Understanding Northern Ireland is in many ways understanding Ireland. In fact, the existence of Northern Ireland is a story that dates back before 1601 and you need at least a passing understanding of that history to understand what happened in Belfast in the 1960’s which grew into what they call The Troubles, a sectarian, racial, and nationalistic conflict, really a civil rights campaign that grew into a guerilla war, but in many ways the continuation of a conflict that has been ongoing for over 400 years.
In my youth Margaret Thatcher was strongly aligned with Ronald Reagan and the US storyline was solidly of terrorism and of a victimized United Kingdom. But the real story is much more complex and nuanced. And we’re left with the difficult task of understanding the plight of Catholics in Northern Ireland, unwinding the many entities involved in the struggle, and the tactics of some those entities which took many innocent lives on both sides. Even if you adamantly condemn the car bombing tactics of the Provisional IRA (car bombings were enacted by both sides), it’s difficult not to sympathize with the struggle they are fighting for, and the many many innocent people of Northern Ireland that had nothing to do with that organization.
We only had a day in Northern Ireland. To see it all. It’s not even close to enough time but it’s all we had so we did the best we could. A 13 hour tour that included the Giant’s Causeway, a few stops along the way, and a black taxi tour of Belfast. Honestly it’s difficult to include the scenic elements with the Belfast tour. The tone is so drastically different. But I’ll get the pretty pictures out of the way first, then we’ll dive into the Troubles and the history behind it. I hope you stick around for that conversation.
The Dark Hedges and Carraig a’ Ráid
It’s a long drive from Dublin to the Giant’s Causeway so they break it up with a few stops along the way. The first, The Dark Hedges, which is just a long road with large ominous beech trees on each side. In 1775 James Stuart built a new house and planted 150 beech trees along the approach that over time grew into an imposing tunnel. Which wasn’t so much a tourist attraction until The Game of Thrones filmed a scene along it from the pilot episode. After the hedges, a quick view of Carraig a’ Ráid, an island attached by a 66ft rope bridge over a hundred foot drop to the rocks below. It’s usually a full stop but is closed because of covid.
The Giant’s Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway is an area along the northern coast of Ireland containing around 40,000 interlocking basalt pillars created from cooling lava flows 50-60 millions years ago and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Entrance is free but there’s a decent little walk down and along the coast to get there. It’s also very popular so you have to contend with lots of tourists to enjoy it. It was a rainy day but it cleared up just enough for us to climb around and explore the area. There are many legends associated with the area but I’ll let you look those up on your own.
Belfast and the Troubles
If you’re like me, you probably have a vague idea of The Troubles in northern Ireland. But to really understand where all of this came from, you need to go back a bit further than the 1960’s. Probably all the way back to 1601, and even further than that. I’ll summarize, but clearly this is oversimplified.
Ireland before 1601 was a collection of kingdoms, each ruled by wealthy families. England had long been invading Ireland but failed to make much inroads. But Ireland posed a strategic threat through which Spain, France, or Portugal could attack, so with the help of some Irish insiders, England conquered Ireland in 1601, revoked the land rights from the citizenry, and gave those rights to British colonists to which the Irish had to now pay taxes. This began a long history of brutal pacification of the Irish people and the attempted destruction of their cultural identity. It’s not unlike many other British colony tragedies.
Add to this that England was officially a protestant state, while Ireland remained Catholic and loyal to the Pope. There’s needed history here, but to keep it brief, King Henry the 8th joined an existing protest (protestant) movement against the authority of the Catholic church by creating his own church in 1534, The Church of England, and made himself the head of it. Suffice it to say there existed a long and complex history between protestant religion and establish Catholicism. This schism manifests itself historically in the cultural identity of the regions, the English being primarily protestant (specifically Church of England) at the will of the King, and the Irish who remain deeply Catholic. Though there are English Catholics and Irish protestants. But they’re often culturally and racially conflated symbolically. These divisions were more than philosophical as British rulers such as Cromwell, a protestant zealot, invaded Ireland in what some call a genocidal fashion seeking to exterminate Catholicism and the threat it posed to God and England. Many of the ruined castles and monasteries across Ireland were sacked by Cromwell’s forces. He also established a series of Penal Laws that subjugated Catholics to Protestants stripping their rights and creating a second class citizenry.
So there’s some bad blood. In a few different dimensions.
In 1920, the Irish staged a secession and a war of independence is fought ending in a treaty and the establishment of the Republic of Ireland. The army that fought that war was the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which used guerilla tactics to force the treaty. The highest concentration of English loyalists (colonists) was in the northeastern area of Ireland. So 26 counties joined to create Ireland and the 6 counties with over a 50% loyalist population stayed with the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland.
Afterward, Northern Ireland instituted a variety of measures to exclude Catholics (synonymous with Irish nationalists) including a Special Powers Act which allowed broad powers to search, detain, hold without charge, and punish suspected nationalists and eliminate their political voice. These practices continued into the 1960’s with discriminatory practices in education, employment, housing and voting. Political power remained Protestant even though the population eventually began to lean Catholic.
Inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States, local Catholics started having marches and rallies to demand equal rights. These marches were met with brutal retaliation by the unionist (protestant) majority in conjunction with local police which saw the Catholics and their presumed nationalist stance as a threat.
This lead to ex-military leaders in protestant working class neighborhoods forming militias which then fire bombed houses in catholic neighborhoods and started killing catholic residents of Belfast on the streets. These groups declared war on the IRA and anyone who supported it. Or broadly, Catholics or the ethnic Irish.
British troops were deployed which were first seen by the Catholics as welcome protection from the violence of the local police and loyalists. But soon the troops started rounding up Catholics without charge and enforcing curfews only on them. Several massacres of peaceful Catholic protestors by British forces were seen including the Bloody Sunday massacre in which 14 civilians were gunned down, all catholic. All the shooters were cleared of charges.
This caused an increase of support and recruitment for the IRA which was seen as a protectorate of catholic neighborhoods from the local police, loyalist militias, and British army. The IRA in turn started a guerilla campaign against England in 1971 including many bombings, culminating in 1972 as the bloodiest year. The goal now had shifted away from simple equality to a unified Ireland. The British troop surge saw 1 soldier for every 50 citizens.
This violence continued through 1998 when a ceasefire was reached but unofficial sectarian violence continues to this day.
Simple, right? I’m leaving so many details out.
The Peace Walls
Originally constructed in 1969 as temporary divisions between mostly working class predominantly Irish and British neighborhoods after the riots that year where many Catholic homes were firebombed, the walls have become increasingly longer, higher, and more permanent. Now stretching more than 21 miles and as high as 40 feet in some places, mostly in Belfast but also in Derry, Portadown, and Lurgen. Many neighborhoods are also closed off with automatic gates which close at night.
Recently talks about removing the walls determined that 69% of residents that border the walls still believe they are necessary to prevent violence.
Murals in Catholic republican neighborhoods.
The area around each side of the peace walls are typically working class neighborhoods that strongly identify with either a British or Irish heritage. A tradition of muralism is strongly present on both sides with full walls being dedicated to various ideologies, historical events, local heroes, commemorations, and a certain amount of recruitment for civil organizations related to the cause.
On the Irish Catholic side you see a lot of peace and love murals, advocation for other cultures that are being repressed and abused, resistance motifs, memorials for people who were killed or martyrs for the cause, and calls for unifying Ireland into a single republic, Irish flags, and the like. Overall a positive vibe, at least in the murals.
In general the Catholics in Belfast identify themselves with the Palestinians, you can see Palestinian flags flown or painted on murals, and with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. Where the Protestant neighborhoods identify with Israel, and you can see Israeli flags flying and painted in those neighborhoods.
Bobby Sands was a Belfast Catholic and IRA member who was arrested for firearms possession in 1972. He became the leader of the prison population of political prisoners and attempted to bring change to prisoner abuses and to protest the removal of political prisoner status of the inmates making them regular criminals. This included the protest of wearing the regular prison uniforms where he was forced to remain naked and without bedding throughout the day and other protests. He later organized a hunger strike demanding basic rights and political prisoner status. After 66 days he died of starvation at 27 years old followed by 9 more inmates successively. The strike was called off after ten deaths. During the hunger strike he was elected to the House of Commons gaining global attention (after which a law was passed to prevent prisoners from being elected). He has become a martyr for the Irish abuse in Northern Ireland and around the world.
Murals in Protestant loyalist/unionist neighborhoods
Murals on the British loyalist side often take on a more sinister tone. Often with military figures wearing ski masks with automatic weapons aimed at the viewer. Sometimes commemorating a certain leader who had killed a large amount of people. And other historical events.
Many of the more aggressive murals had begun to be painted over because of the message they gave. I didn’t get a lot of time here to take mural pictures, we mostly drove through but I got one of this 1690 mural depicting King William III and the Battle of the Boyne. His uncle, King James, had become the king of England but was a catholic. Backed by wealthy protestant leaders who feared a return to Catholicism, William, a staunch protestant, deposed the sitting King in a coup and took his crown. King James retreated and a war later ensued for the crown that ended at the Battle of the Boyne in the town of Derry in 1690 signaling the last catholic King of England to this day. William, being Dutch, was the Prince of Orange from birth, and hence, loyalists use the color orange to symbolize the Protestant defeat of Catholicism and Protestantism in general.
Also omnipresent were the profuse display of both British and the old Northern Ireland flag (which existed before the dissolution of the Northern Ireland parliament in 1972). There’s a clear hyper-nationalist thing going on here with large flags on every house with union jack runners. This same over the top flag aesthetic was often strewn across streets and shops. In contrast I really didn’t see many Irish flags on the other side.