My long-awaited study tour with my communications class to Northern Ireland has already come and gone, and I have to say it was one of the best weeks I have had since being in Europe. We left early Sunday morning. After spending a couple of days in Belfast, we spent our last day and night in Dublin. It was not only one of the most enjoyable trips I have been on, but also one of the most interesting in terms of the things we got to see and learn about. I felt that I learned more about Belfast from experiencing it than I ever would have had I tried to learn about it back in the U.S. or even in Copenhagen. On top of that, I got to spend time with some wonderful people and go to fabulous locations and eat delicious food. On the whole it was a week I shall not soon forget.
The moment we landed in Dublin airport we hopped on a bus and headed to Belfast. We had our first tour around the city and were able to see how deeply divided the community was from the many years of conflict in the area. We toured the area of Shankill road and Falls road, two neighborhoods strictly divided between the Protestant and Catholic communities – Shankill road being Protestant and Falls road, Catholic.
On Shankill road a Protestant tour guide showed us some of the important murals as well as many sites of violence as a result of the fighting between the neighboring communities. He showed us some of the murals painted on the buildings around the neighborhood and described the history of violence in the area, backing it with both historical facts as well as personal memories. He even showed us the place where one of his favorite pubs had been bombed and had lost some of his life-long friends and nearly been killed himself.
It was fascinating to hear these stories from a person who had spent his entire life growing up on one side of the conflict, and who was even dedicating part of his career to showing others the things he had seen and experienced.
The wall serves as a peace line between both communities, to prevent further violence. It is very high, but covered in murals and writing from tourists who came and left their mark on it. It is also very long, and gated on both ends. As we walked along the wall, we finally met up with the other half of our group at the other end where the gate had been opened for traffic to pass through.
We were then handed over to the Catholic tour guide who took us on a similar tour through his neighborhood. Unlike the Shankill Road, the Catholic area seemed much more residential. Many of the houses were very similar, all made out of brick, with crosses or statues of the Virgin in the windows. It was all very gloomy, although that might have also been weather.
Our guide brought us around to look at the many murals in the area and also talked about what they meant to the Catholic community, and how they were physical reminders of the conflict that lay between these families and the ones just over the wall.
What was striking was actually how similar both tours were. Both sides focused on the murals that were everywhere, reminding people of the history that lay between the two communities and served as a constant reminder of a battle that should never be given up. Both sides had tragic stories. Both sides were making efforts to keep the argument alive through murals sending different messages. They really had more in common with each other than not! It was really an astonishing look at a truly isolated conflict.
To see two opposing sides in conflict, backed by hundreds of years of history, maintained in a small community, is something I never would have really understood without seeing firsthand. But it is also fascinating to think that when you look at the skin and bones of it, it really comes down to nothing more than a wall. Although there is plenty of political tension, it no longer carries the significance that it did 100 years ago. It seems that people create and maintain their struggles because sometimes it is easier than letting them go, even if they don’t really have to be there. How many other parts of our world, even aspects of our personal lives, are also caught in this dilemma?