During a long weekend in Ireland last month, my friends and I took a day trip to Belfast from our base in Dublin to see the city that is, as The New York Times declared in 2005, "ready for the party to begin."
We found a young, vibrant cosmopolitan city more reminiscent of the Continent—Munich or Paris come to mind—than quaint and charming Dublin.
We also found a powerful living history lesson by exploring the adjacent but separate neighborhoods of West Belfast: the Republican/Catholic side and the Loyalist/Protestant side. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams called on the Irish Republican Army to renounce violent tactics in April 2005, and while the mood seems optimistic, people do appear conscious of their differences and their loyalties.
On the other hand, one of the things that struck me was residents’ senses of humor about their past troubles. We took a city sightseeing bus tour to orient ourselves and see glimpses of Belfast’s past—the Titanic was built there—and future—the mammoth Odyssey entertainment complex. Our bus tour guide filled his commentary with bomb jokes, even as he pointed out such landmarks as the luxurious Europa Hotel, the most-bombed hotel in Europe at 32 times. As we passed the Odyssey sports complex, he cheerfully joked that the city’s ice hockey team was only named the Belfast Giants after the more à propos name of the Belfast Bombers was abandoned. He kept it up throughout the tour, even as the bus navigated streets it couldn’t bring tourists down just a few years ago.
Another stroke of luck with the bus tour: we heard some local stories we would have otherwise missed. As we headed through West Belfast to see the Republican and Loyalist murals, the guide told us about a chance encounter at a Falls Road bakery, where a visiting Bill Clinton happened to run into Gerry Adams at lunch, resulting in an unscripted photo-op moment.
After the bus tour, we grabbed lunch at a pub in the city center and planned our trip back to West Belfast to see the murals up close and on foot. I’d read about the murals before our visit, but I had no idea how pervasive they are. As our bus drove up and down the main drag of each of the two neighborhoods, I saw that the sides of nearly every building were painted with people and emblems. There were even boxes placed on top of buildings and plastered with posters commemorating people who died fighting for their beliefs in Belfast.
After lunch, we hailed a cab and told the driver we wanted to walk around the two sides divided by the Peace Line. Because our driver was Catholic, we began on Falls Road by default—"I wouldn’t be safe there," he said of Protestant Shankill Road. He told us that he had never been outside of Northern Ireland, and repeated what our tour guide had said, that it’s the best place in the world when they’re not fighting. He pointed out things as we passed, and drove us around a portion of the Peace Line, not charging any extra for his self-styled tour. He wanted to talk international golf, but we failed, so he went back to telling us about his life in Belfast and asking where we Yanks were from.
After getting dropped off on Falls Road, we got to see the Republican murals up close. One of the most striking is the giant portrait of Bobby Sands, an IRA Prisoner and Sinn Fein member who died in the hunger strike of 1981. Painted next to his picture is the elegiac quote, "Our revenge will be the laughter of our children."
We stumbled upon the Garden of Remembrance, under the tri-color flag of Ireland, memorializing Republicans killed in the struggle for uniting Northern Ireland with the predominantly Catholic south. We saw Bobby Sands’ name among other IRA and Sinn Fein members.
The Sinn Fein building, a small, unimposing structure, is also located on Falls Road, and a young couple casually loitered and clung to each other in front of it, unconcerned with the mounted cameras looking down on them.
We walked through Peace Line gates toward Shankill Road, guided by the map given to us on the bus tour. I had no idea that the Catholic and Protestant sides of Belfast lived in such close proximity, or that they were separated by an actual wall, made of cement in some areas and fencing in others. It looks like the remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall in Germany and, like those, is partly covered in messages left by people from around the world, including Bill Clinton.
Shankill Road is another world of murals, on apartment buildings and shops, often depicting the Red Hand of Ulster emblem and nods to things British, including the Queen Mum.
While the murals on both sides are often violent, showing masked gunmen and drops of blood, we felt very safe walking around West Belfast taking pictures and examining things up close. Black taxi cab tours drove around us, giving their passengers accounts of the area, and residents went about their daily lives of soccer and shopping. I was happy to enjoy the warm winter Saturday with the rest of Belfast.
Ironically, the next Saturday, after we’d left Europe, there were violent clashes in Dublin’s city center during a Loyalist "Love Ulster" parade when Republican demonstrators protested with fireworks, rocks, and bottles. But Belfast proved to be a calm and fascinating place that I will most definitely return to, this time ready to spend more time there, and ready for that party to begin.