics to have been a psychopath.

Shankill mural depicting the Red Hand of Ulster. According to legend, two kings agreed that the first man who touch this piece of land would own it. They raced toward the land in boats, neck and neck. In a desperate effort to claim the land, one king cut off his hand and threw it ashore. The Red Hand of Ulster (and the associated flag you can see at the top of the mural) has become a complicated symbol in Ireland. The legend predates English occupation (in the 1100s), but it has been adopted by Loyalists and Unionists.

Shankill mural depicting the Red Hand of Ulster. According to legend, two kings agreed that the first man who touch this piece of land would own it. They raced toward the land in boats, neck and neck. In a desperate effort to claim the land, one king cut off his hand and threw it ashore. The Red Hand of Ulster (and the associated flag you can see at the top of the mural) has become a complicated symbol in Ireland. The legend predates English occupation (in the 1100s), but it has been adopted by Loyalists and Unionists.

Shankill mural celebrating the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne. The commemoration of this victory on July 12 is frequently the spark for violence and was the occasion of major riots in Canada in the 1840s.

Shankill mural celebrating the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne. The commemoration of this victory on July 12 is frequently the spark for violence and was the occasion of major riots in Canada in the 1840s.

Leaving the Protestant area, our driver took us to one of Belfast’s Peace Walls. These walls were erected in the 1960s at the outbreak of the Troubles to separate Protestant and Catholic areas, but have become permanent features of hotspots like Belfast and Derry. The walls have been reinforced and expanded at the request of residents who seem to believe they are necessary to keep the peace. They have become a canvas for graffiti artists and a place for visitors to leave messages of hope for an end to the violence.

Peace wall. The height extension is recent and was added at the request of residents to try to prevent people from throwing projectiles over the wall.

Peace wall. The height extension is recent and was added at the request of residents to try to prevent people from throwing projectiles over the wall.

Peace wall graffiti.

Peace wall graffiti.

After visiting the peace wall and passing through the gates that close over the road at night, we entered the Catholic Falls Road area. The Falls has its own murals, and the ones we visited were surprisingly up to date, promoting the Free Marian Price campaign among other causes. For more on that please see http://www.freemarian.co.nr/. One of the murals not pictured depicts the ten men who died on hunger strike in a Northern Ireland prison in 1981. Many Republicans blame former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for callously allowing these men to die rather than grant their demands to be considered political prisoners. Unsurprisingly, her death evoked emotional reactions in Ireland and the UK.

Falls murals.

Falls murals.

Falls mural. This one well illustrates both the currency of the murals and the philosophy of some of the Republican militants. Interestingly, the Falls murals are keen to relate the Irish Republican cause to fights for independence around the world, including the plight of five Cubans detained by the American government.

Falls mural. This one well illustrates both the currency of the murals and the philosophy of some of the Republican militants. Interestingly, the Falls murals are keen to relate the Irish Republican cause to fights for independence around the world, including the plight of five Cubans detained by the American government.

After our cab tour, we walked around Belfast City Center. It was a Saturday, so we were just in time to see the weekly Loyalist protest at City Hall. In early December, Belfast city council decided to fly the Union Jack flag on 18 designated days, in accordance with UK policy, rather than every day. Since then, Loyalists have intermittently rioted and protested what they feel is a capitulation to the demands of militant Republicans.

Belfast City Hall flag protest.

Belfast City Hall flag protest.

Actually visiting these places and talking with people still enmeshed in the conflict that I am studying in its early 19th-century iteration was incredibly helpful for me as I ponder the ways that we think about history and commemorate historical events. I’m coming to believe that historical memory, and the ways in which that memory is institutionalized through public commemoration, plays a greater role in shaping culture, group identity, and violence than I before realized. From my perspective as an outsider – and I feel it is very important to acknowledge that perspective – both groups love Ireland, but they have very different visions of what it means to be Irish.

Annie Tock Morrisette,”Living with History: A Belfast Travelogue,”Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), May 2, 2014, http://khronikos.com/2013/05/02/living-with-history-a-belfast-travelogue/.

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All images courtesy of the author.

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