My wife and I ventured to Belfast for Saturday and Sunday. It was our first time there. It was also an eye-opening experience:
My niece is a fresher at Queen’s University:
Meeting up with her there, we three planned to spend the weekend together. First we decided to do a “hop on, hop off” bus tour – as one sees in cities around the world. My niece hadn’t done that herself before.
To get to the beginning of the tour, we had to walk a distance to beyond City Hall. En route, we also passed the BBC:
Suddenly we heard a band in the distance. Then, at an intersection, we saw Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officers blocking traffic.
Two hours after we’d landed, we heard what we’d always seen on television but never in person. The distinctive drums, flutes and music. At first, we’d thought we’d stupidly blundered into the path of some demonstration.
It wasn’t. However, Orangemen were parading to the City Hall in observance of November 11:
I will not take an editorial stance here. However, I will say it was intimidating. These couple of hundred marching men (and they were all men, insofar as I could tell, save for one woman I saw playing a tuba) were of all ages.
Later, the bus tour included a drive on Falls Road. It’s a Belfast center of Irish republican – meaning IRA (Irish Republican Army) – sentiment, and you could not have failed to have got that. The famous wall murals commemorating the fallen, desiring Irish unification, demanding the British get out of Ireland, etc., and paying respects to “liberation” movements around the world, are plainly visible. On nearby Shankill Road, a center of the opposing side, Ulster unionism, as represented by those Orange marchers above who are adamant that Northern Ireland MUST remain part of the United Kingdom and NEVER join the (mostly Catholic) Republic of Ireland to the south, they too have their murals and memorials. We also saw a 45 foot high “peace wall” that separates the two communities.
The woman tour guide said she had grown up in Northern Ireland (but did not share if she was Unionist Protestant or Republican Catholic) and noted that trying to describe life in the province from the late 1960s through the 1990s is impossible unless you really experienced the trauma and horrors first-hand. She also quickly pointed out that those two areas are now “perfectly safe.” She also tried to make some light of it, joking that if the bus got stopped by republican paramilitaries on Falls Road, if asked her name was going to be “Siobhan” and the driver “Michael.” But if we were stopped by unionists on Shankill Road, she would be “Emma” and the driver “Billy.”
And there above, in moments a clueless tourist mentality would display itself. That couple you see cuddling in that photo seconds later pulled out a selfie stick. As the Orangemen marched by they turned their backs to those marchers to take iPhone photos of themselves grinning. It was as if they were standing in front of the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building or something.
That was a dopey and even mildly dangerous thing to do. I saw no one else nearby do that. They must have been foreigners who did not understand what that march meant to some of the local onlookers: some would have hated those marching men with the heat of a thousand suns, and those marchers would have hated them back as much in return.
1) Which was why turning one’s back to those marchers was not the brightest of moves; and 2) you as a tourist ALWAYS have to be careful taking photographs in such situations. Yes, it might be cool to have it on Instagram, and chances are those marchers would have realized what you as a silly tourist are doing. But you never know. I saw one marcher step out of formation and speak to someone who was taking photos and the marcher was NOT smiling. You also don’t know who’s next to you on the sidewalk or what trouble you might inadvertently stir up. Pay attention to what’s going on around you.
Perhaps matters were peaceful because that march was in observance of November 11 and the end of World War I, and was not about July 1, 1690 (when Protestant forces defeated Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne: it’s way too much to go into here). The police were monitoring the parade closely. But we also noticed unsmiling, tough-looking, young men standing on the sidewalk mumbling to each other, or in doorways, silently glaring at the marchers, and perhaps trying to memorize faces in case they saw any of them on the street later.
Northern Ireland is a perfect example to us as Americans as to why we should NEVER arrogantly pronounce that “Things could not be worse.” (We’ve seen lots of that idiocy with the election of Trump as president.) Because asserting that is childish and ignorant. Oh, yes, matters sure as heck could be MUCH WORSE. It could be murderously WORSE. We take our calm U.S. streets and generally functioning government too much for granted at times. Regardless if someone votes differently than ourselves, we must NEVER EVER EVER allow ourselves to see our fellow Americans as enemies. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER.
As a cab driver (from Liverpool, married to a Northern Irish woman) also told us, the republican (illegal) IRA announces occasionally that they are still around, and that they are keeping an eye on the “ongoing peace process.” Because of its past, Belfast is more rigorously policed than other U.K. cities. (Yes, let’s say “more rigorously” – the PSNI, for example, are all armed, unlike English police.) The visible street police presence (there are even armored vehicles labeled “crimestoppers” parked here and there; they are just former military vehicles now painted white and attempting to look “civilian”) means petty street crime seems pretty rare.
And if not the police, the (illegal) “paramilitaries” (of both sides) will also deal with it among “their own.” A cabbie told us that if word gets out that you are burgling, say, the homes of elderly people, or drug dealing… well, you had probably better leave the province.
But while there is still tension at times, there is no violence. An event like that parade aside, Belfast also feels almost “cozy.” In places, it’s also surprisingly picturesque. People are friendly and chatty and seem just to want to get on with life. (Likely that impression of mine is perhaps also impacted to some extent by my speaking with a foreign accent: if you are not from there, one supposes you will naturally also be treated “differently.”)
I would visit again without hesitation. Around Queen’s University, and the downtown business area, are prosperous shops and clubs. The streets are clean. The people you see include not just Northern Irish, but all manner of other Europeans. There are also immigrants from well-beyond and Chinese restaurants and Turkish shops. We passed a Thai restaurant named – I kid you not – “Thai-tanic.” (Uh, get it? See below if you don’t.)
On Saturday night, at a place my niece suggested, we had the best Italian meal I have ever had outside of Italy. Yes, really. In Belfast. But first, it was pre-dinner drinks nearby:
In much of the city you would never guess what had happened for so many years. Another cab driver (this one from Northern Ireland) said he loves to meet people who visit who have not been to the city in “twenty years”: the city has changed so much that they are usually stunned. It’s now quite a “hip” place, too. (Declares this now middle-aged writer.) My niece would not be studying at Queen’s if it weren’t both safe and hip.
She also told us, however, that she’s sad that thus far she hasn’t met many Northern Irish students. Most of her friends are other Europeans and even Irish from the Republic. She’s the only English student she knows. I said that’s probably because, like students everywhere, the locals head elsewhere for university. As with herself leaving England, who wants to go to university at home if they can manage it?
And it is where Titanic was famously constructed. If you are ever in the city, you must visit the Titanic museum. You can even go aboard Nomadic, the last White Star Line ship still afloat, which was used to ferry passengers out to Titanic. Much smaller than Titanic, it had been based in Cherbourg and is now in dry dock. You can walk the decks – the first-class area is luxurious, of course – and experience, in a small way, a bit of what full-sized Titanic must have felt like:
And this is me standing next to my niece, about to board Nomadic…
As you also see, I’ve removed her face from the photograph. And I have to get on with writing her that letter now. 😉
Have a good Monday, wherever you are in the world. 🙂