My body is rebelling against being thrown back into the States and I caught a vicious cold on the flight back from Ireland. This cold, on top of the jet lag, culture shock, and come down after such a mind-blowing holiday has left me quite speechless. I have a lot of catching up to do for sure and a lot of processing to do as well.
A little over a month ago, my Easter Rising holiday began in Belfast. I have a strange pull to the city that keeps me going back and this time I was super happy to be able to explore more of the city. Belfast is interesting because there are a good number of businesses in city center that have opened since the last time I visited, and I met a lot of people who simply want the city to get over its past. They may have grown up in the polarized neighborhoods but now they stay central and try not to notice who does or does not support them. The nightlife was booming and the tension I’d previously experienced in the city was mostly gone in the center of town. Belfast seems to be putting on a good face, trying to tempt tourists and the money they’d spend if they visited. It was one of the few places where I saw an attempt at rejuvenation, at least in the city center. However, stepping into any of the working class neighborhoods paints a different picture.
Once you get out of the central quarters of the city, there are many signs of economic woe and division. I took a taxi ride with Paddy, who drove me all over town. He threw in a special trip to the Ardoyne area for me so that I could see it for myself and take photographs of some of the places I have written about. He has a love for photography as well, so he took me to some great vantage points and gave me a glimpse of one of the local peace walls coming down.
The wall that was removed is in one of the more serious hotbeds of confrontation in the region, and it is a hopeful sign of change. I was surprised by its proximity to the Twaddell protest camp, which Paddy was kind enough to make an extra stop at for me. The camp was closed, but it is still quite an eyeful that causes havoc on traffic daily and costs millions of pounds to police.
I questioned Paddy about the nightly/weekly parades around the camp and he gave me a lot of local knowledge since he lives nearby. He had some interesting insights and more than a few complaints because he lives close enough to be impacted by the camp. However, he also talked up the peace a lot, as did many others I met on my travels, and he remains hopeful that the city (and many in it) will change and grow. But it is still clear that even with the cross-community attempts at integration and compromise, many groups will never get over the perceived injustices that they face. It is why one wall can come down as others go up or get even taller. This is the tragedy of Belfast. Its potential is great and the people are wonderful but it is an intensely divided and poor city in the far corner of a kingdom that couldn’t seem to care less about it. However, if you question that or think that reunification may make things better, you’ll hit massive resistance and constant turmoil.
After my long drive with Paddy, I spent the rest of my time in Belfast on foot. I spent a day in Milltown Cemetery and visited the Eileen Hickey Museum. I got out of the city center and walked through many of the neighborhoods we’d driven before, documenting the murals and the stories of each. I was struck by all the differences and the similarities of each neighborhood. On the surface there are drastic differences in ideals, rhetoric, and how they react to strangers, but everyone living in these areas has the same struggles. They want their kids to be safe and to have a better life. They want a government that cares about them. They want better choices and to be able to express their histories and their cultures. It’s just that these stories and cultures are so diametrically opposed that there can’t be much middle ground. Some areas made it quite clear that people will remain divided, whether or not there are any boundaries or peace walls left in the future.
I stopped at Divis tower for a minute and met three young kids. They were loud, wonderfully bratty, and playful and they wanted me to take pictures of them and not just the murals nearby. It tickled them to think that they might be put on the internet and that I was traveling their city as a writer. “Why you here for?” They asked. “Nothing ever happens here.”
Considering the murals, the location of where this shot was taken, my passion for the area’s history, and the closed gates up the road, I had to silently disagree with them. Then again though if they can grow up without anything ever happening to them, who am I to argue? In fact, I’d celebrate that.
Belfast remains close to my heart. Getting as much time there as I did and traveling it alone gave me a lot of time to explore the city. I saw many of its ghosts, even as I took in the present climate and pondered its future. I had one taxi driver who took me all the extra places I wanted to see and another who refused to drop me where I truly wanted to go – in fact, he wouldn’t even take me out of City Center at all. I wish there was a magic wand for the economy and a political solution that would satisfy every resident who calls it home, but that kind of thing is well above my pay grade and beyond my comprehension. In the meantime, I’ll settle for nothing ever happening to the children of the region ever again. May they all live incredibly boring lives, growing into an adulthood that doesn’t care which neighborhood they grew up in or what religion they claim.