…well sort of. I have visions of one day reporting exotic tales of intrigue, daring and adventure from liaisons with left-wing guerillas in South American jungles, Aboriginal communities in the Australian interior and survivors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. But for now, it’s the city bus tour, of Belfast.
My family and I travelled to Belfast this week for my Grandmother’s funeral. As you would expect I have a number of emotions and regrets of which I won’t go into detail here. However, one is certainly that it took these circumstances for me to go back there and after such a long time. One thing I won’t get to do now is sit down with Nana, have a cup of tea and pick her brains about the conflict in Northern Ireland. Now my best link to that past, is gone.
From my childhood I remember driving past fascinating wall murals on the ends of rows of houses, my Mum and Nana pointing out towers of flats from where Republican snipers once took shots at Police Officers, the heavily fortified Police Station not far from my Nana’s house and kerb stones painted either green, white and gold or red white and blue. Over the years from the news, I’ve picked up snippets of information about the conflict in Northern Ireland, but wasted the opportunity to get some first-hand experience.
The first thing that struck me on the drive from Belfast International Airport, was the flags. Over the few days we drove through many areas with numerous Union Jacks and Red Hand of Ulster, flags displayed. They’re so prominent and so many that these flags feel imposing, almost aggressive and are interspersed with others including the one to the right, which caught my eye and is the flag of the Orange Order.
The bus tour. Now this was quite bizarre experience, not least because someone thought that a monument to a rope factory would be interesting, but mainly because we merrily made our way through some communities that clearly feel the impact of so many years of conflict. The most prominent reminder must be the “Peace Wall” that divides the Protestant, Shankhill Road and the Catholic, Falls Road. The top picture to the left is on the Protestant side, with endless murals and graffiti and below left, the wall looming large behind Catholic homes. Unless I had seen it with my own eyes I would find it hard to believe that this exists in the United Kingdom.
Proceeding through these areas I have to admit, I went into a shameless, snappy-tourist-trance and clicked away at as many of the murals as I could. Many others on the bus did the same, dashing quickly from one side of the open-top bus to the other, to get a good view. The famous Belfast taxi tours passed by and stopped so that the inhabitants could emerge, all outdoor pursuits jackets, walking shoes and digital cameras, also to get their own personal record of the “Political Tour”. But looking down the side roads you can see rows and rows of houses, all with their windows boarded up, the streets are shabby, business fronts are run down and there are precious few high street chain stores. Investment in these areas is apparently little and the housing undesirable. I was told that housing is starting to go to immigrant people, the only ones who will live in the area, I could only speculate as to how that would add to tensions in the area. I’ll be honest, despite all these things, the murals are spectacular, some in their aggression, some in their message, all in their art and below is a selection of the pictures I took as well as one of a gate through the Peace Wall, which gets closed and locked at night.
Northern Ireland undoubtedly has its problems. I’ve spoken to people of both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds, who were respectively surprised that tour buses go down the Shankhill and Falls Roads, their significance still resounds. It will likely be some time before I return to Belfast myself, for now my learning about the conflict there will be largely limited to reading history books and talking to family and friends who lived there. I hope that the situation has improved when I eventually do go back. However my memories of Northern Ireland are still resoundingly good, of beautiful coastline, friendly people, family, friends and much fun as a child. Predominantly, my memories will be of great times spent with my Nana, who I will miss enormously.
Anna Elinor Orr Moncrieff
24 November 1924 – 23 August 2011
“Good times with good friends make the best memories”