After exchanging drinking stories with a local on the bus ride from Galway to Belfast, I met up with my next host, Richard, a Belfast native and website designer, fitness fanatic and entrepreneur. That night we joined a few of his friends for a pint at a pub known for its traditional Irish bands, but which actually had a screamcore-folk group playing (not as cool as it sounds).
The next day I took a day-trip to Carrickfergus: another Irish coastal city with another Norman castle, which I enjoyed during another beautiful day. A bored tour guide at the castle pointed out the various ferries and cruise ships that she could sink with the ancient defensive cannons mounted there, and I thanked her before leaving to eat egg salad on the steps of 12th-century Saint Nicholas’ Church.
Sitting at the bus stop that afternoon across from the Carrickfergus city library, I watched various scenes play out in the windows. The library itself is shut down for renovations, but the building currently houses the elderly for hospice care. An old man sat at a window on the third floor, I.V. bag and nurse at his side. Figures moved slowly in the background on the dimly-lit second floor.
Then a middle-aged woman in an orange polo, jeans and flip-flops came out of the building with a man in a black tee-shirt and gold necklace, with tattoos covering his arms. A few minutes went by in silence as they stood in the entryway, smoking and staring blankly. Then the woman let out a long scream. The man turned to her and she started crying. They spoke quietly for a time as as I tried not to stare, diverting my attention to the nearby clock tower. When I looked toward the library again, they were gone.
That night back in Belfast, I played guitar and sang with a mix of foreigners and locals at a house party, successfully matching an Irishman drink-for-drink before returning to the apartment of my new English host, Victoria. She took me on a walking tour of Belfast the next day, despite the overpowering winds and her squeaking sore throat.
From a bridge near her apartment, Victoria pointed out the shipyard where they built the Titanic (“and a lot of other ships that didn’t sink”). And Cave Hill, with the “Man in the Hill,” a rock formation that looks like the face of a giant man on his back. Jonathan Swift lived here for a time, and they say this eerie vision inspired Gulliver’s Travels.
In the city center, Victoria showed me the Europa Hotel, famous for being the most frequently bombed hotel in Europe. The Europa was popular with journalists during the Troubles (as the Irish-British struggles in Northern Ireland are called), and a running local joke during the height of the violence was that the IRA brought dozens of bombs to the press directly so they wouldn’t have to leave the bar for long.
She showed me the school in West Belfast where two Irish boys were killed twenty years ago by British armed forces after throwing rocks at their tanks from the rooftop. Bullet holes decorate the brick walls of the building which still serves as an elementary school, though now it is surrounded by high steel fences and barbed wire. All schools in the area are.
She took me to the West Belfast “peace line,” one of many walls that separate the Catholic Irish and Protestant British parts of town and whose gates still close every night, though the locks are on the British side. She pointed out a place along the 25-foot wall in a quiet part of town where last year one group set up a bonfire to smoke out the neighborhood on the other side. I saw stacks of pallets painted the colors of the Union Jack all over town, ready to set afire in support of the British during the commemorative marches on July 12th. Last year one fire reached over six stories in height before toppling violently.
Murals decorate dozens of walls in Belfast outside of the city center, with overtly aggressive paramilitary-themed Unionist paintings on the walls in British neighborhoods, and falsely magnanimous storyboards drawing on themes of martyrdom and tolerance (except for the British) in Irish neighborhoods. Gardens grieving the violent deaths of Irish “volunteers” (IRA members) dot Irish neighborhoods; some took place only five or six years ago.
Even toward the city center, away from segregated neighborhoods, every storefront in Belfast looks condemned when it isn’t open because insurance companies require solid metal shutters to protect them from bombs. Every museum I’ve been to in Ireland has an exhibit about the Troubles, depicting them as a piece of the island’s turbulent history. But the museums are wrong. The Troubles are ongoing.
I can’t tell the difference between a local British Protestant and an Irish Catholic — both have Irish accents and often red hair — but they can. There are only specific parts of town where you can expect to see the two groups in the same pub, and in Northern Ireland you can legally, explicitly turn someone down for a job based on their heritage alone. Victoria has been yelled at on the street before by passers-by who happen to hear her English accent.
But some of the more polarizing murals are being replaced, and mixed neighborhoods are far more common now than they were twenty years ago. And while there are still occasional bombings Belfast, Victoria tells me she often won’t find out about them until the news the next day – and even then, their main relevance is how they will affect traffic. Fifteen or twenty years ago, if you saw a car parked near City Hall on a busy Monday afternoon, you ran in the opposite direction. Now, a bomb might target the same building but it would be detonated late on a Sunday night, to disrupt commerce the next day without killing anyone. Hopefully.