Monday, October 19, 2009

Mon 19th- Belfast Murals

We had a business meeting in the afternoon in Ballyclare (there are so many villages in Ireland starting with Bally in the end I had to ask what it meant. Bally in Irish means "place of..." so I guess it makes sense!) Ballyclare was about 30 minutes drive north of Belfast.

With the morning free we were able to do another tour that I had been hoping we’d be able to fit in. At least one good thing came out of all the rain yesterday; we had more time in Belfast. I phoned the famous Black Taxi tours that do personalized tours of the Belfast Murals which appear throughout the city but predominately in Shankhill Road(Protestant) and Falls Road(Catholic), two working class neighbourhoods that were the focal points of the civil conflict known as The Troubles (1969 – 1998) and where many lives have been lost in the sectarian violence. The Murals are now quite a major tourist attraction, a lot of the more provocative murals from both sides of the fence have been painted over during the peace process although there was still a subtle underlying current running through a few of them.

Our taxi driver (to be known as TD from now on) arrived early and had a quick smoke while waiting for us , it wasn’t in a black taxi either just one of the hundreds with advertising all over them. He was a lovely guy with a quick wit and enjoyed hearing his own voice I’m sure.

TD was very, very knowledgeable regarding The Troubles and the history of both the Catholic’s and Protestant’s point of view. He wouldn’t tell us which he was but challenged us to guessing by the end of the tour. He explained that we’d be heading to the Shankhill Road area first. We parked up in an open park area surrounded by terraced houses, this was in the heart of Shankhill and in fact during The Troubles a lot of the houses were damaged by bombs and fires, etc and have been demolished and new houses built. While TD had another smoke he sent us on a little walking tour across the park and along the rows of houses getting a close up view of some of the Murals. They are mostly on the gabled ends of house rows or on any large blank walls.

TD told us to keep our eye on the guy with the gun in the middle and report back what happened. In fact the gunman’s eyes followed you from one side to the other. He never took them off you, it was quite an uncanny feeling.

Back in the taxi the next stop was at one of the Peace Lines. These walls (there are several in Belfast and in Londonderry) are a series of separation barriers ranging in length from a few hundred yards to over 5kms that separate Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods. They were built as temporary structures in the 1970s following the outbreak of The Troubles but proved very effective and have since become permanent structures with more being built and others made longer.

There are huge gates that lock off each side at 8pm each night , reopening at 5am and in the past they have been locked for weeks at a time during times of conflict or during the Protestant marching season (July) and sometimes when Celtic & Rangers play each other at soccer in Scotland. The walls are topped with very high steel netting so bombs and missiles can’t be lobbed over to the other side and in fact you can still see the scorch marks left from petrol bombs. There are CCTV cameras and razor wire on top of the gates which used to be manned 24/7 by police before the peace process.

TD said he had something in his car boot that was far more harmful to the dissidents than guns. I guessed it was black marker pens. TD was very impressed (I didn’t tell him I’d read it on a website) We stopped at the wall to add our names and peace messages to the thousands of others along with dozens of different graffiti than ran right along the wall in both directions.

We then drove through the gates and into the Catholic Falls Road area stopping at the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden which is right below the Peace Wall. The garden commemorates people killed from the neighborhood as well as IRA paramilitaries.

Click on the photos to read the inscriptions.

TD then pointed out the protection the houses have when they are backed against the peace wall. Odd constructions that look like metal conservatories, this is to stop any missiles that could be thrown over from the other side.

He also showed us a rubber bullet, the supposedly non-lethal ammunition that British soldiers use, it was huge, about 50cm long by 30cm wide you could still see the powder burn on the bottom of it. TD said it had bounced off a wall and just missed him. Another taxi driver on a tour came and borrowed from TD to show his clients. It was obviously “hot-property”.

TD beside the phoenix outside the gates to the memorial garden

We next stopped at the headquarters of the political party Sinn Féin with the famous mural of hunger striker Bobby Sands on the side.

Back in the car and a little further along we stopped at the International Wall of Belfast which features murals of people and organizations inspired by or with connections to Irish Republicanism. There’s an expert copy of a Picasso painting about the 1936 Spanish Civil War and also ones that criticized the war in Iraq.

Last stop of the day before TD dropped us back at the B&B was at the entrance to another Protestant area, Sandy Row. This mural is very similar to the Republican one that we saw in Londonderry. TD then pointed out the Europa Hotel known as “the most bombed hotel in Europe”. Between 1972 & 1994 it was damaged 33 times by the IRA.

Have you guessed whether TD is Protestant or Catholic? In fact he is a Protestant and “born and bred” on Shankill Road. He’s been driving taxis for 30 plus years and it used to be quite a dangerous job. In the worst days, a gang known as The Shankill Butchers used to drive round the Catholic areas in a black taxi, grabbing people off the streets. He said he’d had a few close calls over the years, but now he can drive around any neighbourhood without any trouble. He also knew of an illegal drinking club(known as a “shabeen”) that was used for kneecappings. That area has since been leveled.

We both thoroughly enjoyed the tour and would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn a little more about the political situation in Northern Ireland. On our way back to the B&B we drove through the centre of the city which looks a very vibrant and interesting city. Belfast is apparently the new "hip" place to visit, once again, it's a pity we don't have more time to explore.

We drove out to Ballyclare for our business meeting which went very well but was a bit of an anti-climax after such a thought provoking morning.

We had dinner in the city with friends later in the evening and had a great time catching up. One of the couples had been to NZ last summer and toured in a camper van for six weeks. They so enjoyed the van that when they got home they purchased their own and are now touring Ireland at every available moment. I asked the husband how he compared NZ and Ireland. I thought he had a great answer. He said “New Zealand was Ireland on steroids! Everything was more extreme, bigger, faster, greener, bluer, etc” I would have to agree although we can’t compete on the history and cute & colourful villages!

The rain had returned by the time we made it back to the B&B, tomorrow we are heading to Dublin.

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