The "Peace" Wall

Friday, July 24, 2009

I didn't do a lot of touristy stuff during my short time in Belfast, but I did one really important thing. I took a black cab tour of West Belfast to see the sectarian murals, and the Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods. (Those of you who know how I spent my last few months of work will understand why this was important.) These tours are quite common - the cabbie takes you around and gives you a guided tour as he drives. I think I got a good one - it was recommended by the hostel I was at*, and the cabbie was very good, though the whole experience was a bit uncomfortable and strange, as you will see.

I suspect that the whole idea of the tours sprung up because people wanted to have a look at these neighbourhoods, so they must have just started getting into cabs and asking to driver to take them, and the now-formalized tours grew out of that. I did my tour with a Mickey and Tasha, two girls from the hostel who happened to be around when I arrived, and arranged the whole thing. Because there were three of us it only cost me £8.50, though it would have be £25 if I'd been alone.

The cabbie picked us up right at the hostel and drove us through downtown, pointing out the sights as we went. He stopped in front of the Europa Hotel which used to be the most-bombed hotel in the world. Or in Europe. Or something like that. In any case, it wasn't a place you could confidently expect to pass more than a few nights without incident. It's better now, but the IRA used to target it regularly because it was a favourite spot for foreign journalists, so any incident there was guaranteed to garner international attention in the press.

From the Europa we headed to the Protestant Shankhill Road area, and that's when it started to get weird. I suppose it was hopelessly naive of me, but I really did think that most of the sectarian trouble that plagued Northern Ireland was over, so it was a real shock to find out that there's still a huge wall dividing the Protestant and Loyalist Shankhill area from Catholic, Republican Falls Road. The wall is euphemistically referred to as the Peace Line or the Peace Wall. In fact, there are (I think) three different walls in the city, though that's something I only vaguely remember from the tour. In any case, the fact that even ONE wall still necessary was totally unexpected. The one I saw actually has gates in it that get opened every morning and closed every night. The other walls don't have gates - you just have to go around them.

A gate

Learning about the wall was the first weird and uncomfortable thing. Then we passed through one of the gates into the Protestant area, and I really felt uneasy. It's not that I felt unsafe, but I remember going by a woman pushing a baby carriage, and I could tell that she knew we were tourists and it just made me feel creepy and voyeuristic to be gawking at this woman like she was an animal in the zoo. I suppose the residents are used to it, and it's a damned sight better to be stared at than shot at, but still...

The cabbie stopped and let us off in a green(ish) space near a bunch of row houses, many of which were flying Union Jack pennants. There was a sort of community centre, and there were kids playing football and stuff, but it was obviously a pretty poor neighbourhood. The gable ends of each row of houses was decorated with giant colour murals, and most of them were quite political, and there was a lot of orange.

They call this one the "Mona Lisa" because the barrel of the gun follows you as you walk around. It's creepy.

And another shock - these murals are not a relic from the past. There are new ones planned and painted frequently. I saw scaffolding set up near one house where new mural was being painted to commemorate a local soldier who died in combat in 2000. At least now they're moving away from the overtly political (unlike this one).

Cromwell? Seriously? That was 350 years ago...

So I walked around the immediate area a bit before rejoining the cab and getting some more of the history. We piled back in and drove to a spot where we could really get a sense of the wall. It's big.

The Wall

And then it got weird again. The cabbie pulled over so we could take pictures, and he kind of insisted on taking a picture of me at the wall, so I have a oddly incongruous photo of me, smiling, in front of this horrible blight of a thing. He also gave us felt markers to write a message on the wall, which is very common. I wrote a message, but it wasn't particularly inspired or anything. Most of the messages were just a cry for peace.

The writing on the wall.

After the wall we went back through a gate into the Catholic area, to a memorial garden. Right next to the garden there was a house that backed up against the wall, and behind the house there was a big sort of shelter to protect people who might be out in the garden. Apparently, things still get throw over the wall.

Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden, and the wall, and the house and the shelter

Then we went by some more murals - these ones Catholic. The traffic was quite busy, but still the cabbie was insisting we hop out into the street to take pictures. It was mad. Setting aside the obvious problem of snapping photos while dodging oncoming traffic, there was the deeper and infinitely more disquieting feeling of being an insensitive intruder in this place. I stayed in the cab.

And here's the other other other creepy thing - the cabbie told us that the various paramilitary organizations are still very present and "in control" of these areas. There's the IRA (Irish Republican Army, or some variant) in the Catholic area, and the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association for the Protestants**. It's not like they're patrolling the streets with machine guns, but he claimed "they know everything that's going on." I'm telling you, it's madness. I can only hope he may have been overstating for effect. Then again, that was a really big wall.

Thankfully, it was over shortly after that. The cabbie dropped us off near City Hall with the cheerily expressed hope that we'd enjoyed our little tour. Just bizarre. I'm glad I did it, but wow, I was glad when it was over.

And what else can I say? I wish I could sum up with an eloquent plea for peace in our time, but really all I can think is "Smarten up and get over it."

* Arnie's Backpackers, which was really really excellent, and I'm not just saying that because the Glasgow place was such a horror. Arnie's was the real deal - a small independant hostel that was super friendly, with a comfortable living room, a shared kitchen and a homey dining/common room. There was free tea or coffee whenever you wanted it, and a coal fire Tuesday evening, and a couple of Jack Russell terriers. And they'd do you a load of laundry (wash and tumble dry) for £4, which Arnie donated to charity. The rooms were basic dorms, and the toilets and showers were reasonable, but the real treat was the vibe. It was the kind of place that just made you want to chat with whoever was in the room, which I did, which was great. I even ended up going out on my second night with a new friend from there, and we had a fantastic time at a local pub that was fully equipped with a good live jazz band and hot-and-cold running Guinness. Arnie himself even came to the pub, as did a bunch of other hostel people. And there was dancing. All that for £12/night - a steal. Please let there be more Arnie's in my future.

** Apparently the UVF and the UDA have even feuded among themselves. Insane. And please don't spam me with stuff about the "Provisional IRA" and the "Real IRA" and the UDU and blah blah blah. I'm presenting my own simplified, barely understood version here. I can scarcely grasp the whole thing, so give me a break.


Ian Timshel said...

Sobering. I wanted it to go away and I took to believing that it had gone away too easily. Wheels within wheels I must look more closely to see what's not reported in the main stream.
Be well.

Jill said...

I did the same tour and had the same feeling of being a creepy voyeur.

Phonella said...

Yes, a sobering post. I had no idea this tension was still so actively manifested. Thanks Pam, for sharing your pov in such a heartfelt way.

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